The challenging future of educational publishing

It is no secret that the business world, at large, is in a state of transition – a transition which appears to be steadily accelerating. Sudden developments in technology and thinking are upending industry after industry, leaving companies scrambling to react and adapt themselves. Educational publishing is not insulated from these changes – in reality, a lack of action to meet the future head-on is leaving it particularly vulnerable.

Embracing change is not easy for any business. When we think about the world of tomorrow, we can often feel stifled by the sheer number of considerations that need to be made. Those considerations can often boil down to two things: “Have we done enough?” and “Have we made the right choices?”. Without access to solid research, it is very easy to veer off in the wrong direction and welcome disaster before another adaptation can be made. That’s why having a well-informed and thoughtfully-distilled strategy from the word ‘go’ is critical for continued success. Today, we’re going to take a look at many of the biggest challenges facing educational publishers as they look towards the future – as well as a few of the cutting-edge solutions.

Outdated business models

It has been known for some time that the traditional business model for educational publishing has been facing significant issues for a variety of reasons. One is that the needs of educators are constantly changing and can be challenging to address. Furthermore, purchasing learning resources is often prohibitively expensive, pricing a growing number of learners and educators out of the market. Students may resort to purchasing second-hand copies or even piracy because their impression of the publisher’s brand has been soured by the barrier to access. These challenges are compounded by the fact that, unlike with other learning resources, the turnover rate for creating educational materials is quite slow. Whereas trade publishers can take around three months from the date of commission to create a training book, educational publishers often require between six to nine months to create a textbook. Improving the rate of production, without sacrificing quality, is something that publishers are going to need to address to remain competitive in the world of tomorrow.

Limited reinvention possibilities 

There is more access to information today than ever. Before digitalisation, print textbooks were the primary means for how people learned. This is plainly no longer the case – almost all information can be sourced, for free, with a simple click on a search engine. However, this brave new world also presents exceptional opportunities for publishers. E-books are a format which harnesses the widespread use of smart devices and can be taken anywhere – be it on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. These resources remain essential, as they form the backbone of most educational courses, being prescribed to all students in order to structure learning. However, this does not guarantee sales, as many teachers have become increasingly flexible with their students in recognition of rising costs and inflation.
The traditional model makes reinvention possibilities somewhat limited. Moving towards a digital business model is the solution, but in order to recapture profits that have been lost to freely accessible content, publishers need to demonstrate the superiority of their premium resources. They will need to engage their creative thinkers to brainstorm new possibilities. Internal collaboration and collaboration between like-minded publishers are going to be essential, meaning that barriers preventing the free flow of information will need to be brought down. It will be important to check in on the health of your innovation ecosystem and expand it if necessary. Brainstorming sessions will put everything on the table to see what is viable for their business. New proposals will need to be formed from these sessions and offered to management, and scenarios will run to see if new product and service propositions can be developed.

Changing needs and educational budgets

Technological advancements have impacted education more than almost any other field, yet the response from many publishers has not been aggressive enough to meet the changing needs of educators. The challenges brought by the pandemic accelerated the transformation, pushing educators in search of resources suited to hybrid and remote learning models. In many cases, they were forced to generate their own. Educational publishers need to provide the right resources to teachers and learning institutions during this transition. They also need to provide additional support to facilitate the mutual success of educators and publishers alike via workshops, lesson plans, video training sessions, digital content, and more. A closer relationship with teachers is important to ensure the right resources and support are being given to them. Educational systems designed in collaboration with teachers themselves have been shown to significantly improve the efficacy and fruitfulness of their work. This is why teachers are emerging in leadership roles for educational institutions globally – they are in the best position to contribute innovative ideas and prepare the educational world for tomorrow’s needs. If they can connect and collaborate across institutional and organisational boundaries, then everybody benefits – including publishers.
However, these changing needs come up against the difficult reality of declining school budgets. In the UK, for instance, budgets have been repeatedly slashed throughout the past decade – and the squeeze is making it more difficult for schools to justify spending money on new resources. Instead, they are trying to make the old ones last for longer – and this may lead to outdated information or shortages over time. Naturally, educators are worried that these cuts will affect the quality of education that they can offer. Publishers can meet these concerns head-on. Digitalisation will help to alleviate these concerns for many schools due to the cheaper production processes. In contrast to the wider budget for schools, technology funding is often available and can be directed towards digital resources. Although this funding can be inconsistent and, to an extent, dependent on philanthropic gestures, it is available and can help many schools invest in digital learning resources to meet tomorrow head-on.

