A new Life for old Content – Thoughts on Syndication Part 1

Imagine you sold a product for decades and decades and it sold really well, and I mean brilliantly. Imagine you wake up one morning and suddenly no one seems to care about your product anymore.

In the past couple of months we saw this on the publishing market. Newspapers and Magazines are closing because blogs and Twitter stole their show.

Encyclopedias are discontinued after over 100 years because no one is buying them anymore. Even the new kid on the block, the CD or DVD version is discontinued because no one can compete with  internet based versions or Wikipedia.

The state of California is switching to e-books in its schools. First reason they are cheaper and the Governator needs every cent but honestly, if you see the growing demand of e-readers like the Amazon Kindle it is only a question of time when other states will follow suit. And remember, Bill Gates is still working on his dream of the tablet PC.

I guess, if you are in that industry you saw the impacts coming nearer every day. So what could they do? Some chose the way to publish audio books which is quite a strong market in Germany these days. Others are publishing on the Kindle there is even a project where you will be able to design a custom printed newspaper just for you.

But what about the huge market of education material publishers? Well, it seems as if they found out a great way to save themselves: content syndication.

This of course is only made possible by the huge success of online learning communities. Those communities hit the online education market like a bomb. Livemocha is at over 3 million members, italki at 500.000, Babbel at 300.000 and Busuu at 130.000. Those are astonishing numbers if you take into consideration that they are on the market for only 1 1/2 to 2 years.

Now what are these websites basically offering? A new way to do old things: learn a language on your own. Remember the times when you wrote down the vocabulary you wanted to learn on little cards, translation on the back. And then you bought the course book to learn the grammar. Maybe even an audio casette or later a CD to listen to the correct pronunciation. Then came Rosetta Stone and changed the game. Suddenly you were able to learn on your PC! No need to write down the vocabulary, buy the course book and the audio. You had all in one place.

But one thing was missing. The social part, the part were you really got into conversation with a native French or German or Chinese speaker. And that part was taken by the language learning communities. They offered a basic content package of flash cards and exercises you could take. Not bad but the real beauty lies in the social interaction of the members. Your exercise will not be just rated wrong or right by the AI of the software, it will be corrected by a real person. A person you could meet in a chatroom, a person you could talk to on Skype.

Now lets get back to the publishers. They spent decades of developing teaching and learning materials and all of a sudden people would meet online to exchange their languages without buying those books and CDs. This could be the end, right?

Wrong. Because language exchange only works to a certain point. It is like the little kid asking you the next “Why?” when you explain something. Sooner or later you get to a point where you cannot or don’t want to answer the “Why?” anymore. And that’s where a teacher and his textbook come in. The teacher gets paid for answering the questions and the textbook knows the answers.

Language learning is a complex thing, so is content creation. And honestly: what could language learning platforms do? Reinvent the wheel? There are no “new” methods to teach, there are just new ways. And content creation is a really hard job. I know it. It is time consuming and in the end you will end up with something that for sure has been written in that or a slightly different way by another publisher.

Now interesting things happened. Livemocha and Pearson announced a partnership in which they would develop a complete English course for the Livemocha platform based on the profound knowledge of Pearson.

Then came Babbel and announced their Spanish beginner course based on a book published by the german publisher Hueber. This week they launched an English Grammar course based on a Collins grammar book.

italki just partnered with Eleutian and is now offering the Pearson based ELLIS online course on their platform.

You see the red string? Publishers syndicate their “old” content to rising internet startups who build a new product based on this content. Basically they are digitalizing the old text books, refreshing them with interactive content, audio files, videos, games and so on. This way the publishers stay in the game and do what they do best: deliver great content. And the internet startups don’t have to burn time and resources on creating new content e.g. on reinventing the wheel and can do what they do best: deliver a great and fun experience.

And don’t get me wrong. Old content does not equal bad content. Honestly, what do you want to do new or better? Of course, the language changes a bit, we are using some new words and so on but 95% stays the same. It’s like looking at a picture of a person taken 20 years ago. The hair might be longer than today, the clothes in the 1980ies, well, no comment. But if you would give the same person a haircut and some “up to date” clothing you could not tell if he or she would come from back in time.

Another important factor. I recently talked a lot about digital natives and immigrants and that most potential customers today still are immigrants and settlers. Everyone of those guys know Pearson, Hueber and Collins. Those were the publishers we grew up with. We had their books in school. I learned with Longman Pearson for my TOEFL and I still use those books for some of my clients.
As I said settlers and immigrants are known for their accents. If we read those names we say “Oh, if it is Pearson it can’t be bad.” And we are used to the way they present the content. I did not try out the new Babbel English course and the italki ELLIS offer but I am pretty sure that even when this content is online now I can recall the way I learned “back in the days”.

For the growing market of digital settlers those companies might not matter the way they matter for us but this is a great way for those publishers to set their stamp in their heads like they did to us. The natives will start learning with Pearson, Hueber and Collins and will then over the time recognize them the way the settlers and immigrants do.

And there is one other important thing I noticed those companies have in common. They all do without the icing on the cake. They left the cherry aside. They are basic. They are usable. None of them has a virtual classroom for example. Conversations are done by text chat or Skype. So they are using tools almost everyone is able to use these days, tools which are reliable and stable. And the less fancy features you are using the less vulnerable your site is for crashes and “dumb” user questions.

These partnerships and cooperations show that there can be a better solution than the endless battle “new vs old”. If you take the best of the two worlds, innovation and experience, and mix them together you can build something that none of the both sides could have build alone.

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  • johnrizzo

    Very good analysis, Kirsten.

    I'm in the IT industry, and things are probably partially different. A big part of the content is renewed, so must the corresponding course material be.

    Obviously, with time there is a growing part which is stabilizing. For example, Microsoft Word is no new subject anymore, even if new versions continue to come in. Idem for the basics of algorithms taught in the universities, the same way for decades now.

    But the most successful courses (paid by companies) are on new technologies, and I see no slow down in stuff that men invent and that programmers must learn.

    It sets the need for a dimension of contributing authors, where no text book exists yet. Because even when one to ten brand new books exist on a technology, they are not mainstream at all. If they were to be rewritten 2 years later, they would be quite different. And these are no class books, they are not meant to be used in a classroom (on-line or not): no exercise, no summary, no pedagogy — just a scientist explaining his new technology…

    My point is that for IT training, there is a new dimension to invent: some kind of wikipedia for course book, written, improved and maintained by the teachers (and students…) of an on-line learning community.

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

      Now that is really a great idea and would combine the best of two worlds. A crowd sourced book with expert guidance. I like it!

      Thank you for this comment!

  • vickihollett

    Very perceptive Kirsten. Thank you

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