By Nancy K. Herther is a writer, information consultant and retired academic librarian.
In the most recent Times Higher Education’s Global Powerhouse University Brands, their consultancy team explains that “a university reputation is built on the awareness of, and engagement with, the exceptional outputs and achievements of all staff, students and stakeholders associated with that institution.” It’s not just having required programs, qualified staff and eminent faculty. Branding is becoming more essential for individual institutions; however, given the rapid changes being made in academe and the increasing role of social media as a form of persuasion, it is becoming more complex.
Today, the entire publishing industry globally is in a period of great change. COVID and the closure of so many bookstores, schools and other institutions has had a major global impact. The growth of internet-based BookTok, and so many other new options for expression, challenges not only our perceptions of ‘publishing’ (and concepts of ‘owning’ ideas and works) but that the radical nature of ‘openness’ is creating what has been called a ‘communism of writing.’
THE FUTURE OF TEXTBOOKS
Fordham University’s Albert Greco is an acknowledged expert on the publishing world.
Even before COVID, but especially now in its wake, educational institutions and the book industry itself are not only dealing the with impact of the pandemic – but perhaps even more so, long-term, with competition from social media-based products and communications media.
In his 2023 book chapter in The Future of College Textbook Publishing, Greco explains that the future of textbooks remains unsettled, believing that “far too many structural weaknesses and threats remained that threatened the business of college textbook publishing, including financial instability and high debt of certain publishing firms; the ravages of the COVID pandemic; continued declines in both college enrollments and textbook sales; the impact of gender discrimination in the college textbook publishing sector; the impending threats of inflation and a possible recession; and the ever present threats posed by book pirates.”
Greco notes that, despite various efforts by publishers, academics and colleges to make textbooks more accessible, there remains serious “structural weaknesses and threats.” India’s Meera Gandhi has written that “the newly emerging Gen Alpha, (2012 to 2024)” will continue to push “the publishing industry towards digital and social media style reporting and away from the lengthier article style reporting. Publications have to be 360 degrees, in other words, able to be communicated by audio, video, print and digital at the same time.” This is bound to impact change in scholarly and textbook publishing.
Greco has studied the influence/impacts of the financial instability of many publishers, the “ravages of the COVID pandemic” among other factors on the industry and believes that publishing is under incredible pressure from non-traditional media that has grown dramatically during COVID closures across the globe.
Even before COVID, The Huffington Post declared that “teens are scrolling social media instead of turning the pages of a classic novel. Citing a 2019 article published in an APA journal, one in three U.S. high school seniors did not read a book for pleasure in 2016. In the same time period, 82% of 12th graders visited sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram every day.” Since COVID lockdowns, the use of social media such as Snapchat, Instagram, BookTok, TikTok and others…have replaced reading during COVID. What does this say about how academic authors and publishers need to address these changing times?
As an article in VOX by Rani Molla noted, “people were looking for something to entertain themselves and not finding it as easily on platforms like Facebook….noting that TikTok encourages more levity. ‘It forms connections in a different way, watching strangers talking openly about their lives.’ Indeed, that openness and authenticity has become one of the key hallmarks of social media in the Covid-19 era.” Even Post-COVID, these trends are expected to continue. So, what will the long-term impact of social media be, even in the textbook sector?
In another important analysis, Benton Institute’s Michael Agresta notes that it is “inevitable” that the changes of the digital era will be epic to academe. “The Twilights and Freedoms of 2025 will be consumed primarily as ebooks. In many ways, this is good news. Books will become cheaper and more easily accessible. Hypertext, embedded video, and other undreamt-of technologies will give rise to new poetic, rhetorical, and narrative possibilities. But a literary culture that has defined itself through paper books for centuries will surely feel the loss as they pass away.”
EDUCATION & LEARNING IN THIS NEW ERA
In his book The Transformation of Historical Research in the Digital Age, historian Ian Milligan notes that “the historian does most of their actual reading and analysis at home. The same is true with other periodicals, newspapers, and journals: historians explore large repositories of information, from places such as JSTOR, ProQuest, or HathiTrust, through the constant lens of search. They use keywords rather than expert indexes. Here, too, historians find themselves consulting the digitized rather than what might be most relevant.”