The problem of piracy 

Around the world, a large number of students are resorting to piracy because they cannot afford books. Publishers have litigated against piracy websites to try and stem the tide of illegal downloads. While this may be partially successful, it does not resolve the price barrier problem. The ease of access to these free resources – often quicker than finding paid equivalents – makes struggling students wonder why they should bother putting themselves further in debt. It may be easy to dismiss these actions as criminal, but their actions often come from genuine need. More than ever, young learners and their families are struggling with affording learning materials – if finance is an issue, then piracy may very well be preferable to spending $250 on a single book.
Furthermore, research has revealed how the purchasing decisions of Gen Z are more ethics-driven than those of the generations that preceded them. If you cannot make the case for your business model’s inherent decency, then they will ignore it, rout it, or rebel against it. They will seek out an alternative option which meets their needs. However, in a space as dominated by a handful of major players as educational publishing (compounded by a lack of innovation within that space), they are generally unable to do so. This complicates the issue of the price barrier and drives piracy by presenting it as the more ‘ethical’ option – an obviously untenable situation.

Sustainability concerns

It is no secret that the sales of printed materials have been declining for years, and one of the reasons for this is sustainability concerns. When we consider today’s main demographics for educational materials – younger millennial and Gen Z students – we cannot ignore their ethics. They recognise the urgency of addressing climate change. Carbon neutrality pledges can meet these students halfway, and some publishers have already made respectable commitments. However, not all customers are going to be aware of these pledges. The most direct way of demonstrating a green ethos is to offer digital alternatives – thereby leaving no ambiguity to the ethics of their purchasing habits. Furthermore, one of the drivers of the high cost of educational books in the traditional print model is the cost of manufacturing. Digital materials are superior in this regard, too. The future of all industry is bending towards sustainability, and print is inherently incompatible with a sustainable ethos.

AI augmentation

Artificial intelligence is perhaps the most game-changing development of the twenty-first century to date and the foundation that countless future innovations will be built upon. Organisations in every sector are rushing to seize its potential, and the educational world can harness that potential too. Deep learning algorithms have already proven capable of being savvy editors – and writers. Many websites generate content purely by feeding information into purpose-built algorithms. Many more augment their editing staff’s efforts with editing algorithms which, using vast amounts of language data as guidance, can automatically detect and suggest corrections. 
In 2019, the first educational book written by an AI was released by Springer Nature. They used clustering algorithms to bring sets of information together and structure it into a cohesive narrative for learning purposes. Furthermore, the publisher is a pioneer in the field of human-machine hybrid writing – a collaborative process that promises to take the best of both worlds and iron out the kinks in either party. Hence, the production bottlenecks of writing high-quality educational materials can potentially be resolved by integrating an AI author. Although there will be costs attached when integrating an AI author into your production pipeline, the amount of time and money it saves could make the investment worthwhile, and allow human writers to direct themselves towards more demanding tasks.

Digitalisation can overcome the used book market

The used book market is notorious for eating into educational publishers’ potential sales. It is driven by the high price of print materials and learners looking to save money or recoup costs. An average textbook can be resold, on average, around seven times – and the publisher only gets to enjoy profits on the first sale. While the cost of print is an understandable concern, the loss of sales only drives prices higher.Publishers can mitigate some production costs via digitalisation as no printing or materials are required. Digital resources also cannot be resold in most cases. Access can be tied to the owner via a username or password, making resale difficult as customers do not like sharing personal information. Selling the product via a platform such as Kindle Store permanently connects it to a user’s account, preventing it from being resold entirely. There is little expectation for a used e-book market to ever develop, simply because customers are cognizant of the difference between formats. After all, a file can be replicated as many times as necessary.

