There is a tremendous amount of talk about THE cloud, but for some time now there has been a cloud of a different nature hovering over the future of educational publishing. Combine the changing needs, situations and expectations of schools, teachers and learning with publishers' need to come up with some sort of sustainable strategy that allows them to continue to enjoy major profit, and it would fair to say everything is rather cloudy at the moment.
ELT (English Language Teaching) authors are certainly experiencing a walk in the fog, as are (no doubt) writers and experts from a range of educational fields.
When it comes to expertly designed learning materials, for me the answer has been reasonably clear for some time. As mobile devices become more affordable and ubiquitous, we won't be needing textbooks or even e-books; the future will be in apps.
A recent post on the OUP English Language Teaching blog comes closer to convincing me that this publisher, more so than its competitors (at least in terms of what it is publicly inviting conversation and ideas about), is probably the most on track when it comes to making a transition from dead trees to mobile devices, AND still having a business model that can be profitable.
Building learning materials in app form creates all of the functionality, flexibility, interactivity and currency that teachers and students are now starting to expect. They can be video and audio-rich, with built-in branching and automatic feedback and tracking. They can be updated on a regular basis. They can integrate with social media tools, and/or work with things like the rapidly developing Tin Can API to send descriptive learning reports to a selected LMS or LRS.
It also ensures that there is an app purchase per student (or at least device, or device set), which should make for a sustainable and profitable distribution process.
It will require different design methodology, layering and programming, of course - which is why I am rather vehemently against the idea of simply converting existing textbooks into e-books (that would be like putting a T-Model Ford engine inside the shell of a modern car and hoping people feel like they are now driving something state of the art), or chopping them into little parts to become dried up PDF or e-PUB potpourri (alongside ominously polite emails sent out to existing authors informing them that royalties won't be part of the future deal).
And while the call for granularity in future resources, with well-tagged small parts capable of being mixed and matched for specific courses, is a genuine one, for ELT in particular I think it would be unwise to dismiss the idea of a well designed integrated course with mapped out stages and progression (the sort of thing many teachers and students continue to like about most coursebook offerings). Yes, we do need the grammar, vocabulary, reading (etc.) skill-specific apps, but I think there is still considerable merit in the well-designed progressive course that integrates all of the relevant skills and facilitates creative iteration within rich contextual frameworks.
A clever approach to ELT course apps should allow them to be customised while still providing a core and a map. Selective elective/specialised apps can then be applied alongside or around them to create just the right course for specific groups of learners in specific contexts.
Forget the idea of trying to own/control the platform (and, by extension, all of the distribution). The publisher that tries that on will not only inevitably fail, they won't be doing their reputation as The (greedy shareholder-appeasing) Empire any good either.
Apps can still work with complete freedom of choice. They will thrive or fail based on the quality and relevance of their content and interactivity, which is exactly how it should be.
Probably the most exciting prospect for me as a teacher is the idea that well designed and accessible apps, rich in content, flexibility, feedback and tracking, can do more to flip language learning classrooms, so they can utilise that precious face-to-face time to apply the language more often for genuinely communicative and task-based purposes.
I don't think this automatically means that we have to do away with publishers, or professional ELT writers/designers for that matter. We still know a bit or two about how people learn and how to make appealing content and activities. Some of us even know a bit about learning online, mobile devices and apps!
We're all ready for change: it's really a matter of getting on with it now and making it App'n.