Education Information 2013 Seminar

This is part of my presentation delivered under the title Reshaping Your Future at the Education Information 2013 Seminar co-hosted by the Australian Society of Authors, Australian Publishers Association and Copyright Agency

I’m not even going to try to define the term ‘digital space’. It’s not because I can’t (though I can’t), it’s not even because it keeps changing (which it does), it’s because to different publishers it means different things. In fact, for a single publisher it may mean different things for different projects. When I get asked to provide material for a digital version of a book, or even for a wholly digital project, it can mean anything from a pdf of the print version for a CD-ROM or DVD to a complete, whizz bang interactive animation – and everything in-between.

It’s not one model fits all and it can’t be. Our education system mirrors society – we have the haves and the have-nots. So while it would be great if all school students had iPads to watch the amazing animations and videos and interactive games and puzzles that we create, the truth is that many of them don’t. For some schools, a lone interactive whiteboard sits idle, still wrapped in plastic.

In fact, just a couple of years I was in a school in Melbourne’s northern suburbs and was amazed to see that among the books being used for helping teach children how to read was one titled, When We Go to the Moon. Yes, it was looking to the future when humans would one day fly to the Moon.

While the education revolution built fantastic facilities for classrooms and libraries, I can’t help thinking they left out the most important part, the educational resources that really could lead to a revolution – a learning revolution.

But I digress. To say that the digital space offers opportunities is stating the bleeding obvious. How does one grab those opportunities?

Well, a writer has to be versatile. They have to be able to create ideas to engage students across various platforms. They may have to write a script for a short animation one moment, a quiz with bells and whistles (literally bells and whistles) the next moment, and more traditional instructional text the next. All for the same project. But fear not. For in this respect, nothing has changed. We have always had to be flexible and open to change. In the 17 years that I’ve been writing educational books and other materials, the ball park has changed many times.

My first books were not unlike those I read at school: each page with a chunk of text and a black and white photo. Then publishers told me they wanted the books to look like magazines – more visuals and small blocks and boxes of information. Then a few years later publishers wanted the books to mirror website pages (even adopting some of the terminology). So educational writers have always had to be versatile and flexible to survive.

But none of those changes were as dramatic as those we face now: dealing with the elaborate, multi-tasking, multi-dimensional way young people take in information. And when I say young, I mean really young. It starts pre-school.

For writers, it also means coming out of our shells – out of our garrets – and watching how students take in information, how they communicate, how they become engaged – and applying what we discover. For ex-teachers, it does not mean remembering how you taught, even if it was just two or three years ago. Two or three years is an eternity in the digital space.

We have to understand budgets. We have to know what’s achievable for what cost? There’s no point writing an Oscar-quality short animation for a project that has a budget somewhat south of the cost of a steak sandwich.

This means talking with publishers (face-to-face). They’re not that scary. And working together. Because, let’s face it, they are as puzzled as we are at what to do – and how to do it. Let’s be thankful of one thing. Unlike the publishers, we don’t have to directly work out how to make money out of the damn things.

Clearly, we have to redefine ourselves. We are no longer writers of books, we are writers of content – just as book publishers are now publishers of content. We have to be aware of the whole gamut of digital options, and to be able to provide them.

The future is bright. Opportunities abound. But these opportunities will not come to those locked in the past. They will come only to those writers willing to make the effort, to continue learning and exploring and asking questions. Those willing to try new things.

Nicolas Brasch

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