It may be that I have to commit to the headline practices of British tabloid journalism to get over how uneasy I feel about the argument on the future of the press as currently pursued in the UK and the USA. And I do not mean the moral future, though the English love affair with head-wagging, tongue-clicking moral superiority may have been what got our journalists into the business of hacking in the first place, as they sought immorally to find stories of the moral shortcomings of politicians and celebrities. Surely Rupert Murdoch (is it true that he is taking Turkish nationality in order to secure a prime position on the Bosphorus?) can be no surprize in a genealogy that includes Alfred, Lord Northcliffe, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst?

No, I really do mean the economic survival, and I am driven to the keyboard by an eloquent piece in the Financial Times (18 March: Newspapers pressed by Digital Onslaught, from Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson) followed by the weekly column of Peter Preston, who I follow with dog-like devotion in the Observer (19 March). Here we are in our typical halfway house: two different views derived from newspapers being debated by a reader who is himself devoted to reading newspapers (and books and magazines) quite as much as to using the web via laptop, iPad and smartphone. And halfway in another sense: while newspapers have moved to the web in many ways, and Andrew brings together the graphic recent evidence of them increasingly charging for services and building a revenue base, the web has not re-created the newspaper yet. And possibly never will. The looming possibility is that the collectivity of purpose that once made a newspaper a good buy (news, comment, classifieds, dating, puzzles and crosswords, obituaries, readers letters etc, etc) has now been so fragmented on the web that it will never be drawn back together again, unless this is done the the context of social media. For some that is clearly already happening – Facebook is their focussing interface – but it is noteworthy that it has not been newspaper brands that create that focus, despite their online success (the web has made the Guardian a rather unlikely global brand for liberal-minded viewpoints, despite the fact that those reflect editorially the views of some 300,000 British readers, while the Mail Online has stormed to a million registered users through a gossip column approach which reflects only one aspect of its eponymous parent.) Ashley Highfield, who re-invented broadcasting at the BBC has not yet done the same for regional newspapers at Johnston Press (we are waiting!). But with every tick of the clock things get worse. Sorry, Sir Ian Gibson, retiring Chairman of Trinity Mirror (quoted by Peter Preston) your profits are unlikely to recover with the economy. What is happening is structural, not cyclical. It has been happening for a very long time, and the real question is not whether newspapers can survive, but what elements of their value proposition can they migrate across the chasm, as we used to say, into the digitally networked economy/society in which we (and certainly our children and their children) now live. OK, the old world may hold on longer than I think (it needs to in order to provide sheltering revenues and margins to allow new options to emerge) but the new world, built increasingly on collaboration in media forms and not around format specificity (everything for everyone in one place) is here, now.

The argument about the sustainability of print in this sector is one that I have heard over 30 years so endlessly argued in other sectors that I have been immunized against it. The academic journal publishers told me that librarians would always have to have the print for collection purposes, and that students would always need the print to make notes on. Wrong. The yellow page publishers said no one would ever do research for a local supplier online. Wrong. Book publishers said that the digital revolution would never touch them. Wrong. The B2B publishers said the branded trade mag -“they will never desert the trade rag!” – would survive. Wrong. So lets do some scenario setting and see what is likely to happen.

It is 2022 and the economy is still so bad under the TotCol (Lib-Lab-Con) Government of Total Disunity that I am still working as a digital strategy consultant. But life has changed in other ways for the better. My subscription allows me to profile my clients and uses my diary to do so, so when I open up the day’s appointments I have the headlines around what each company/individual has been doing recently. Living in the country I am one of a declining population of car users, but thanks to the Bucks Free Press and the Elgin roadworks database my satnav is pre-warned in terms of road-user problems, and the newspaper service also allows my satnav to prebook  the permissions I will need to get into the automated traffic flow on the motorway and book a parking place at my destination. The handsfree time on the motorway, while the car is being driven for me, allow me to look at the other alerts on the car’s screen which my newspaper service subscriptions have given me. Worryingly, the local council approved an order to cut down a tree that shades my garden, but I can use the paper’s petitioning service to start to mobilize local opinion against this crime. And the FT service voice wants to speak to me, and tells me that she has collected another seven media commentaries on the subject of my next blog. Where do I want them stored. Oh, and the kettle shorted this morning and needs to be replaced. The FT concierge service has a deal with John Lewis, so I select a new one, and Shutl, under contract to the FT, undertakes to deliver it in 3 hours. Just as long as it gets there by teatime!

We are coming to the end of the motorway so I must switch off and resume steering. While machines are endlessly fussy and pedantic, they do speak to each other effectively. Which reminds me. I switch on the FT voice services and speak to my memo pad. I tell it to ask Amazon to send my youngest grandchild a printed copy of Alice in Wonderland (at the special FT discount), with the Tenniel illustrations. I gave her the ePub23 multimedia version some years ago and she loved the way video, voice and print intercombined, but I would like her to see it as the Victorians saw it. Print is quite wonderful if you have little experience of it, and since it is never used in the classroom it is quite a treat when it comes like this, custom created and delivered to the door. So I dictate my own foreword, telling her why I like this book so much, and ask the service to despatch. Book publishing is now 94% digital, and even serious history books, which I love, have video appendices (that’s where all those old TV documentaries ended up!) and links to the digital archives and cross-references.

