The Printed-Book Model and Content Management in Educational Publishing

Historically, educational publishers have created products that served as collections of primary or secondary content related to a course. In the U.S., from the 18th century forward, the print book format served as a reliable container.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the print-book container allowed the modern textbook industry to develop alongside our emerging institutional systems for K-12 and higher education. It also resulted in content models that were restricted to the development of content for a single course, academic term, or, at best, a series of courses in the same discipline.

Indeed, prior to the advent of the Internet and the pervasive use of digital learning materials, the print-book model proved highly effective for the educational publishing industry. Companies managed to convert any apparent “limitations” associated with the printed book into successful features or business models.

For example, a lack of any requirement for establishing formal content connections between titles or courses helped support the development of product and author franchises. Publishers were able to create the “same” course content multiple times with different authors and market the content to different audiences based on packaging and pedagogy. These product silos, in turn, helped define the franchise-type P&L structures that formed individual publishing units, framed the segmented corporate structures within large publishing companies, and drove specialization among sales representatives.

Since connected content isn’t a requirement, publishers were able to grow and expand by creating larger libraries of “unique” products. in fact, it would have been prohibitive to the business model that made it possible to scale textbook publishing after WW II.

The Impact of Digital Content Models in the 21st Century

The advent of the Internet and, more specifically, the pervasive production of digital editions and supplements for textbook products, served to highlight some of the inherent limitations of the printed book model. These limitations included:

  • The pull to focus on containers rather than smaller content or informational components within the container – Print books are generally designed as stand-alone, self-contained information containers. While the specific information inside the covers of a book may be organized into subdivisions and other components, the ordered presentation of these is inevitably fixed and static. This means the product’s overall integrity is captured with a point-to-point, linear progression through topics. The meaning and value of the individual content components is necessarily constrained by this fixed order and presentation. With a limited value for smaller content components outside the context of the container, design and innovation efforts are invariably focused on the larger container rather than the content parts.
  • The pull to leave the smaller content components within a book container largely disconnected  — In the print-book container model, individual content components are tied to chapter and overall book topics, but this is generally the extent of any information mapping or framework for the content. Since individual content components have limited use or value beyond the context of the specific book container, there is little reason to spend time establishing detailed relationships between blocks of content or information.
  • The pull to ignore specific learning environments and leave learning design to instructors and institutions – To be fair, print textbooks evolved over centuries in which there was, largely, one common learning environment model – the traditional classroom. Early textbooks were created to facilitate the memorization and practice of core content in elementary or high school. Most modern textbooks in higher education were envisioned as supplementary reading or study materials to be used outside the confines of the lecture hall. Only in the 1980s did we begin to see the inclusion of recommended pedagogical approaches in textbooks, although such was generally limited to skill-based courses for freshmen and sophomore courses such as Introductory Spanish or English Composition. Even as online learning became prevalent in the following decades, the design of textbooks and their supplements, print and digital, focused on individual student learning in a generic sense and left the complexities of teaching and learning in diverse environments to the instructor or institution.
  • The pull to discourage real product customization other than as a new revenue stream – Any customization of traditional print textbooks was severely limited by the original container model. It was possible to add or delete chapters in a book, but other forms of customization were prohibitive in terms of automation. The textbooks themselves were not designed as connected, stand-alone content chunks that could be easily rearranged while maintaining integrity. As a result, publishers pursued two strategies with regards to customization. They provided custom publishing interfaces that facilitated the removal or addition of chapters (supported by the model), and they created “enterprise” sales teams that focused on creating truly custom editions of products for large accounts. The latter, of course, was offered for a fee and/or the assurance of a multi-year adoption to offset the costs of customization.

Not surprisingly, even as digital content and product models have appeared in 21st-century educational publishing, from e-books and adaptive assessment tools to online courses and competency-based learning platforms, publishers remain challenged by the limitations inherent in the printed-book container model. This is because the legacies of the model are still pervasive throughout the industry.

The printed book model is still the product anchor or center for much of the core content design in educational publishing. This means the industry continues to embrace author-franchise models, and that company structures and P&L models are slow to move away from the print book. Additionally, there is a strong reluctance to give up the revenue associated with enterprise customization services.

Image of an EdBooks discipline taxonmy branch

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At EdBooks, Innovation at the Content Level

Fortunately, a new educational publishing company like EdBooks is not constrained by legacy information and content paradigms of the printed book model. We are free to use information science to create foundational information maps and content models that are inherently flexible, reconfigurable, and reusable across different learning environments.

Our work begins with a commitment to create content products as part of a holistic curriculum with intentional connectedness between concepts across topics within a subject, and across subjects within the overall curriculum. This curriculum design process includes:

  • Mapping the interrelatedness we already know exists in academic instructional settings – We know that the same concepts are frequently taught across different courses and departments in an institution. We are designing our information framework to represent these known or structured relationships in order to support improved content repurposing and to make customization easier for faculty using our curriculum content library.
  • Creating support for unanticipated concept and concept relationships within academic settings – We know much about how institutions and instructors relate concepts across the curriculum, but our information model must also be agile enough to anticipate unexpected uses and relationships.
  • Building a framework to facilitate intelligent, automated mapping in the future – Beyond mapping known relationships between information nodes in our curriculum, we are also designing our information framework to support intelligent, more automated mapping in the future. This involves establishing additional thesaurus definitions as well as adding keywords and scope notes for richer information contexts and reference points. We are committed to developing rich information structures around our content so that it is optimized for artificial intelligence products and other information-centric technologies.
  • Designing support for mapping of unstructured user data and usage – While much of our immediate attention is focused on mapping structured information and content data, our ability to provide meaningful content services in the future depends on connecting unstructured and user-generated data to structured content. Moreover, we must support content usage data over multiple generations of users and time.
  • Supporting curriculum expansion as well as the growth of our user network – Currently, the EdBooks curriculum is scoped for general education and lower-division courses in Business, Humanities, and the Social Sciences. Even at the outset, however, it is easy to imagine multiple expansions to that vision. We also know that our network of users and communities will scale rapidly. Our information model must support these likely eventualities.

Today, this work looks fairly traditional from an information science perspective. We are building out traditional subject domain taxonomies that feature topics and key concepts. These employ terms that have been normalized through the comparison of organizational taxonomies, library subject taxonomies, popular textbooks, representative course syllabi, and course catalogs. We further define the terms in these taxonomies by indicating preferred terms, narrower terms, broader terms, and shared terms. We add an another layer of semantic depth via keywords and scope notes.

In the current EdBooks product model, this work translates to a highly flexible content design that supports easy scaffolding/re-scaffolding as content blocks are rearranged. It allows us to streamline the development of content that is optimized for specific learning environments such as traditional, hybrid, or online. It helps us design future products more efficiently using existing content from our existing library, and it provides a framework for creating a shared curriculum glossary. Equally important, our information framework makes enables us to crosswalk content easily to other information maps such as institutional learning objectives or CBE frameworks.

In the future, our work with information science will allow us to create APIs that facilitate the automation, curation, and integration of both open and commercial resources to support the teaching goals of our faculty partners. It will also allow us to provide just-n-time learning resources contextualized to what a student or faculty member is reading or writing within our curriculum. Finally, it will help us connect faculty and students across a broad content network for professional support and learning.