Author, publisher and former teacher Sue Rankin signposts the revolutionary route to paperless schools
Many historians regard the development of the printing press as the single most influential factor on world events of the past 800 years. Despite huge advances in printing since then, the basic product (a book) and the method of selling (bookshop) have not changed. Until now.
Consumers across all sectors are swiftly turning to electronic books. In education, early adopters like Essa Academy are already moving to a paperless institution, with students accessing all resources digitally. How long before a significant number of schools join in?
In other countries there are currently several multi-million dollar tenders at government level for tablets to be provided for every pupil. The more common picture in the UK is for a set of tablets to be shared by classes but it is likely that an increasing number of classrooms will become paper-free in the next few years.
I believe that these changes are ushering in the most exciting, creative, fast moving and nerve-racking phase of change that educational publishing has ever seen. If the industry gets it right, we will enable teachers to present information, and pupils to access learning opportunities, in completely new ways. Get it wrong and companies will struggle as consumers look elsewhere for the content they want.
The three most commonly cited reasons as to why some of the big publishing houses are reluctant to embrace electronic books are:
- the relatively low sales of many e-titles at the moment;
- the disruption of the route to market;
- the uncertainty about which platform to develop for.
While it is certainly the case that production costs incurred by the big companies are unlikely to be recouped in the short term, because the market hasn’t yet developed sufficiently in the UK, those who do take the plunge early will be able to establish their brands as the ones to search for in the increasingly huge and unwieldy online stores.
Title turned down by publishers went to No 6 in Apple's iBookstore
As eBooks are delivered directly to each mobile device, they are purchased through portals created and managed by the technology company not the publisher. It is understandable that some large, well established companies are reluctant to hand control of their route to market to the technology provider and, as a consequence, be tied into the IT company’s platform. However, this model is providing small companies such as mine (www.stinkykitten.com) with the opportunity to sell directly to schools for the very first time.
Our interactive picture book, What Happened on the Way to School? was turned down by several of the ‘big name’ publishers so we decided to release the title ourselves on Apple’s iBookstore. It reached No 6 in the children’s books best-seller charts, garnered great reviews and is still selling well.
The book sells at £2.99, of which Apple keeps 30 per cent and we receive the remaining 70 per cent. For small publishing houses like mine, the 30 per cent that Apple keeps is good value when you consider that royalty payments under traditional publishers are usually under 10 per cent. Plus, the iBookstore gives us access to customers worldwide and we only pay if we sell!
Until recently, it was common practice for print-based publishers to commission specialist IT education companies such as Sherston, with whom I worked, to design and build their range of digital titles. Other publishers established their own successful digital divisions but the output of these was, and in the main still is, a small proportion of their overall catalogue, which remains primarily print-based. I believe the rapid rise in demand for eBooks from schools over the next few years will challenge those publishers who are not already making plans to significantly increase their capacity for digital production.
Perhaps more urgent than an increase in production capacity, is the need for publishers to give print-based editors and authors experience and training in designing interactive materials. There is a huge difference between writing a 2D book, which has simple, well-established rules regarding how the reader interacts with it, and creating a multimedia resource with which the child can interact in many ways.
In the past few months my company has noticed a shift in the range of services requested by international and UK-based publishers. Some want training on how to think "interactively", others for us to specify interactivity for e-versions of existing print titles, while others want us to produce an ebook in entirety. This melding of skills from different branches of publishing, digital and print, will undoubtedly lead to the creation of the highest-quality resources and, in turn, enable a more effective use of the technology in the classroom.
Schools have opportunity to publish their own materials for learners
One final challenge is for schools and educational institutions to develop the capability to create their own eBooks. Apple’s free book-making tool, iBooks Author, allows anyone to make and publish interactive books containing a range of multimedia such as video, activities, images and audio. Providing you don’t charge for the book that you make, you are free to use the book in any way you like.
That is what is already happening at Essa Academy where iBooks created by teachers are uploaded to the free portal iTunesU for distribution directly on to students' iPads. This combination allows teachers to create the exact digital materials they want for their learners and to deliver them in a structured format – all for free.
While it is unlikely in the short term that many teachers will make their own books, in the long term it is certainly possible that the market will contract as teachers produce a percentage of their own interactive teaching materials. Indeed, we are currently working with a large higher education institute that has decided to publish its own course work as eBooks that will also be sold to students elsewhere.
Perhaps even more profound and far-reaching is the view expressed by the staff and students at an educational project in a South African township for whom we are providing a three-year training programme, giving them the skills to create the digital resources that they need to educate their own community. In a video posted on their new YouTube channel (and accessible from www.stinkykitten.com) they describe this ability to create their own resources as, "Democratising the information process".
There are clearly challenges facing the publishing industry as we move towards an increasingly electronic classroom. Rather than being conservative in our response to these challenges, the industry has the opportunity to reinvent itself, diversifying services and making the most of expertise from other relevant sectors. The companies that do this will also shape the future of teaching and learning in our classrooms.
Sue Rankin has been a leading figure in educational IT for the past 20 years, initially as a primary school teacher and then as the multi award-winning author of numerous best-selling educational digital resources. She currently runs her own digital publishing and training company, Stinky Kitten.