Monday, March 26, 2012

How eLearning became Educational Publishing. And vice versa.

I recently had a conversation with the highly accomplished head of a highly respected global education organization that you would recognize if I named it. I'm not going to name it, though, because I'm going to tell this story. And even though it's not a negative story, it does illustrate a gap that has yet to close, and I don't want to single out any entity or person. We were discussing that organization's online learning division, and I mentioned that it might make sense if he merged it with their publishing division. He looked genuinely bewildered, and I got the feeling he rarely looked, or felt, genuinely bewildered. "Why would we do that?"

Now it was my turn to look bewildered. I really didn't know where to begin, because it seemed so completely logical to me. I knew I needed a thirty-second elevator speech as a response, and I also knew that in order to provide one, I would have to condense about twenty years of my own hard-won experience into the answer.

What I managed was something like "Online courses are digital products. So are books and other materials, even if they are printed before they're sold. At the root, they're really the same thing... digital products that have to be designed and developed using pretty much the same set of capabilities and processes. Uniting them in the same organization makes both more efficient." I'm very sure my answer didn't make quite so much sense as what I just wrote out from memory, but that's the nice thing about blogging... you get to be the reporter, the subject, the editor, and publisher at the same time.

What I couldn't do then is what I want to do now... lay out a considered case for the idea that digital publishing and the development of online learning courses are essentially the same thing and ought to be considered together from now on going forward forever. Here's another way to state my thesis...

Twenty years ago when I first ventured into "distance learning," I wasn't in the publishing business. Now, I can look back and say with complete accuracy that I've been in educational publishing for twenty years. That's because the definition of publishing has changed, and will continue to change, metamorphing these two pursuits into one.

Just for fun, let's take a look at the dictionary definitions of publishing, as they have evolved.

Merriam-Webster, 1976: "The business or profession of the commercial production and issuance of literature, esp. in book form for public distribution or sale.", 2012: "The business or profession of the commercial production and issuance of literature, information, musical scores or sometimes recordings.", 2012: "To issue (printed or otherwise reproduced textual or graphic material, computer software, etc.) for sale or distribution to the public."

Wikipedia, 2012: "The process of production and dissemination of literature or the activity of making information available to the general public."

Notice that even though the last 3 definitions are from the current year, there is an obvious progression of sources, from a staid, pre-web company now online ( to one of the original dot-coms ( to a true Web 2.0 entity (Wikipedia). And the progression is unmistakeable... each definition is broader than the previous, until finally Wikipedia just says that publishing is taking "information" (as broad a noun as you could choose) and "making [it] available" (as broad a verb as you could choose) to the "general public" (as broad an object as you could find). But that's where we are.

But to make my case, I won't rest on definitions. I want to take a peek into what's been happening with textbook publishers, and compare it to what's been happening with the developers of online courses. Let's pick higher education for our example, but you could pick K-12, corporate training, continuing professional education, anything you like and the same point could be made.
What's been happening with textbook publishers is that they've been moving online. Earlier in this millennium, every textbook had to have a CD-ROM to go with it, so that students could plug something into their computers and interact with the content. But those quickly gave way to the now-ubiquitous user codes that allow textbook purchasers to simply log on to the textbook website, the one designed specifically for this particular edition of this textbook, and get... an online learning experience. Here's the list that is actually published in the front matter of a well-known college Calculus textbook... the things that come along with the price of this book:
  • Online homework practice
  • Testing
  • Tutoring
  • Graded homework
  • Classroom management
  • Online course
  • Interactive resources
Pretty much everything that defines online learning, including... the online course!

This is not unusual. Publishers are under pressure to provide an online course to go along with their textbook, and most develop one. Sometimes these come in the form of a "course cartridge" that professors can plug into Blackboard or Moodle or whatever LMS they have, but often it's just... the course that goes along with the textbook. It's there online, in the publisher's own learning management system. If your professor wants to teach the whole course online, there's nothing stopping her.

Pearson is the biggest, most successful textbook publisher on earth, and a few years back they bought one of the leading LMS companies, eCollege. They have known about this merger for years that the definition of publishing looks more like Wikipedia's than like's.

Now let's look at it from the eLearning side. In higher ed, online learning started out in the late 90's with a single professor signing into a Blackboard account, learning how to upload documents and write out class lectures so he could teach his own students. This was the Web 1.0 variation of what faculty always have done. Just doing it online instead of in a classroom. Now, the most successful online programs are universally acknowledged to come from the for-profit universities: Phoenix, Walden, Capella, Kaplan. It's true, they are the most successful. They are also the best. They have the best online programs because they figured out early that courses are products. When they go about creating a course, they invest in all the same things that publishers do. They hire designers, writers, editors. They have people in the traditional publishing roles, even if they don't call them that, and probably didn't hire them out of a publishing background. Here are the publishing roles, and every successful eLearning entity does them:

Acquisition -- deciding what to publish, and who the subject matter experts are
Development -- the equivalent of writing the course
Editing -- making the rough draft into a polished product
Design -- deciding on, and sticking to, a certain look-and-feel, and a user interface, and a standard progression through the content
Production -- pulling it all together, with video and interactivities, assessments, and quality control.

The most successful textbook publishers are eLearning producers. The most successful eLearning producers follow publishing processes. The gap between the two is vanishing. And that's why it made such obvious sense to me that the publishing division and the eLearning division ought to be connected.

I have one more proof for my thesis, which I'm not going to put directly into this blog post, but I'll link to it. I went back through my own twenty-year career and laid it out as if I had always been in the field of Digital Educational Publishing. Very eye-opening. Take a look here, and let me know if you disagree.

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