Tremors: What can Education Learn from Publishing?

Tremors: What can Education Learn from Publishing?

“As seismologists gained more experience from earthquake records, it became obvious that the problem could not be reduced to a single peak acceleration. In fact, a full frequency of vibrations occurs.”Charles Francis Richter

The global publishing industry changed forever on 17 March 2014 at 6:25am Pacific Time. It was a seismic event measuring 4.7 that separated the old and new worlds of the publishing industry.

But it was not the single peak earthquake itself that was transformational about this event in California – rather, the reporting of it in the LA Times. Within minutes of the earthquake, journalist and programmer Ken Schwencke was awoken in the early hours by an alert on his phone asking for approval to publish an article reporting the event. He clicked publish and drifted back to sleep – Schwencke had the story up within three minutes, making the LA Times the first newspaper to report the quake.

Schwencke typifies the new breed of data journalist that can be found in most modern newsrooms. The short article reporting the quake carries his byline, but the article was actually produced by Schwencke’s algorithm called Quakebot. This short little programme monitors data from the US Geological Survey for earthquakes and generates articles for editor approval when a certain magnitude is reached.

Today, robojournalism has a strong presence in major newsrooms around the world including Associated Press, Yahoo News and Forbes, producing hundreds of reports for data-driven stories in many areas from finance to football.

Step (Behind) Change

But don’t let this “futurist” narrative fool you: a full frequency of vibration was felt in the years leading up to the event. In truth, the publishing industry has had a painful decade, following a collapse in print circulations and dwindling ad revenues and subs. Publishing has found it hard to keep pace with the digital revolution because its delivery model is rooted in a long-standing tradition.

The world’s first “information industry” has found the move from one distribution channel (print) to another (digital) a hard pill to swallow.

Since the early 2000s, “early adopters” have looked down on publishing with pity. “Surely,” they would snort, “this has to be the last industry to modernise” … No. They have overlooked education.

Delayed Reaction?

The education and publishing industries are similar in many respects: “Content is King” for both, the quality of delivery is reliant on the ability of the teacher/journalist to effectively engage their audience and effectively communicate content, and both operate in saturated markets.

For both sectors, millennial technology has suddenly lowered the barriers to entry, opening the flood gate to local and virtual competition.

One could draw parallels between the explosion in B2B titles serving specific business sectors and communities and the introduction of the Free School Programme serving specific business sectors and communities.

One could draw parallels between the internal tensions in both publishing and education as delivery has shifted to blended, multi-platform models – a change driven by evolving customer expectations and economics. On this point, the points of resistance are also similar: journalists and teachers wedded to entrenched views and historical operating rhythms.

Journalists would say “People will never read online … it’s just not the same experience” – it changed. Teachers say “People will never study online … it’s just not the same experience” – it is changing.

The Problem with Legacy

The Achilles heel of both sectors is their respective inability to shake off legacy models and embrace their digital future.

This is not a new problem. The shackles of legacy distort the view of the organisation on a psychological level. The experience of every employee is filtered through the organisation’s historical successes. For example:

  • Did BlackBerry open up its popular BBM messing service to all providers like WhatsApp? No, their market view was curtailed by their legacy model, enabling WhatsApp to dominate the market.
  • Did the music industry embrace sharing and downloads by working with early sharing companies like Napster? No, their market view was curtailed by their legacy model, enabling Spotify to dominate the market.
  • Did the hotel sector embrace the sharing economy despite rapid growth in companies like AirBNB? No, their market view was curtailed by their legacy model, enabling AirBNB to dominate the market.

True, the publishing industry was late to the party, but it has now realised that it must shake its legacy models to remain competitive. Publishing leaders finally realise that other print magazines are no longer their key competitors – Whilst print publications squabble over the same diminishing market share, a new breed of online-only and UGC publishers (Twitter, YouTube and Facebook) are stealing market share from right under their noses.

Why did traditional publishing houses fail to notice their new competitors? Simple. Tunnel vision for legacy models edits out new entrants. From the legacy point of view, Twitter doesn’t look like a publisher, Spotify doesn’t look like a music distributor, AirBNB doesn’t look like an accommodation provider…

… Sweetrush doesn’t look like an educator … but the combined market impact of this and a thousand similar companies is being felt.


The global education sector is experiencing the same pre-earthquake tremors that hit publishing a decade ago.

For example, despite a record amount of student loans in the US, college admissions are dropping. In January, this led to the World’s largest education company, Pearson, loosing a quarter of its market cap overnight after reporting an “unprecedented decline” in its North American business, citing difficulties in realigning the business with the digital appetite of its customers.

At the same time, companies like Sweetrush are growing.

Tunnel Vision

What would happen if you asked all the leaders of the “new breed” eLearning companies and all the leaders of “traditional” learning institutions to write two lists? The first is their top ten competitors, the second is their targets from which to steal market share.

Perhaps I am cynical, but I suspect that the lists written by “new breeds” would include both traditional learning institutions and fellow eLearning companies. The lists written by the “traditional” providers would be dominated by other schools, colleges, training providers and universities.

The challenge for education is to generate the collective level of conscious effort required to break free from its tunnel vision and view the “new breeds” as key competitors and understand how their rapid growth is reshaping the market.

Education has an opportunity to respond to these tremors before the earthquake strikes – and to learn from the experiences of the music industry, the hotel sector and the publishing industry before it.

I don’t know how the education sector’s earthquake will manifest … but it will be soon; it will be quick. Possibly even as quick as the LA Times’ overnight reporting.

The LA Times prospered where similar publishers failed because they were brave enough to abandon the delivery models that had made them successful in the past. They invested in the toolsets and skillsets that were driving growth in the “new breed” publishers.

They invested in people like data journalist, Ken Schwencke.

I wonder how many Ken Schwenckes there are in education today? Not enough, I fear.