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THE PIPELINE: Planning for the Future--Shades of Gray, Plaid, and Paisley

By Stephen Abram - Posted May 1, 2012
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I’m a bit of an armchair observer. I’m not that into sports so I’m not a Monday morning quarterback, but I sure do love me some politics and gossip. Give me Gawker and TMZ and The Huffington Post and Drudge. I’m an addict and my RSS libraryland feed reader is peppered with my distractions in addition to my passion for library news and trends. For a long while I’ve been distressed at the tone of public debate and commentary, seemingly everywhere in the Western world. There seems to be a dynamic that insists on polarizing every issue, concern, event, or debate into pure black and white. There seems to be a trend—in the media foremost, but I see it everywhere else too—to treat every issue as a values issue without the basic Western culture precept for tolerance, understanding, and listening.

Whatever happened to live and let live? How did our basic freedoms for expression and speech get so twisted? Perhaps I’m hypersensitive to this as nasty politics in Canada and the U.S. lurches through primary season. From an educator’s perspective, I have to ask: Is this the example we wish to display for teaching and building a value system about critical thinking, choice, respect, and using information to support decisions and policy direction? I think not.

Here, There, Everywhere

On a related note, I see similar poor argumentation and perspectives in the library and general media about things we care about in the information content and technology space. I see too many headlines about some technology, form factor, or format being “dead.” Or, possibly worse, people have been advocating for a single ecosystem where schools standardize on a single device or supplier. It doesn’t take much critical thinking to determine that organizing our school exclusively around the Apple iPad proprietary standard for devices and books might create more damage than good. Doesn’t competition underpin progress and invention? Remember laptop schools? When do we learn that a single technology is not riding in on a white horse to save our kids and education?

Note the simplistic articles and opinion pieces that forecast the death of print. Honestly, does anyone seriously foresee that ebooks will murder print? Did radio, television, cinema, music, and more die out when faced with changing technology and distribution? Now we’re seeing silly predictions about the future of books, classrooms, teachers, textbooks, and more.

Shades of Gray, Please!

We are tasked with thinking about the future of learning and learning technologies, and what that future could look like over the next few decades. An interesting topic! And one in which polarization serves no useful purpose except to expose the edges. Polarization can even cause damage to our enterprises if we engage in dogma. Do we follow the fanboys and bet everything on, for example, Apple textbooks or iPads, or open access, or Blackboard elearning, or [insert whatever technology or for-profit religion fan club here]?

As noted, I despise black-and-white, polarized thinking and debate. It is so rarely true or helpful. It even has a name—reductio ad absurdum—and an anti-intellectual tone that scares me a bit. The truth and the future are usually found in the shades of gray. Gray is where subtlety and tone emerge. It is harder to manage and requires talent and creativity. It requires professionals who have a deeper understanding of the whole scope of the change. It’s where the real excitement is.

So at present, we need to encourage the debates, pilots, and experiments in the learning space to focus on opportunities in the gray zone. There is no single right answer yet, no clear path, and there may never be. Most black-and-white thinking advocates for a direction that leaves fewer options open, and that’s risky for the enterprise and society. We need to challenge the zealots who advocate unilaterally for one technology over another, one brand over another, or a single path over another. Not only is the future found in the gray space between black and white, the future is every pattern of plaid and paisley!

The Social Imperative

It’s important to remember that K–12 and public libraries, schools, universities, colleges, and most other government institutions are social institutions. Social institutions have a responsibility to contribute to society through sharing knowledge, research, expertise, and learning. What has happened in the past decade (or less) is that software is no longer about simple “retrieval” or browsing. It has gone exponentially social, and the social acts of teaching, sharing, helping, serving, and more have shown us where our value as librarians and educators truly is. Social software aligns with our expertise in sharing, collaborating, recommending, teaching, and providing access. Any barriers we create in the learning and information ecosystem that put walls around the garden by demanding a certain device, software, or format hurts the emerging ecosystem and could isolate your users and learners from the rest of the world or adapting to future opportunities in a timely fashion.

It’s exciting that this sharing has moved beyond text-based items such as books and articles. And it has moved beyond dissemination into sharing based on recommendations from trusted friends, networks, colleagues, experts, and brands. As we move further in the 21st century, we will see a quite different ecology of learning. Of course, traditional classroom-based, sage-on-the-stage experiences will still exist but will have a smaller footprint and share of the learner space. Indeed the same can be said about print books and textbooks. They’ll still exist in large numbers. However, we are discovering the emerging matrix of containers for pedagogy, and that will include a post-print paradigm for articles, videos, nonfiction books, and textbooks in particular. We’re looking to influence what the mosaic of tools will be that support every learner in their goals. We’re also looking at freeing the user and learner to make those choices, rather than demanding that their peg fit into our choice of hole(s). For educators and librarians, in particular, we must remember that user goals aren’t merely retrieval and that there is a bigger context for discovery, invention, creation, and learning.

