How should we design textbooks and education technology for a world where information is no longer scarce or hard to find? It is time to rethink how we build education products based on new paradigms of information management.
In Part 1 of this series we explored the broken paradigms about information that are driving most of batty. In Part 2 we explored strategies for adopting a new information paradigm to help us survive and thrive in the new climate.
Today we take a look at ten ideas for how we can build products that tap into the new zeitgeist. These are nuts and bolts tactics publishers can use to rethink product development.
In what follows I assume you have read the two prior installments. If you have not you may want to spend a couple of minutes on them first. In a nutshell we need to move from scanning and hoarding “scarce” information to treating it as an infinite resource that can be accessed as it is needed. Just-in-time instruction is no longer for adult learners only.
10 Ideas to Try
1. Start with a call to action. Traditional textbooks are set up backwards for today’s learners. Rather than tacking some practice problems on at the end of the chapter start with an activity that will motivate learners to seek out answers. This is how they work in the rest of their lives and we should mirror and model it in teaching. Projects, thought experiments, team challenges, and research activities are all examples of experiences that promote information seeking. These can be classroom discussions, paper-based activities, or on-line challenges (virtual worlds, games etc.).
2. Network your learners – Often we treat collaboration as cheating – but in a world of Facebook and Twitter we have no choice but to harness it. Encourage people working on the same problem to find each other through virtual study groups, student written FAQs, and peer-tutoring. Imagine a system that could help students working on the same problem all over the world find each other on any given evening. There is a precedent for this in on-line games where players can join a queue of people who are looking for others working on the same challenge. Another feature from the on-line game world that you might consider incorporating are guilds – formal associations of players who assist and help each other out. These strategies apply for teachers too!3. Design instructional approaches that are open – Publishers have worked under the conceit that their materials were self-contained systems. You can’t build self-contained products anymore so don’t even try. Assume that teachers and learners are going to use your materials as a small part of a much larger set of resources.
4. Build for Dynamic Content – It is more important that you provide a framework for asking questions than the definitive set of facts. We can and should provide a core set of facts, but anticipate that new information will be available before the paper is dry on a new book and make a place for it in your on-line presence.
5. Build RSS into your products – Proactively deliver a steady stream of new content to users. For example, recent data on global warming shows that most of the projections were flat out wrong – they were far too conservative. Structure RSS streams for students, parents, and teachers. Will Richardson at Weblogg-Ed has some interesting ideas on this topic.
6. Adopt a software business model of continuous improvement. I’ve written elsewhere about the difference between book publishing and software development. This is clearly one area where you will want to build a business model (pricing, editorial resources) that assumes you will be improving a product long after it is “published.”7. Encourage advanced on-line search techniques. This is one of the most important skills we can give students – and many of our teachers are not equipped to coach students in this area. There is an opportunity for publishers to provide the scaffolding for this skill. Tap into the advanced features of Google search or if you want a safe walled garden use NetTrekker. Hire a Librarian to show you how to do this.
8. Plant virtual easter eggs. Seed the web with relevant actionable content (web sites, wikis, and blogs) that good searches will find. Don’t rely completely on serendipity when kids are searching for content. Learn to use Search Engine Optimization (SEO) so your content floats to the top.
9. Build a two way street – Expect kids to find other relevant materials in their searches. Teacher materials should support incorporating outside information. Allow students and teachers to send you resources that they create or find as they work with your materials. Reward and recognize them for this – make it a competition and you will harness the power of user generated content.
10. Don’t be part of the problem. Filter what is included in everything you do to make sure it is relevant, important, and actionable. Strictly limit the outbound amount of content you generate – don’t overwhelm your audience with spammed content. Be a good information provider in a world of overwhelming information flow. Less is more.
Some of this may look a little weird – it runs against long established paradigms. But these ideas are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I challenge publishers to take one product suite and try all of these ideas with it. Don’t change your whole catalog, but when you do try it don’t use half-measures. Give it your all. And if you would like some help putting these ideas into your context give me a call.
Next in this series we look at how information overload is changing how we should be selling and marketing products.
In comments let us all know about products that are already employing these ideas, suggest other strategies that we could try, or just tell me where I’m wrong.
Information Overload Series