Have a look. Pleasant delighted girl sitting at the table and showing screen of the laptop while talking with the robot

The market is expanding into the digital space

Alongside these challenges come exceptional opportunities. A recent market research report by Technavio indicates that the digital educational publishing space is set to grow substantially, at an estimated 10.55 billion USD in the next five years. The K-12 segment, in particular, is expected to drive this growth. In addition to the rise of remote learning, the high cost of printed resources is proving to be a barrier for many learning institutions which are looking for a more affordable alternative. In spite of diminishing budgets and an array of challenges, educators remain pressed to deliver great outcomes for learners – and digitalisation provides educators the alternative they desire.

The challenges posed by the pandemic meant a sudden and rapid shift towards remote learning, which affected learners of all ages. Class had to continue, one way or another – but teachers were not adequately prepared for giving lessons online. Many were forced to scan print materials through lack of a viable alternative. This lack of access to suitable online learning resources has played a massive role in what is being described as ‘learning loss’. Although it varies depending on demographic, students have lost, on average, somewhere between six months to a year of learning. With time, many education publishers were able to meet the needs of educators and students alike by providing a range of online course materials. However, it is clear that these efforts have not been adequate to close the gap for all learners.
Many publishers’ business models are, unfortunately, still geared towards selling print products. This focus is becoming increasingly untenable, as the sales for printed materials have been in decline for years. To be sure, print isn’t just about to vanish. Polling reveals that 85 per cent of parents overwhelmingly prefer physical textbooks to digital ones. Naturally, this demand will need to be met – it will likely always exist to some extent or another (although student preferences appear to be swinging in the opposite direction). In spite of a limited ongoing demand for print, digitalisation is going to drive this future growth and this is where resources need to be directed. Otherwise, publishers will be stuck fighting over diminishing returns in the print market.

Multimedia approaches

One major opportunity presented by digitalisation is the opportunity for publishers to expand into different formats to augment their educational offerings. While debate continues as to whether ‘learning styles’ are a myth or an established fact, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the expectations of learners themselves are changing. Auditory learning is one such area. In 2020, 48 per cent of teenagers listened to podcasts for entertainment. What’s more, 28 per cent of Americans tune in to at least one podcast every week, and a substantial portion of their listening habits are educational in nature.
Another intriguing possibility is gamification – the integration of game design principles to incentivise further engagement and improve retention. These include high score systems, leaderboards, collectathons, achievement systems, pre-set challenges, and quizzes. Research has shown that gamification can foster greater enthusiasm, provide ongoing feedback, and a sense of achievement for successful outcomes. Furthermore, the vast majority of modern learners are familiar with these principles already – 87 per cent of Gen Z play videogames on a weekly basis. However, the vast majority is not everybody. Not everybody likes gamified content, and not all learners are going to have the physical ability to play games. Their integration into the learning experience, while potentially transformative, must therefore be optional.

Online learning systems

Publishers will have to compete to make their products stand out in the digital space. This will mean more expansive offerings, such as online learning systems which support learners throughout their educational journey. These systems will be tailored to the needs of the individual learner, adapting to their preferred learning style and providing customised options for future development. They can use multimedia approaches and be highly interactive, or feature active learning techniques which provide learners the tools to find the answer themselves. The student will be able to complete quick assessments that build a picture of their growth, allowing them to track their progression and see areas for improvement.
The overarching goal of the comprehensive online learning suite is to make the learner’s experience more rich and personalised. For educational publishers, it presents a way to level-up their offerings. These systems could integrate into the Metaverse (something which is happening already) to enhance their immersivity and maximise their impact. Various industries have already embraced smaller, more purpose-built learning systems to manage the training progress for their employees. A version of these systems dedicated to educating K-12 or university-level students is no less feasible – although it will require a longer development period. Efforts to enter this space have already started, with prestigious institutions like Harvard contributing to EdX, which provides free educational experiences for learners around the world. A side effect of digitalisation will invariably mean expanding the breadth of educational resources – the learning system brings these offerings into a single platform to guide and offer support.