“It might not seem like a significant decision to explore the Toronto Star rather than the Toronto Telegraph,” Milligan continues, “but if every historian makes the same decision, this represents a dramatic shift. These thousands of individual decisions mean that over time scholarship begins to homogenize in terms of what we cite.”
“As with everything, COVID accelerated but did not invent trends: it underscored how digitally mediated historical scholarship now is. Historians were able to leverage processes that had been unfolding over decades.”
“As historians now systematically explore thousands of articles with algorithms,” Milligan suggests, “perhaps our norms need to change and now require a half-dozen or more ‘hits’ to rise to the same level of significance we might have looked for in a pre-digital period. The way in which we evaluate scholarship via peer-review and scholarly assessment also need to take this new information ecosystem into account.”
These types of self-questioning are now taking place across the disciplines as we enter what appears to be a new phase in our digital evolution.
THE COST OF CHANGE IS HIGH FOR FACULTY AND STUDENTS
Recently, Educause published new data indicating that “today’s students enter higher education facing a more complex, expensive, and uncertain environment than ever before. Consider the statistics. Only 65% of students feel a sense of belonging. One student I talked to put it this way: ‘In my first year, it felt like chaos to find my place’.”
The author, Brightspot Strategy’s Elliot Felix, noted that “one key component noted by studies done is the need, in our networked, remote learning environments, for better collaboration tools and training – especially with so much taking place using the web. Teamwork is at the top of the 2020 list of skills that employers want, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ longitudinal employers survey. But only 42% of students are satisfied with ‘studying/working with peers outside of class’.”
CHANGE IMPACTS STUDENTS & LIBRARIES
A recent study of 635 students at a English university finding that “personal sense of belonging mattered to these participants, and they also had a reasonably high sense of belonging at their institution.” The study, by Hilda Mary Mulrooney and Alison Faith Kelly, finding that “the most important physical attributes identified by these participants were a combination of learning spaces (large lecture theatres, laboratories), social spaces (cafes, canteens) and spaces which combined the two (the library). With the increasing importance of maker spaces and other types of newer, hands-on, often collaborative learning/creation, the authors note that “it is unsurprising that ‘learning’ and ‘meeting people’ were rated so highly since they are related.”
Of course, the ‘traditional’ roles of libraries haven’t changed significantly either. And all types of libraries are facing these new challenges. “Even before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted lives around the world, public libraries were undergoing dramatic changes,” noted a 2021 Library Journal article by Dennis Pierce. “Libraries have been reinventing themselves for well over a decade, as the emergence of smartphones and ubiquitous connectivity has put access to information into nearly everyone’s hands. No longer just repositories of information, libraries have morphed into full-service community centers that aim to meet a wide variety of civic and social needs.”
“When every student has the potential to carry a global library on the device in his or her pocket, the role of physical libraries may become even more important, not just a place to house resources, but one in which to create meaning from them,” predicts George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia. “The libraries of the 21st century provide a welcoming common space that encourages exploration, creation, and collaboration between students, teachers, and a broader community. They bring together the best of the physical and digital to create learning hubs. Ultimately, libraries will continue to inspire students to construct new knowledge and meaning from the world around them.”
A recent Harvard Business Review article by Roxanne Calder explains that the rise of online learning leads to a key trade-off for students: “The lack of a structured commitment and fewer in-person interactions. In the comfort of your home, distractions may be tempting and focusing on the task at hand can be a challenge….despite the ease and benefits of online education, the completion rates for many programs is quite low, with only about 15% of Open Universities students leaving with degrees or other qualifications.”
“Online learning, by default,” Calder continues, “tends to emphasize technical skills over soft-skill development….In-person courses, on the other hand, expose you to a much larger breadth of diverse individuals, and are often designed to encourage relationship building and discussion. They force you to show up and be present, listen actively, and ask thoughtful questions.”
Although technology has certainly been incorporated into libraries for over fifty years, this latest transition, driven by both technological advances and global crisis, is causing libraries across the globe to move quickly to modify, change and innovate in this highly dynamic environment. The last part of this series takes a closer look at efforts by libraries to address this dramatic, paradigm shift whilst still in the midst of these dramatic changes.
Nancy K. Herther is a writer, information consultant and retired academic librarian. email@example.com