The Publisher’s Dilemma

I’ve stopped saying the word “disrupt” since people began exclaiming it in a kind of religious ecstasy. At some point in the last 18 months or so, “disruption” has completed its slide down the proverbial slippery slope and has stopped being a means and become an end in and of itself. Ends-means confusion is a terrible mistake, and never bodes well for the people who make it. I expect it bodes even worse for an entire field of endeavor (I’m looking at you, educational technology) that seems to have wholeheartedly bought into the switcheroo.

Remember Freedom Rock?

I hear variations on this conversation all the time:

“Hey man, has that approach to doing something tangentially related to education been considered a best practice for longer than 12 months?”

“Yea, man.”

“Well it needs to be disrupted, man!”

Modern-day ends-means confusion aside, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. The analysis presented in The Innovator’s Dilemma is brilliant and still has much to teach us. Reading this recent piece on Wired about the innovator’s dilemma made me appreciate, yet again, what a completely awful position commercial textbook publishers currently find themselves in. [Brackets are my commentary]:

Technology leaders [including commercial textbook publishers] evaluating whether to invest in new and immature technologies [like OER] must do so with a futuristic frame of reference. The key question is, if these technologies found new customers and new markets which may in themselves be small and insignificant (now and in the future) [like people who can’t afford to spend $600 per term on textbooks], could they mature enough to make inroads into our playing field and have our lunch? [Yes.] And if so, does investing in them today at the risk of cannibalizing ourselves make sense in the longer term? [Yes, but no publisher will.] Hence, the innovator’s dilemma.

Talk about your scylla and charybdis…

3 thoughts on “The Publisher’s Dilemma”

  1. Absolutely agreed–disruption / innovation / reform / whatever, for it’s own sake is less than useful. It is quite probably damaging and counter-productive. We should *always* begin with the end in mind. And yet, as you not, the “innovators dilemma” is very real and there are many pockets in higher education that are ripe to be disrupted (e.g., the interlocking directorates–to borrow a poli sci term–of publishers/institutions/faculty member, student financial aid, credit hour hegemony, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera).

    In the forward to Michael Horn’s new “Blended” book, Clayton Christensen invokes Thomas Kuhn who has, I think, a much more intellectually sophisticated frame for thinking about disruption as “scientific revolutions.” We have a discipline (or disciplines) (i.e., learning science, educational technology) that have become myopically attached to paradigmatic solutions to learning problems. The dilemma is that they “solutions” keep failing in what were first considered “anomalous” (and therefore ignorable) contexts. But as the failures mount, the anomalies begin to be the new reality and existing paradigms become ripe for replacement (through the thesis –> antithesis –> synthesis process).

    Many of us (you as a prime example / champion) have been agitating to move away from “normal science” in ed tech. Now that it is (or at least appears to be) going mainstream, it is incumbent on the agitators, the paradigm-busting contrarions, to make sure that the new perspectives don’t get coopted by entrenched defenders of the existing paradigmatic heterodoxy.

    Thanks for the reminder that we need to keep fighting the good fight, both intellectually and in our practical, rubber-meets-the-road work! Viva la revolucion!

  2. The other day I was chatting with a colleague who wants to do away with the textbook in her course. There isn’t an open alternative and she doesn’t currently have the time to write one. She was upset that there isn’t an open access source available for her course, but rather journal articles available through our university library. I asked her whether her goal in getting rid of the textbook was to move to an open text or to remove the burden of buying the textbook for students. She responded that it’s the latter so I said using the library achieved her goal. Going open for the sake of saying you’ve “gone open” isn’t the point, just as disruption for the sake of disruption isn’t.

  3. This reminds me very much of the Open Source ecosystem in the early 1990’s. It was not well known, and the skill sets of the players varied immensely. Some of them were top tier and driven to do really interesting stuff, some not so much so. However, it was also clear that time was on the side of open software. It was clear that the movement would grow from a core group of altruists and innovators. These would produce projects that captured more the interests of a more mainstream community that would adopt and adapt projects to their own purposes.

    It only takes a small percentage of the total community to take part in this process to have an impact that matches or exceeds that of any single commercial company and fundamentally changes the software product landscape. That said, while there is Linux, there is still Windows. I use Gimp, but many professionals use Photoshop, and so on. So Open Source has changed the landscape, and is a significant player in many market verticals, it has not, yet, pushed out commercial offerings in any of them.

    OER is gaining traction amid the turmoil of EdTech innovation and a time of general stress on the US educational system. This parallels Open Source traction during the dot com boom.

    So to this

    > And if so, does investing in them today at the risk of cannibalizing ourselves make sense in the longer term? [Yes, but no publisher will.]

    I would add, “and we’ve all seen it before”.

Comments are closed.