Embracing a subscription-based model

It is established that students both struggle with the costs and even take ethical issue with the cost of learning materials. Under the present model, students in higher education spend somewhere between $628 and $1,471 on books annually. For many students, this is not tenable, and they cannot or will not pay these prices. However, there are ways to meet these students’ needs without sacrificing overall profit. Ownership is less important to modern learners, with Gen Z displaying a ‘pragmatic’ approach to the concepts of ownership vs. access.

The subscription model emerges as a viable alternative in this regard. An online platform hosting a breadth of educational materials, accessible by a monthly fee, is a naturally more enticing option. Pearson has begun experimenting with an industry-first model which charges $14.99 per month for access to a library of over 1,500 materials. This guarantees a steady stream of income and encourages students and educators alike to invest in the publisher’s learning ecosystem. It would also reduce the impact of used book sales and piracy on the company’s business by providing a viable and affordable alternative to physical ownership. The success of the Netflix model reveals how would-be pirates can be willing to pay monthly fees for access – partly due to costs but also ethics. However, there are drawbacks – forcing students to remain within the publisher’s ecosystem limits the scope, and the student still has to go seeking course-essential materials elsewhere. Educators may push back against it in favour of open-access models where a broader variety of content can be accessed. Conversely, a successful enough ecosystem will incentivise educators to adapt their course materials around it. 
Publishers unwilling to commit to a subscription model may consider digital rental services. This allows learners access without having to pay the full price or keep it past the point of its usefulness. Digital rental has already been established as a viable strategy, but publishers are currently being preempted in this space. Many universities offer a range of rental services to students – in many cases for free – presenting a natural challenge to profit-seeking publishers. Amazon has become prominent in student rentals too, enjoying automatic visibility by incorporating digital rental services into their Prime Student package, which millions of students already have.

NFTs as learning materials

Ownership of a digital product can also be conveyed via non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, creating an opportunity for publishers to expand their educational offerings, and even participate in the used (e-)book market. NFTs are an emerging technology which saw a boom in popularity beginning in 2021 and are built upon blockchain technology. They allow for smart contracts secured within the blockchain to convey ownership of a digital product. This allows them to be sold back to the publisher for resale or for the publisher to take a cut on successive resales. It would also make piracy a far more challenging task. Although NFTs have primarily seen uptake for the sale of art, animations, and video, there is no strict limit on what can and cannot be ‘minted’ as an NFT.
Pearson CEO Andy Bird appears enthused by the possibilities of the space, remarking that “technology like blockchain and NFTs allows us to participate in every sale of that particular item as it goes through its life”. NFTs have drawn a great deal of intrigue regarding their role in the future of digital ownership, opening the doors for new and innovative business transactions and exchanges to emerge. However, NFTs remain controversial. This is, in part, because of cryptocurrency’s price volatility – which collapsed by over 90 per cent between January and June of 2022 – as well as general distrust in this emerging market. They also suffer from low awareness, with only 20 per cent of Americans actually knowing what they are and fewer still possessing a correct understanding of how they work.

Building a future-proof strategy

Clearly, there are many obstacles facing education publishers when looking towards the future and no shortage of considerations to be made. Adaptation is unavoidable, but maintaining the legacy model whilst embracing a new one is undeniably a major challenge.

Education-Trends is a future intelligence agency dedicated to providing illuminating research and insight into the world of educational publishing via multimedia knowledge packages. Our methodology is simple, yet effective: we do comprehensive research on a specific trend or topic affecting the industry, then convert our findings into a variety of engaging and highly-accessible formats. Our output includes whitepapers, e-books, graphics, newsletters, animations, webinars, and more – and these updates are provided on a regular schedule, whether it’s AI, soft skills, gamification, adaptive learning, or any other development in the world of educational publishing.

Our packages streamline the research process and ensure education publishers are primed to tackle the world of tomorrow head-on. Equipped with our knowledge, publishers can:

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Recently, we had great success with Noordhoff (part of Infinitas Learning), one of Europe’s largest education publishers, who were thrilled to report back to us and inform us that they enjoyed increased engagement and a wider reach because of our packages.

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