It’s Early in ‘the Future’

The success of socially driven sites such as Facebook, visual sites such as Flickr and Pinterest and videos on YouTube or Vimeo, as well as auditory sites such as iTunes shows not just how much the market for content aimed at the widest range of human learning styles is underserved, it also shows us the direction we need to move in—beyond textbooks to a wider range of learning materials. All of the new stuff in audio, streaming, 3D, gamification, and more is exciting, but it’s still very early days.

The future of learning is here; it’s just not mature nor evenly distributed yet. I believe that continuous learning and advanced personal learning management systems will become a predictor of personal and enterprise success. Cengage Learning has invested heavily in building a learning-objects-based learning management experience in our MindTap project. (For a better idea of what MindTap does, check out

That future is even more complicated and unpredictable given the sea changes, quicksand, and sand traps in the social space. Hence, the goals with MindTap are to be as agnostic about browsers (branded or mobile), devices (Macs, PC desktops and laptops), mobile (laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc.), containers (PDF, EPUB, .mobi, Kindle, etc.), or learning management systems (Blackboard/WebCT, D2L, Moodle, Sakai, etc.) as possible. Cengage Learning is demonstrating that, as far as possible, it is unnecessary to throw your hat in with a single choice … that end users should have a range of choices. What counts is sustaining a passion for the transformational power of discovery, research, education, and learning.

To-Do Lists and Strategies for the Future

The implications of these changes are quite different for publishers, vendors, educators, and librarians and yet remain two sides of the same coin. Publishers and librarians must continue to study and invest in end user and learner research. We learn more about this every day, and I make a point of directing everyone to as much research, thought leadership, and opinion as I can on my blog, Stephen’s Lighthouse ( I also write regular columns (such as this one) and book chapters on the topic. Publishers must share more of what we are discovering in our own research and collaborative studies with our clients in education and libraries. I try to do this as well in my keynote speeches around the world. We need to build a culture of collaboration between publishers, vendors, educational institutions, technology firms, and libraries. We’re all in this boat together, and the seas are rough and changeable. None of us can point to the other and say, “Your side of the boat is sinking!”

As for libraries, there are a few strategies that I expand upon in a book coming out in late 2012:

1. Evidence-based reference strategies: Use analytics and evidence to drive strategy aligned with institutional goals.

2. Experience-based portals: The New Commons: Move beyond retrieval and into creating experiences that match the end users’ real goals.

3. Personal service on steroids: Put the librarian’s personal and professional brand into every aspect of the research and learning experience.

4. Quality strategies: Consumer versus professional search—the difference between spam-riddled consumer search and professional databases, and an emphasis on librarians as a key link in the value chain.

5. Social networks and recommendations: Can information professionals add value to personal social networks in context?

6. Trans-literacy strategies: Let’s mark our territory well beyond search skills and into the full spectrum of research, discovery, and learning support.

7. Curriculum and research agenda: Are your library services fully visible at the lesson level of learning? Are you visible with your expertise in the user’s peripheral vision?

8. Service and programs: Are all of your collections and staff aligned with your institution’s programs and courses, or are you a secondary or tertiary destination? Programs rule and destination sites are so 1999.

9. Technology agnosticism: Experiment with all innovations and platforms but keep an open mind. Don’t choose too early.

10. Partner: Build deep relationships throughout your enterprise and community and with your users and learners.

The library and information professional community needs to focus on some key priorities:

1. K–12 librarians and public librarians who support homework help must have a deeper understanding of the Common Core Curriculum and the cycle within it, as well as the competency-based standards that the curriculum supports. Many databases, including Gale’s In Context line, embed most of the curriculum standards and other special tools throughout their products for librarians and teachers alike.

2. The role of the liaison librarian (including those with the range of titles that support information literacy) needs to be expanded, and experiments with embedded librarianship are a good place to start. We need to socially link in-person and virtually with key players in our school districts and markets, and we need to be perceived and accepted on the team as peers.

3. Information literacy training by libraries desperately needs to move to greater scalability and sustainability. We can’t continue not to hit 100% of library users and graduates. Elearning offers one part of the solution, and required elearning courses are a good idea. But they are still not a magic bullet. We need move training into an industrial model that scales, a task that will require a greater level of collaboration beyond our own institutions.

4. Lastly, we need to understand and promote the difference between consumer and professional search. Learners need to graduate with an understanding of what influences consumer search results and how to use professional search for the really important questions they encounter in life and work. We need to align print and electronic collections in the context of the user at the point of need—at the lesson level of the student experience, not at the school, district, or course level alone. We need to support advanced content strategies that integrate social tools and decision-making tools on top of the content.

So, there you have it. Dressing ourselves in black and white alone can be boring. Too much plaid and paisley can overload our senses. We have an opportunity in this early part of the 21st century to invent the future and not just react to it. Maybe we can create the next generation of adults who have the skills and competencies to build our democracy and our economy beyond simplistic, black-and-white solutions and have the courage to investigate the underpinnings of change and progress. Let’s put on our critical thinking caps and do just that!


Contact Stephen at

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