What’s all the fuss about ‘digital’, then?

[tweetmeme source=”carl_robinson”]It’s been a while since I posted – blame that on work taking over for a bit. Or laziness. Your call.

I’ve also taken a long time to write this post – between starting it and finishing it, IATEFL happened. And that was an amazing ‘digital’ experience. IATEFL in Cardiff last year was, I think, grudgingly digital (people complained about Twitterers tapping away on their netbooks); this year, Tweeting, streaming, blogging was so encouraged it was almost compulsory. You can still catch up with what happened here.

But it’s work, and subsequently IATEFL, that has inspired this post. The question posed in the title is one that I have heard asked in a variety of ways or, if not posed, then implied in conversations I have had with people in my part of the publishing industry. It’s a deceptively large question – if indeed a question can be ‘large’. Let’s break it down a bit. What is going on when we hear the question: ‘what’s all the fuss…then?’

“It’s not important”

This is possibly the meaning that I find most disturbing. The idea that somehow or other this is all just a ‘fad’, a passing phase in publishing (ELT or otherwise) is clearly not right. The wealth of discussion, debate, argument and downright opinionated posturing points to the fact that this is an important change in what we do. Both in the editorial or teaching part of the ELT world. There is no escaping the fact that digital – whether tools for teaching, responding to the needs of ‘natives’ or editorial processes and content development – is here to stay, and will shape the way things are done. For both teachers and editors.

“I don’t want to get involved with it”

I have heard sighs of relief from editors and teachers alike when someone else takes on the responsibility for ‘digital’ – almost as if they’re saying ‘thank {insert chosen deity here} you’re doing that, that means I don’t have to and I can get on with doing books/teaching with cuisinaire rods etc and all this will go away.’

The late, great Douglas Adams talked about a problem that could be wiped out by installing an ‘SEP field‘ in front of it. This meant you couldn’t see it, because your brain wouldn’t let you. SEP stands for Somebody Else’s Problem. I sometimes think that this interpretation of the question belies this: that when it’s SEP, I can ignore it. So, ‘what’s all the fuss’ means ‘you do it so I don’t have to’.

Truth is, friends, it’s going to be everyone’s ‘problem’ – if it isn’t already. Like it or not.

“It’ll never replace books, it’s just a fad”

Tricky one this. There is an inherent inference on the part of the speaker that this is what digital products (and digital advocates) are setting out to do. I strongly disagree.

If we look at the kinds of things that are being done in digital publishing and teaching I would agree that there is a dependency on books (which may be the source of the concern) – we are turning what we have done in print into some sort of digital form. I suggest that this is right, for now. Lots of teachers, teachers unfamiliar with tech, teachers who have developed loads of extra resources based on ‘the book’ over the years, want to have the familiarity of the book emulated in the digital space. Especially if they are being ‘forced’ to be digital and it goes against the grain.

However, I hope this changes. The possibilities offered by incorporating digital tools and content into our lessons and publishing are enormous. Rather than replace books, we’ll see courses changing where books and digital content become intermingled, where the content needed at a given point in a lesson/course is delivered in the way that best suits that content. We’ll see content enhanced by the medium it’s in. No-one ever thought video would replace books, but did see the potential video content could bring to a course. No-one thought audio CDs would ruin lessons, but could see the advantage of the teacher not having to read out texts in class.

In the same way, digital will, I think, enhance our courses, not destroy them.

But it may be true that books will no longer ‘rule’ in the way they do now. As our learners and teachers change so our approach to content delivery must change. Books won’t be replaced, but they may lose their current status. I think this is true in the editorial process too – we may well change the model that we develop a student’s book (first) then a workbook, then all other books, and tack ‘digital’ on somewhere. Perhaps we’ll start with student content and practice content and develop the materials in that way, making decisions as we go about the best way to deliver each set, or part of each set – online, offline, print, mobile etc.

Final word

This side of IATEFL I have the strongest impression that people are tired of the so-called ‘technology’ debate (by the way, check out a great slide in Gavin Dudeney’s talk from IATEFL – it’s slide 21 – look how other ‘revolutions’ were seen at the time, and think about how we see them now). If I came away with anything from that splendid conference it’s that tech is here to stay, but that it’s just a tool.

There are many wonderful teachers out there who are bursting with ideas how to incorporate this tool into their lessons. Their lessons are not dominated by the tool, but served by it.

Our responsibility, as publishers, is to get with that attitude and to start really engaging with the content we produce for teachers. Let’s stop publishing for the tool, ‘just because’, and start realising how best to develop the content to work with the tool, how best to enhance the experience of the content by considering it (the content) first, the tool second.

Hang on, Carl, what do you mean…

…by the question? Well, just what it says. What’s the fuss? Why stress about it? It’s here, let’s get on with it. And let’s do it well.


2 thoughts on “What’s all the fuss about ‘digital’, then?

  1. I am actually old enough to (barely) remember business presentations given using 35mm slides, and the first time someone in my company was brave enough to try a talk using Harvard Graphics presentation software. Needless to say, the first few attempts were clumsy and didn’t always work, but 12 months later the 35mm presentation slide shop down the road (which had grown rich and fat thanks to our custom) had closed down for lack us business. Textbook publishers don’t like this but they also do understand it, at least the more evolved ones do, and thus I applaud organisations like Pearson Longman sponsoring edtech speakers at IATEFL as a gesture of “going with the flow” and trying to understand this sea-change as it’s happening.

    • Thanks Paul,

      Change is, I think, always complicated and it’s difficult to predict and mitigate every possible reaction. I agree that publishers can do their bit to support a wider understanding and I too applaud it.

      I hope ‘digital’ doesn’t put anyone out of business though(!), rather that we find new business models that are right for the new realities.

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