The future of materials development

March 23rd, 2009

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



  1. Here’s a thought: Traditional academic publishers have actually been using user generated content for years. Not years as in ‘since 2002′, years as in ‘at least a hundred’.

    The peer-reviewed journal is both written and edited by a simultaneously self-selecting and vetted user population of experts. In the journal publication process, the publishing house acts as a) a facilitator, b) proofreader/layer-out-erer and c) distributor. NOT a content creator.

    With a little jiggery pokery, I’m sure that the basic elements of this (highly successful) model could be adapted to publishing online. Academics get to write journal articles because they’re experts at what they do – and when it comes to the classroom, isn’t that what teachers are, too?

  2. Great observation as usual Zoe. That’d be an interesting new role for the ELT publishers.

    I wonder how much of this new role can be 1) disintermediated via web technology, and 2) crowdsourced? In other words, do we need a distributor with the web? Can the facilitator and proof-reader roles be left to the users themselves? I’d guess not 100% (viz the wikipedia editorial process, which is growing not shrinking). So that’d the role, roughly as you envision.

    The only question I have is if the professional expertise / self promotion aspect would be enough of a benefit to authors in the ELT industry. It’s an interesting question and one I go back and forth on. What we’re doing to start is answer that question in the negative and instead re-distributing user fees to all teachers who contribute content, based on a page view algorithm. So, if say a teacher from Warsaw contributes a nice lesson on conference calling, shares it and it becomes popular with other users, then we send that teacher a check every month.

  3. Just thinking in terms of behavioural economics – is payment the right incentive structure for your users? Mahalo answers and Helium both use this model. While there is good stuff in both, there are also contributions from poorly informed chancers hoping to scratch up a little dosh (they fail and go away, but the next batch is always ready to start). And the quality contributers on those sites? Turns out, they’re the ones least incentivised by money.

    Incentives are funny in that they’re not cumulative. One can cancel out another. (BTW: Zoe = extended experience in fundraising.) In fundraising, providing raffle tickets in exchange for donations (i.e. incentive = potential material gain), for example, can actually LOSE the donors whose incentive was ‘feeling really good about myself’. And those are the donors who give more!

    Have you identified the potential incentives of the different groups in your user population? That could be a handy thing to do.

    I would imagine that one of your best incentives for teachers would be permanence for a mobile user population. You offer a stable & transportable repository for individual teachers’ work. No skin off their nose if it’s shared, too! I haven’t seen your user repositories, but I assume they’re very nice.

  4. Cleve,
    As always – really enjoyed your article. Timely too. In the middle of trying to decide if I should step back into text books – or pursue my dream of a classroom without.

    I think you hit a lot of nails on the head with your pros/cons discussion of Teachers vs Publishers – nails that I don’t think I really thought about. Those disadvantages really hurt. It’s one thing for me to design content – but what happens when you pass that responsibility on to a team of 10? 20? 30? – quality, organization, and continuity – and level appropriateness (if I can say that) could possibly suffer.

    But I wonder. Just read a really interesting post about proximity management
    Could a connection between prox. management and course design be drawn? Somehow the leadership of the Four Seasons have managed to create and spread a culture of service and quality throughout their staff – a staff much larger than 10 or 50 people. Could prox management somehow be applied to creating the right content for students BY TEACHERS on a large scale?

    And your continuum idea made me remember a cool – but long – post over at the Passionate Users blog (geez I wish she was still writing)
    What do you think?

  5. @Zoe – good stuff that requires thought. Will think.

    @Aaron – Hadn’t seen proximity management, interesting. That post by Kathy has always haunted me because of how feature-rich the e360 application is…I worry we may be on the right-hand side of Kathy’s “I rule” curve!

  6. Dear Cleve,

    It was a real delight to meet you serendipitously in the horizontal OTIS capsule in Cardiff.

    Your article here is the first I have read – I just know it will be the first of many! I SO resonate with it in terms of my experiences and passion for challenging the trad. models of publication, peer-review and precious self-serving academicism that pervade the scientific and medical worlds in which I have spent most of my working life. The approaches and mindsets are modelled exactly in the NHS too, where services are often still deemed to exist for those who provide them and not for those who pay for, need and use them.

    The mind article is also fascinating and I’m still digesting it (a brain can digest in just the same way that a gut can generate feelings?). I have always held the view that our mind cannot only be a function of our brain; indeed, every cell and process in the body also minds itself, other cells and processes and our overall ‘whole’?

    And when minds come together, then the result is also always far greater than the sum of the parts (or in the case of a Party Political Conference also often far less?).

    Kind Regards to you and all your friends and colleagues.


  7. Hi Cleve,

    Very interesting article and a nice visual too.

    This issue is actually something I think about often (as a teacher-producing-own-materials and giving away some, selling others).

    While I can stay up2date and work faster (in some ways) than a publisher, be more ‘current’, I can’t always see my typos and sometimes my work can get redundant.

    I try to make sure these things don’t happen but it’s not the same as having a good editorial team behind me and definitely not the same as having a sales force!

    The issue missing on the page here though is the one of money.

    A lot of great stuff isn’t published by publishers simply because it wouldn’t be commercially successful enough -luckily now though, we have the web and all the tools we need at our fingertips, so at least we professional amateurs get the chance to make a wee bit of side-cash and put our creativity out into the world without limits.

    Oh, and have a whale of a time doing it too ;-)


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