Oh dear, where will I be without my paper-based books? And how does this affect ELT?

In an all-so-sudden decision I was sent on Wednesday to São Paulo along with two colleagues to attend the International Digital Book Forum which was organized by the Brazilian Chamber of Books as a pre “Bienal dos Livros” event.

You might be thinking, but I thought you were an ELT professional?

Yes, that’s right, but the language institution I work for also has a publishing house and we’ve recently found ourselves discussing issues concerning the future of paper-based coursebooks with the advent of digital books.

As I was being flown off to this digital book event I was feeling ever-so-slightly annoyed about the whole thing. Something had ruffled my feathers! But what was it?

Before travelling I’d carried out a quick internet search on the event.  Retrospectively, I think I read some very superficial descriptions of the event and this generated a very negative picture. The words which stuck out were: “digital gurus speak about….” (Oh, how I hate people who are called ‘gurus’!); “the demise of paper books”; “ebooks will dominate publishing in 5 years”; “paper books vs. ebooks”; “prophesies of the demise of paper books”, etc., etc.

Hmm,  a battle scene – a war metaphor: good vs, evil! War had been declared against the paper book! God forbid such a thing! Where would I be without my paper books? Would I never be able to step into a bookstore anymore and spend hours browsing bookshelves? (By the way, I’m not quite sure if we do have a Portuguese equivalent for the verb “to browse” – is that in any way suggestive?)

So, my mindset for the opening talk wasn’t the most receptive in the world. But I must admit that as soon as Mike Shatzkin began speaking I thought, wow, this is going to be a great talk! This is going to make me see things from a different angle! And it did just that. But I really think that I got the full picture by the end of the second talk by JohnThompson , who brought balance to the discussion.

I’m not going to go on and on about the issues and points raised by Mike and John, but I am going to highlight some issues concerning ebooks and epublishing touched on by the two speakers which I think are related to the ELT world.

1)      We live in a world in which is “content plentiful” according to Shatzkin: anyone can produce content and distribute it universally at a click of a button via a blog.

This is something which many of us in the ELT world can relate to. We have blogs, we also use Twitter to disseminate other people’s content as well as our own. And I think that by nature, teachers have always been quite interested in sharing aspects of their practice and nothing is more natural than writing about it or documenting this is some manner.  My point here is, our field of work is one in which we are all highly involved in some way or another in producing quite rich written content.

2) When content becomes plentiful, people question how much they are willing to pay for it. The laws of supply and demand are suddenly changed.

This is indeed a very interesting point. As a teacher trainer who runs a number of online courses via MOODLE, one of the things I often look out for are good internet texts I can suggest for course participants. Of course, nothing substitutes the good-old methodology books, but I am quite certain that many course participants sometimes stick to the shorter and quickly-obtained internet texts. Here in Brazil the cost of methodology books is incredibly high. I ensure that teachers do not resort to photocopies (a practice which is well-known here even by the publishers themselves), but I am also well aware that alternative cheaper sources need to be available as well. So, the advent of cheaper digital books is indeed a very appealing idea. (Of course, issues of e-piracy do have to be considered as well, but from what I gathered at the Forum, apart from the traditional DRM – Digital Rights Management – options, which do have drawbacks, publishers can also resort to Social DRM, using a digital watermark, in an attempt to convince readers not to share their ebooks with others at the risk of being found out.)

However, the downside is that the whole issue of book pricing can be a pebble in the shoe of publishers, but theoretically not of authors. Quality must be maintained, so authors can still receive what they have been receiving for their creations. What does change is how publishers will price the final product and this is where the whole issue of digital publishing becomes thorny for them.

3) In a content plentiful world, content providers (that is, the content authors themselves), need to strive to create a community and a direct relationship with the consumer (after all, consumers have many content providers from whom to choose from).

This is a fascinating point. I think our field is one in which we are quite lucky in that experienced professionals, coursebook writers and methodology authors are highly accessible. Conferences have always contributed immensely to this, but the advent of social media has meant that this has enabled teachers to have almost on-the-spot access to these professionals who directly influence their practice. One of the points Shatzkin made quite explicitly was that his blog emerged out of the need to share insights with others concerning his field of work. However, even though no direct revenue came out of sharing ideas on his blog, it did expand his network of contacts and this ultimately meant he had more “business” opportunities. What I find so interesting about this point is that we can immediately see the relevance of this if we think of those included in the “Hall of Fame” in ELT, but it also applies to mere mortals like ourselves – and this is where I think the beauty of it all lies. As we also are content providers (albeit in a much smaller scale) we have the chance to network in a manner we have never done before, literally breaking down geographical barriers, and this has meant far greater opportunities have arisen in our field.

4) Content providers – the authors themselves – take on a far more important role – they become the Brand itself! And as the author has the direct contact with the consumer, through the community s/he has built up, then publishers take on a less significant role.

This is a key concept! The fact the content author becomes the “Brand” itself changes the power relationship between publishers and content providers. What I’m still not quite sure of is, in this uncertain future scenario of epublishing, who remains responsible for maintaining the “Brand” – just the author? The author and publisher? Just the publisher? Well, I suppose this all depends on what role is ascribed to the publisher and the way digital books are sold.

At the end of the event I was really happy to have gone as it woke me up to an issue I had been thinking of in a rather blasé manner. From all that was said and discussed, I really don’t think we are facing the “threat” of a huge upheaval and sudden change in the world of ELT publishing, especially in Brazil. I don’t think we need to worry as teachers with the fact that ebooks will suddenly substitute our traditional coursebooks. There are a thousand issues to be considered before this scenario comes to be (perhaps the first in our country being the ease of access to e-book reading devices). I may be completely wrong, but I don’t think it’s something that is going to take us by storm as the IWB’s did. We’re not just talking about teachers using ebook reading devices, we’re talking about loads of students using them as well. Where are these devices going to come from? What standards are going to be adopted to ensure all materials can be read on the devices? Will ebooks limit themselves to pdf files or are we talking about enhanced books, which cater for a variety of media? What infra-structure will these changes imply in terms of our language schools? Are students going to bring portable devices to class? Are they going to use paper books in class and use portable devices at home?

How will this all change our pedagogical practice in the language classroom? Many of us are still discussing the effects of IWBs on our classroom practice. Are we ready to deal with the changes a simple ebook may bring about?

Most of all, are we as teachers going to allow ourselves to be held “hostage” (this is a very strong term to use, I know, and just for the record, I am a great advocate of technology in the classroom) to a situation of technological change which will have profound effects on our practice or will we take a more pro-active stance and also start discussing these issues?

These are some of the questions that we need to begin to ask and I do hope we can start debating this a bit.

(By the way, I felt great comfort at the thought that I’ll still be able to browse through bookstores for at least a couple more years. No doom and gloom scenario just yet!)

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