This article first appeared in the Society of Authors' journal "The Author" as part of a computer focussed edition "The Electronic Author", in Summer 1993. The Society of Authors editorial adress is 84 Drayton Gardens, London SW10 9SB.
The end of the multimedia era and the dawn of the web was an interesting time. I remember popping along to a senior management seminar at Oxford University Press with David Puttnam at the end of thr 80s where we tried to alert them to the new world dawning, but to no avail.
"If the publishing industry would only look at the way that people were changing rather than focussing on technological change alone we could begin to see some exciting new products, some real change and an enormously exciting future role for electronic authors."
Sometimes I think things are simply so clear yet it is amazing the lengths that people will go to obscure that clarity. Nothing changes here does it?
Anyway.. interesting little chapter, even a decade and a half on...
It is hard to remember today that the first estimate of the world market for computers considered there might be a need for three (and people were worried that the estimate might have been a bit optimistic!). By the mid the 1990s millions have been sold and the design life of the latest tiny notebook computers is now as brief as nine months. Many electronically authored products for the home market have developed the same short fashion lives that pop music once had and indeed share the same fascination for "Top ten charts" of weekly sales.
Perhaps most important of all, these electronically authored products are beginning to offer multiple media types - speech &high quality sound, video, graphics, text - indeed all the components of our everyday information lives. It is easy, of course, to sit back and watch this technological revolution and comment on the rapid development of hardware and software - from the faithful BBC B in our schools to multimedia workstations or from "ping pong" on our home computers to Sonic the Hedgehog&-170; and the like. However, to focus on the hardware and software is to miss a component of change that authors everywhere ignore at their peril: people have changed too. They have changed their habits, their capabilities and most important of all, they have changed their expectations. Whilst we have watched the computers develop, the computers have watched us develop even faster; typically, the younger we are, the more rapidly we have changed. For the components of our society, including education and all forms of publishing, this is fundamentally important and poorly understood.
It is easy to illustrate the magnitude of that change anecdotally. Children in the 50's who were lucky enough to live in a house with its own TV set offered it their full attention during children's hour. Often the poor screen meant that curtains were drawn and the glowing tube was a primary focus of interest. Similarly families would sit around a table together and enjoy BBC Radio's "Round the Horne" or whatever. There are now very few households in the country where the family sit down together and listen to the radio; mono-media is not enough to sustain our collective interest and radio listening figures indicate that listening is mainly done as a background activity to a primary task - driving or housework perhaps. Indeed the TV too is typically reduced to a small information window in a larger social context - children watch it whilst browsing a magazine, listening to music, playing with their "Game Boy" or whatever. They have come to expect autonomy in selecting the primary focus of their attention; if the TV is interesting , they look up, if not, they look back at their game or magazine. In schools this has left educational broadcasting at a crisis point - children do not comfortably dedicate 45 minutes of concentrated attention to the TV screen and TV in school has moved in 15 short years from a treat ("If you work hard at this we will be able to go to the TV room next week") to a drudge ("Will you sit still and listen to the programme, you can't concentrate for 5 minutes, any of you!"). This is rapid change by any standards.
We should not view this as a deficiency model of children. It is not that their concentration threshold has declined; rather, they are not happy anymore to adopt the role of passive information consumers. This is progress.
Generally of course, the rate of change in education has always been slow. A cinema newsreel, filmed in the 1920's, of transport, hospitals, cafeteria, sport, indeed almost any aspect of our daily lives will remind us of the great technological changes that have characterised the 20th century. However, show a short film of a group of children in a classroom anywhere in Europe and it is extremely difficult to attribute its date accurately to any particular time between the 1920's and today without resorting to the "non educational" clue of fashion. Our learning environments have not yet been transformed by technology in the way that much of the rest our everyday life has been.
This slowness of education to change - the intransigence of pedagogy and of the institutionalised learning process - is not necessarily bad; the history of education is scarred with the wreckage of failed innovations (mechanical teaching machines providing an excellent example). Instinctively we may express relief at such conservatism - we neither want the bland uniformity of fast food or the impersonal coldness of modern banks as role models for education! However, such a reaction ignores the real gains that the application of technology can bring.
If we look at car manufacture for example the productivity gains from high levels of capital investment have included better, cheaper cars, with more flexible specifications, that are better able to match the specific needs of the consumer, and a better quality of life for the "delivery team" (that is, for the factory workers). Any investment or change in education that offered better, cheaper learning, more flexibility to match the diverse and specific needs of the individual student, and a better quality of life for the "delivery team" (in this case the teachers and lecturers) sounds like an ideal goal.
Technology could and should make a real difference to the way that we learn, but a too rarely applied litmus test for the application of new technology is to ask "where is the additionality?" and then to examine the change on offer to see if we value it.
Outside education too, the publishing industry has been notoriously slow to change for equally good reasons of conservative caution. As a result we now see the harnessing of emergent technology not to a new publishing industry that reflects the new climate of expectation developing in our children (the new citizens of the Information Age?), but to produce a new version of old solutions. We see the development of a vigorous and expanding electronic book industry with trade fairs, conferences and investment. Again the litmus test should be "where is the additionality?". Are electronic books more suited to consumers' needs? Are they more delightful as products? Do they better match the new capabilities of the Sonic generation? Typically, the answer is no. Electronic books are looking dangerously like technology for technology's sake.
If the publishing industry would only look at the way that people were changing rather than focussing on technological change alone we could begin to see some exciting new products, some real change and an enormously exciting future role for electronic authors. If not, we could be looking at the beginning of the death of text.
© Prof Stephen Heppell 1993