Very interesting thread on the IATEFL Cardiff Online materials development forum about the future of coursebooks – I couldn’t help but dive in of course. A lot of valid complaints about watered-down generic content from traditional publishers who are “dragging themselves kicking and screaming into the 1990′s” as Gavin put it, perfectly. But recognition that coursebooks can add value with cohesive organized syllabi and that they give learners a sense of order and clear aims, and that teacher-generated content can be uneven and unorganized.
I think one way to look at the situation is to use what can be called a “content continuum” with publishers on one side and teachers on the other, that shows the strengths and weaknesses of both. Here’s the idea:
You can see how the strengths and weaknesses offset. Publishers are relatively slow and expensive whereas teachers are fast and cheap. Publishers need to create generic, controversy-free content fit for a wide audience, whereas teachers can fit content to the exact needs of each learner or class.
I think we need to look at this, not as publishers or teachers, but as a continuum that we can move along in either direction as the students and learning environment demands. You can already see this happening in other publishing areas. Encyclopedia Britannica (far left of continuum) announced it would be opening up to accept content from users, albeit slowly and carefully. Thus it moves a bit to the right on the contiuum. Wikipedia (far right of continuum) announced it would be providing a bit more editorial oversight to quell the most egregious tom-foolery on the site. Thus it moves a bit to the left.
So in this transition period I think we’ll see more of this. And in ELT we’re just getting started on tools* to develop the user-generated side of the continuum. It’ll be fascinating to see how the space develops. But what is certain is that the old relationship between publishers and teachers will be turned upside down, as bottom-up materials development replaces top-down coursebooks. Smart publishers** will seek a partnership relationship with users; publishers who don’t will dwindle in relevance.
And what’s the whole point? In today’s world things move too fast for traditional publishing planning. Using a coursebook first published 5 years ago limits relevance to the learner in a way that wasn’t true last generation. But more importantly, new digital approaches to materials development that move smoothly along the content continuum, adopting and adapting the best of both extremes, promise to deliver the radical personalization that will give learning back to the learner.
* watch this space
** also, watch this space