Books Ain’t Dead – Long Live the Adaptive Platform

Blog (2015)

Colin Hughes, 28th April 2015

‘And what do you do for a living?’ ‘Well, I publish textbooks.’ ‘Really? That must be a struggle now you can get it all free online? … And anyway, books – surely they’ll be replaced with tablets/MOOCs/videos/games won’t they?’

That is a standard conversational exchange for most of us in the business of providing schools with curriculum resources. My answer – ie, what do I think the near future holds for educational publishing – runs something like this …

Books are dead – long live the book. Modern textbooks (which our interlocutors are often clueless about, because they haven’t actually seen one since they left school 20, 30, 40 years ago) are not dry dusty tomes.  They are built-for-purpose aids to the complex business of learning progressively, one step after another, brick on brick. So-called ‘free’ content (much of which isn’t truly free anyway) doesn’t do that. It’s not organised into an approach to teaching and learning that works – in fact, it’s not coherently organised into anything at all. What we do as publishers is construct ways of learning effectively – the core knowledge content doesn’t vary much between us, but we do vary enormously in the way we enable teachers and students to do it.

We don’t really care whether we do that with paper and ink, or some other tool. No UK education publisher is promoting only books for the current phase of curriculum change: all of us are into digital up to our armpits. Schools now wholly expect us not only to deliver content in books, online, via app where appropriate, with rich media, etc – they also expect us to enable trackable assessments and homework online, and even train their teachers in how to use it all, remotely and on site.

In that sense, the future has already arrived – at least in most schools, though the range of variation in digital take up remains enormous, even with our relatively advanced connectivity.  Where next then, if schools are already up and running with the digital latest?

Edtech investors – most of whom would gain hugely from spending just a day or two in real life schools, by the way – think the next things are MOOC-like delivery of lessons by filmed ace teachers with whizzy entertaining graphics and game tech Pixar-style. Or they think it’s teach yourself peer linked platforms. Or cyber tutes.  Surely we don’t need teachers to impart information any more? We can make it all so much fun that students will lap it up on screen and then pitch up to lessons full of vibrant questions and ideas. Ha. If only.

Students need teachers – living breathing ones. But they need teachers who have the best tools – some of which will be digital, and some not. And incidentally, when you ask students what they most like to revise from (tablet, mobile, PC, whatevs), more answer ‘books’ than any other device. Funny that.

The book  – yes, the honest to God textbook – is a long way from breathing its last.  But it is staying alive by morphing, rather cleverly.

Having said all that, my bet is that there is, in truth, a really big digital change coming.  And it’s imminent.  The tech, and the ideas, have been around for a couple of decades.  But now the time has arrived. It’s adaptive learning.

The most interesting platform tech being built out there isn’t some new version of digitised drill and practice, or, alternatively, edutainment. It’s not look and learn, either (video is a very passive medium incidentally, easily snored through, let alone switched off). Adaptive is none of the above.  It’s about me (or you) – and it’s about engagement.

Let’s take maths (why wouldn’t you, it’s rather important, after all). At the end of most maths lessons there is a high likelihood that 10-15 per cent of the students didn’t really get a crucial point. Another 10-15 per cent (even in groups of close ability) are ready to move on swiftly. The teachers can (and do) assess what’s gone in with whom – but it’s laborious. Supposing your platform, instead of merely testing kids to check, actually took them back through what they hadn’t grasped (because the ones who didn’t get the lesson are different each time)? And the ones who have got it are given greater depth?

In other words, supposing the machine devised the right progression for each student, as they went along? But also kept everyone on track – not mayhem, but clarity.  This is a world in which all homework is directly relevant – not a parade ground duty, but a genuine out and out exercise in self-development.

This stuff costs huge amounts of time and care to build. You have to have curriculum specialists alongside techies alongside designers, all working in each other’s interest. But once you’ve got it, the gains are real, quick, and very, very visible.

So while one strand of policy makers rightly focus on bringing back the textbook to UK schools – because they work, and because they raise standards – we as publishers are happily continuing to explore genuine next generation learning. It won’t replace books, at least not for a long while yet. It won’t replace teachers – ever. But adaptive learning will offer another precious tool to help ensure that students don’t slip unnecessarily behind, or fail to push on when they’re able.  Books ain’t dead – long live the adaptive platform.