Ereading and education in emerging markets

Ereading has the potential to make a huge impact on learning in developing countries. Digital textbooks could solve many of our distribution and price problems, as long as the rollout of computer labs in libraries and schools continues apace, and the cost of computing continues to drop. With that infrastructure in place, there are five key challenges to making meaningful progress, and each challenge presents at least one business opportunity.

First, we have to stop focusing on the device. That means avoiding any conversation that starts with the question, ‘Kindle or iPad?’ No one device will meet every student or classroom’s needs. For instance, in Ghana, Worldreader.org is running a fascinating and invaluable pilot project putting Kindles into school classrooms – it will teach us a lot about how devices are used in resource-poor areas – but ultimately a project tied in to one company’s device cannot scale. One distribution mechanism and one form factor is not enough for an entire educational system. For example, where a Kindle will work for a child in grade 5, it won’t for a grade 12 student who needs to write essays on it. We need to focus on simple, open standards that any device can support. For content, that would be epub and PDF. For catalogues, a distributed system like the Internet Archive’s Bookserver. And for web-based resources, simple, low-bandwidth sites that work well on small, monochrome screens. Where is the business opportunity? Governments and education projects will still need vendors, and they’ll favour standards-based systems that fit each other as neatly as Lego bricks.

Second, ereading software is still terrible, but it’s improving fast. This is an evolutionary process that publishers can depend on. But publishers do have a responsibility here too. At the moment, the greatest constraint on the improvement of the reading experience is digital rights management: the technology for restricting what a user can do with an ebook. Whatever one’s views are on the ethics of DRM, there is no doubt that systems and applications that provide and support DRM are clumsy. They are often slow, prone to breaking down, and so expensive to deploy that they draw resources from product development and delivery. Moreover, so far there has been little development of DRM-capable software for Linux-based operating systems, even though such operating systems are likely to dominate computing in developing countries, and this effectively locks out millions of potential customers. It’s imperative that publishers actively look for business models that don’t need DRM. The business opportunity? Any model that lessens an ebook’s stops between the content server and the reader’s device will be simpler and faster, and will bring customers back for more.

Third, publishers need to provide content now: not for the market’s sake, but for their own. Every new technology needs content, and for a long time, publishers had a headstart providing it, because they already owned most of the world’s high-quality educational content. For at least ten years the inevitability of the ereading revolution has been a no-brainer, and yet many publishing companies wasted that time in uncertainty or wishful thinking. Now other players are getting better at creating their own content, and a decade’s headstart is almost up. Technology companies, retailers, non-profits, governments and small startups are all producing content, and under very different business models to traditional publishing ones. This is especially significant in developing countries, where there is rarely an established book trade to prop up traditional publishers as digital content catches on. The business opportunity? If you can’t make it ridiculously easy for your existing customers to buy your content online, look for licensing and syndication deals with those who can.

Fourth, the sooner we shift the publishing business model from a copy-based one to license-based one, the better. It is inevitable that digital content will be increasingly sold by licence in educational settings. This is especially so in higher education, where piracy is rampant. As long as each individual student is responsible for purchasing their own prescribed textbooks, higher education will be hampered by piracy, or the simple absence of textbooks among poorer students. In education settings, the student is not the customer. The institution is the customer. By selling licences to institutions rather than copies to students, publishers could increase effective purchase rates and reduce the average cost of education. The opportunity here is clear: look for institutions that can buy content en masse, and offer them a license.

Finally, at every level of publishing and education, we need more training, skills development, and general technological curiosity. To meet these challenges, publishing staff need to understand something about the technology that increasingly defines their industry, so in-house training is crucial. And then publishers need customers who can use a simple computer. Many educational publishers already offer training and skills development for teachers as part of their marketing efforts. Adding technology training to this is an opportunity to future-proof your customers.

Making the most of digital content in developing countries is financially astute, whether your company is based there or in the developed world. Just as importantly, all educational publishers are social enterprises too. For those who don’t believe the financial imperatives are clear enough yet, the social ones are harder to deny. It is time to revolutionise educational content – its nature and, importantly, its delivery – and for a short while longer, that’s up to publishers.

I wrote this originally for the Frankfurt Fair Dealer, a daily publication for the Frankfurt Book Fair published by BookBrunch and Publisher’s Weekly.

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