So, as I park in my designated spot and prepare to go to see my client, do I enjoy this networked world? Probably no more nor less than the present one, but it became tolerable when trusted brands, like the FT and the Bucks Free Press, took an active hand in helping me to re-engineer it to my advantage, and awoke from the passive world of print to live in an interactive world. In order to do so they had to become apps-orientated and software development driven. They became smaller – but more profitable.Their passion became their reader and the impact of events on his life, not their format or their advertizers.

But will they do it – even to survive?

Paradox: nothing is more measured, assessed or examined than education, but we still seem to know remarkably little about how people “learn” in full sense of the word. And while the world is full of learned academics with impressive qualifications in “cognitive processing” and the like, try to build a “learning system” for humans and you encounter immediate design problems. Indeed, it is easier to teach machines to learn. So each generation seems to approach the problem – that each of us learns differently, under different stimuli and at different ages – in a different way. Once it was a matter of coursework and textbook. In this age, the Age of Assessment, satisfactory proof of learning is accomplished by testing. Never mind that the learner may have no resulting ability to deploy his or her learning in any other context than a test; we are developing people who can jump immediate hurdles and may not be able to successfully navigate the great oceans of life in front of them. This applies to schools and universities, but also to the rapidly growing vocational and training sectors.

Over in the medical environment, we have had evidence-based practice for over a decade. This is now becoming a discipline in its own right, combining systematic review of literature (for example, the Cochrane Collection) with statistical analysis, meta-analysis and risk-benefit analysis to produce, in combination with the patient record, some really effective results in diagnostic terms. These are now widely deployed in different configurations by information service solution providers like Elsevier, WK Health and Hearst Medicine. As genetic analysis and custom drug treatment become more common, this will no doubt develop, but as we have it today, the information service players are fully plugged into the system. How different to this is education!

Despite the huge collection of indicative statistics, there is still no feedback loop in education which tells teachers what works with certain types of learning profiles. As they develop and test digital learning environments, private sector learning systems developers (not just systems houses but content developers too) are getting significant feedback on the efficacy of their work. Schools store an ever-growing amount of performance data, and much of this can be related to learning systems. Examination boards have yet more (Digression: my most depressing moment in education this year – going to a parent’s evening with a sixth former studying classical civilizations. Question to teacher: what do you recommend as additional reading (I have shelves full of possibilities); Answer: we do not recommend reading around the subject. It only confuses people to have several interpretations and inhibits their ability to secure high pass grades!). And yet all of this content or evidence is disaggregated, not plumbed for learning experience significance, and there is no tradition of building ideas about what input might secure learning gains – just give the learner another diagnostic test!

These notes were sparked in the first place by the announcement  last month of the creation of a Coalition for Evidence-Based Education by the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York. I also know of the TIER project in the Netherlands  (involving the Universities of Amsterdam, Groeningen and Maastricht) and have great respect for the ongoing work of Better magazine, created by the Johns Hopkins Centre for Research and Reform in Education. But all of these seem to me as much concerned with applying evidence to changing policy at government or school administration level, as they are with developing practitioner tools. And they exemplify something else – there is not a publisher/education solutions supplier loose around any of them. True, no one ever field-trialled a textbook (though I once did this with a UK Schools Council course in the 1970s called “Geography for the Young School Leaver” – and it had dramatic effects on the presentation and construction of the learning journies involved). Yet here we are in the age of Pearson’s MyLab or the Nature Education’s Principles of Biology online learning experience. The age of iterative learning devices, wired for feedback and capable of recording both anonymized statistical performance data and giving diagnostic input to a single user or teacher on what needs support and re-inforcement in a learning process. Yet I know of no developer who trades use with feedback in terms of co-operating with government and schools in trialling, testing and developing new learning environments. And given that these are iterative – they tend to change over time as refinements are made and non-statistical feedback is procured – I know of no schemes which are able to demonstrate the increasing efficiency of their learning tools.

ELIG (the European Leaning Industry Group) has issued members of its marketing board, like myself, with an urgent requirement to uncover good case studies which demonstrate the efficacy of learning tools in practice. I can find plenty, but they are all based on the findings of the supplier. I can even find some where a headmaster says “exam results increased X% while we were using this system” – but they never indicate whether this was the sole change that led to the finding. If I were a teacher with a poor reader with real learning difficulties, where do I go for the  ML Consult or UpToDate medical review equivalent – a way of defining my pupil’s problem and relating it to success with others with similar  problems, and the learning systems feed back on the systems that worked? The answer is that you do not go anywhere, since education, one of the most lonely and secretive jobs in the professional world, is still not quite prepared to enter the digital age with the rest of us. And its suppliers, sharing something of that culture, still operate in an isolated way that also predates the new world of consolidation and massive systems development now beginning in this marketplace. And the Learner? Processed or Educated? It all depends on the feedback loop.



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