(This is the second in a series of six articles on the characteristics of 21st century educational publishers.)

My goal with this series is to identify and explore the characteristics that define next-generation educational publishers. In the first article, I identified five areas in which I believe these publishers differentiate themselves: (1) Content, (2) Abundance, (3) Transparency, (4) Sharing, (5) Distribution.

20th Century Publishing Model for Creating and Distributing Content

In this post, I want to discuss content in greater detail.

In the 20th century, educational publishers followed a tried-and-true product development model.

  • Begin with a ubiquitous content container model
  • Identify a market in need of content
  • Assemble content for the market and place it in the container

A publisher would begin by selecting a product model, in this case, the venerable book container. This was the default standard for storing and distributing packages of information. Next, came choosing a market, such as higher education, and identifying the content that might be useful for sales into that market. Finally, the company would assemble authors to write content that was specific to the chosen market and that would fit well within the prescribed container. In the latter decades of the century, as pedagogy gained a greater spotlight and became more diversified, publishers added instructional ancillary materials as part of the product package.

In hindsight, there were a number of problems with this model.

1. A fixed container — As containers, physical books were fixed with key constraints in both design and production. They limited content structure and ordering. They limited learning to a linear progression through topics. They also reduced the value of for smaller content components outside the context of the container.

2. A static market definition — 20th century publishers focused on the market as it existed. It was a market structured in self-contained units – universities, institutions, departments, programs – that delivered learning in a linear progression of courses taught, primarily, through lectures and outside readings. Little thought was given to the market as it might evolve and how products and business models might need to adapt. This was due, in large part, to the fact that, on the surface, the general model for education seemed so deeply embedded and unlikely to change.

3. Confusion between markets and learning levels — 20th century publishers developed content specific to markets such as higher education. This content addressed learning levels (cognitive maturity, reading ability, vocabulary), through the lens of teaching and learning in a specific, formal learning environment. This confusion further soloed products within a specific market and made content reuse for other learning levels difficult.

4. Content confined to both container and market — For 20th century publishers, content had diminished value or significance outside of the original book container and selected market for which it was created. Content, in the form of core textbook products or their print/digital ancillaries, was siloed and difficult to repurpose.

5. Constrained business models — Business practices were also constrained by the 20th century publishing model. For example, in higher education, the fixed-container/market model championed royalty-based authoring and the development of individual product brands within subject domains. This practice served to further silo content and restrict its reuse.

21st Century Publishing Model for Creating and Distributing Content

In contrast, the product development model for 21st century publishers begins with content.

  • Select a subject domain
  • Design and create flexible, scalable, and reusable content targeting specific learning levels
  • Identify a specific market or markets that have high demand for the content
  • Apply information layers to the content specific to selected markets
  • Select content containers based on market needs and opportunities
  • Assemble content for specific products and place within identified containers

In this model, the publisher begins by selecting a subject domain where content might be valuable in one or more markets (still to be defined completely). Next, the company designs underlying information or curriculum models that will be used to structure content concepts and terms and establish known relationships across the curriculum. The publisher then designs and creates content specific to identified learning levels (as opposed to specific markets), with a focus on modularity and reusability in different learning contexts.

The 21st century publisher can focus on specific markets after a content model has been established and the content creation process is defined. If the content is being created for learners at a post-high school level, for example, the publisher may begin thinking about higher education, professional development, or lifelong learning markets. To be clear, for 21st century publishers, specific markets are less important from a content perspective because the content has been pre-designed to be suitable for multiple markets and applications.

Finally, after establishing a market, the publisher identifies particular product models and related containers for distributing content.

There are a number of advantages to this model.

1. Less dependency on fluctuations in specific markets — Markets change over time. In U.S. higher education, for example, educational technology has been particularly disruptive. New container models have emerged. The sales and distribution model has evolved dramatically. Learning environment models have multiplied with the advent of online and hybrid courses. The market has also seen shifts in institutional types, degrees, and enrollments.

21st century publishers, with their core content free from fixed container models and market constraints, can respond to these shifts quickly and with less revenue impact/concern that 20th century publishers. They can adapt their content easily to new market demands and shift rapidly to new markets.

2. Greater flexibility in business models —The primary investment for the 21st century publisher is in content design and creation. Packaging and distribution are distributed tasks and product containers are provided, primarily, through partnership with other companies.  This means that 21st century publishers think of revenue in terms of the total possible revenue generated for the content in a specific subject domain or curriculum.

Thus, the 21st century publisher is interested in packaging and distributing variations of its core content in as many different viable products as possible, across a variety of channels, and through diverse partnerships. The center of gravity for product decisions is the combination of potential content reach and/or revenue generated for the subject domain or curriculum. Individual product iterations matter less in the overall business picture and the publisher understands that the market will help determine which product models thrive.

3. Less concern about piracy and protecting against revenue “leakage” — For the 21st century educational publisher, content has intrinsic value related to its design, creation, and flexible integration with diverse learning models and goals. The value of its brand and the growth of its revenue are directly related to overall market adoption (both commercial and non-commercial).

Company value is augmented by the publisher’s commitment to unique, premium service and its commitment to supporting broader educational goals in the societies it serves. This broader commitment to education means, necessarily, providing both commercial and non-commercial access to publisher content. It also means making available select content and information components with open licensing (meaning, specifically, that the content and information can be modified and reused freely without restriction).