Learning with technology: a publishing perspective

Making learning fun and experiential isn’t new but using ed-tech solutions with a gamified approach, educational game websites and apps or exploring AR and VR technologies to create immersive and interactive learning experiences is recent. Nitasha Devasar, Managing Director and Commercial Lead, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, Taylor & Francis Group, explores the different paradigms of learning with technology.

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Technology is shaping both learning and publishing in dynamic and disruptive ways. While these changes are happening faster and faster in the last decade, this last year with ChatGPT specifically and Large Language Models (LLMs) broadly coming into their own, the ‘progress’ has been turbocharged. Still, with human beings involved in the mix it is not always possible to predict or understand what is happening or the unforeseeable opportunities that will unfold.

Consider these data points,

  • Almost 10% of reading around the world is performed on digital devices, a number that is constantly growing.
  • From 2010 to 2020, the number of e-books sold per year almost tripled, from 69 million to 191 million.
  • Globally, audiobooks are the fastest-growing book publishing format. By 2030, revenue from audiobooks is expected to reach $35.05 billion, a growth of 26.4% each year from 2022 to 2030.
  • The digital education publishing global market is expected to grow annually by 17% until 2027. This is a rise from $15.74 billion in 2023 to $29.5 billion in 2027.

And then these,

  • 75% of students still prefer physical textbooks over digital textbooks, if you remove the pricing factor (digital can be cheaper than print).
  • Despite advances in technology, 9 out of 10 young people still prefer to read physical books. The reduced screen time is considered an added plus.
  • For the US, the largest English-language publishing market, Amazon’s print book market share exceeds 40%.
  • In total, Amazon sells over 300 million print books annually in the US.

No learner, researcher, reader, author or publisher will deny the tremendous advantages technology has brought to the whole experience of learning and sharing of knowledge, albeit at a cost and with risks.

Engagement, Connection, Personalization

Making learning fun and experiential isn’t new but using ed-tech solutions with a gamified approach, educational game websites and apps or exploring AR and VR technologies to create immersive and interactive learning experiences is recent. Added to this is the growing use of computer-based chat rooms, online polling tools and survey platforms that facilitate communication and support collaborative learning and research. Alongside the increasing numbers of digital platforms, e-books, and audiobooks, supports the anytime, anyplace, continuous learning experience.

Additionally, social media allows publishers (and authors) to directly reach readers and gain new audiences via targeted advertising. Technology platforms such as Goodreads, Instagram, TikTok, X and YouTube have completely changed the way the publishing industry connects and reaches its audience.The focus on user experience over product reach is driven and aided by technology and using Machine Learning (ML) and other AI algorithms to enhance discoverability, engagement and output quality. Determining user preferences and student behaviours means personalization of content and the learning experience becomes much like your Netflix or Spotify feeds allowing targeted advertising and bespoke content recommendations.

Access, Accessibility, Sustainability

Technology provides students with instant access to a vast amount of information and resources. Be it digital libraries and online databases with books, journals and audio-visual content or educational platforms and learning management systems (LMS) that provide a centralized location for teachers to share resources and assess engagement and participation by students. Additionally, Open Educational Resources and Open Access content provides increasing and freely available educational and research materialsto instructors, students and researchers online. At least on campuses access to learning resources is better than ever before. Off campus, spotty and expensive internet connections, lack of appropriate devices and paywalls can still be barriers.

Accessibility has also been aided by technologies such as AI and VR/AR by reducing language and geographical barriers. With one in ten people in the world with some kind of disability, special needs can be addressed using alternative texts for images (AltText), audio feeds, plain language summaries, translations and more, to match the learning speeds and needs of individual users.

Sustainability has become a growing concern in business and publishing is no exception. The contribution to the 17 UN SDGs via new knowledge creation, dissemination, and citation to further grow hubs and networks in these areas is an ongoing effort. As also the impact of this research on government policy and industry, though real-world measurement of outcomes remains a challenge. Technology supports data generation to take credible decisions for supporting both outcomes and their measurement as we progress on this route.

In conventional publishing processes too, print on demand options (POD), localized printing hubs close to delivery locations, and the use of recyclable paper are all contributing to the efforts towards carbon neutrality.

Ironically though the latest developments around ChatGPT and the many opportunities and functionalities of LLMs are showing signs of adverse environmental impact. According to one estimate, ChatGPT emits 8.4 tons of carbon dioxide per year (more than double that of humans). Further the training of ChatGPT 3and 4 used up to 700,000 gallons of water and even the simplest inferences for answering 20-50 questions or generating text takes up half a liter of water. With billions of users and trillions of queries the water footprint alone is mind boggling. To be fair the problem of tech-related electricity and water consumption goes well beyond generative AI and impacts all information and communication technologies (ICT). As they scale faster and faster, the need to put them on a water and electricity diet becomes a human imperative.

Risks, Rewards, Responsibility

There are always risks involved in any new technology alongside rewards and nothing exemplifies this more than the recent and ongoing developments in Generative AI. The dangers of algorithmic bias, discrimination and job losses are widely discussed and for some the pace of evolution of these technologies’ spells doom for human intervention and participation. Certainly, the risks are many and as laws and regulations struggle to keep pace, the fears of misuse are growing. The first casualty seems to be copyright and authors and publishers around the world are raising concerns about how this could affect an already fraught arena. Known rogue players, like paper mills, pirates are ready to harness these technologies to generate fake articles, references, and reviewer reports as also user engagement.

The good news is that the same AI has the potential to be used by authors to identify predatory and fake journals before submitting their articles, by Publisher to identify AI generated texts, check the reproducibility of research including fake data and manipulated images. It can be used by researchers to speed up the pace of scientific research using literature-based discovery (LBD) which allows for ChatGPT style language analysis to sift through a wide range of existing scientific literature to look for new hypothesis, identify gaps and blind spots as well as suggest potential collaboration. The potential for interdisciplinary work, new innovations and future discoveries is immense and exciting although some distance away.

To harness this potential responsibly, investment in both human expertise and value adding technology to address and prevent unethical behaviors and practices is necessary. The rewards in the form of acceleration and aggregation as well as scale and specialization are then tremendous. As technologies evolve, the risk appetite of companies and users are evolving providing the impetus for these efforts.

For readers, researchers, authors and content producers and users though, it is all about having choices and ease of availability and access, be it the tangible presence of a physical book or the infinite access to online libraires and resources. In the Global South, however, affordability, inadequate technical skills and infrastructural gaps are impacting these choices. They will also vary and change across time, space, and generations, throwing up data and trends that seem contradictory (like the ones we saw at the start of the piece), puzzling and energizing publishers and marketeers in their quest for replete and repeat customers.

Nitasha Devasar is Managing Director and Commercial Lead, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, Taylor & Francis Group. A commentator on Indian publishing, her book Publishers on Publishing: Inside India’s Book Business (2018) provides a panoramic view of the industry. Her recent TEDx Talk (2023) focuses on the value proposition of publishing and publishers. https://youtu.be/Nyp_3P6jds4. The views expressed here are personal.

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