Opening Up: Pearson's Paul Belfanti Promotes Collaboration on Open Standards in Education Publishing
Sample of Pearson's digital content which is delivered through PXE/EDUPUB-based content platforms.
Paul Belfanti is the director of content architecture at Pearson. In practical terms, that means Belfanti and his team are charged with identifying industry standards for such things as content mark-up, (XML, HTML), metadata, accessibility and file construction. But the effect of this kind of work on the industry at large could be tremendous.
Belfanti is helping to lead the charge to bring greater adoption of open standards to the education publishing industry. He says it is a “rising tide moment” for stakeholders to pursue collaboration on standards to the benefit of all.
To this end, Pearson co-hosted the EDUPUB workshop with the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) on October 29-30 in Boston. The workshop brought together major players in the global education publishing market to advance the use of digital learning materials through open industry standards, whether it be for HTML5, EPUB 3 or metadata.
Belfanti co-chaired EDUPUB with Markus Gylling, CTO of IDPF, and the event drew over 100 participants. The workshop resulted in the identification of key priorities for the coalescing EDUPUB community to address and group projects that will be tackled in the coming year. Teams will be challenged to rapidly develop recommendations that will be delivered at the second EDUPUB workshop February 12-13 in Salt Lake City. To follow the progress of EDUPUB, search #edupub2014 on Twitter.
What is Pearson’s approach to pursuing common standards within the industry?
Rather than defining standards independently, our strategy is to identify existing industry standards, make commitments to them, and implement them as standards within Pearson with the understanding they may have to be modified or extended to fit our needs. Also, we’re committed to working to improve those standards from a broader industry perspective.
Has the approach of Pearson always been to pursue open standards?
Not necessarily. It’s something we’ve evolved toward. I think there was a time not long ago where the notion of having to be fully aligned with industry standards would not have been the prevailing wisdom. But really that’s because in terms of putting our content and products into the market, there was less interdependence then. There really wasn’t a need because the distribution format—print and PDF—just didn’t require the same level of interoperability with external systems.
What’s the end goal of
establishing common industry standards?
With the advent of much more digitally delivered content you see a much bigger need and opportunity to be able to get to market faster, to reduce overhead by aligning with those industry standards. We feel that it’s kind of a “rising tide moment” where if the key stakeholders in our industry can make a commitment around existing standards, we’ve got a real opportunity to reduce overhead, allow folks to be more innovative and get to market faster.
What’s Pearson’s involvement with EDUPUB workshop?
One of the things Pearson is doing in conjunction with the EDUPUB workshop is to release an EPUB 3 output profile aligned specifically to education content distribution. By doing so we’re hoping to get other publishers and channel distributors like Barnes & Noble and Amazon onboard. If everyone can align on a common file format for EPUB 3, then there’s a real opportunity to reduce a lot of unnecessary overhead.
Right now, even though EPUB 3 is an established standard, there are different flavors of it. You still have publishers producing as many as nine different versions of the same product because of the nuances in the different platforms, devices and ebook readers. There’s no competitive advantage to a file format. EPUB 3 is a packaging specification, so it’s not like we’re sharing our secret sauce.
You also have this kind of standoff going on. The publishers aren’t creating a lot of content using EPUB 3 because they’re not seeing support on the device and platform end. Conversely the software developers and the platform developers are saying, “Why should we make investments in developing support for these standards when nobody is producing content for it?” That’s the logjam we’re trying to break through.
What are the next steps for industry collaboration?
When it comes to standards, it’s a living, breathing thing. A lot of these standards are relatively new. They’re going to continue to evolve. The technology is going to continue to evolve. The demands of the marketplace are going to continue to evolve. This isn’t a one-and-done, get a couple nice headline type of agreements, pat ourselves on the back and say our work here is done scenario. This is going to be an ongoing commitment.
Is discoverability of content through metadata a new priority in education publishing?
I don’t think it’s a new priority—I think it’s something that’s gaining greater attention because people are realizing the value of it. We’ve had content management systems for a number of years, but they’ve been built and designed mainly from the perspective of somebody who is starting the next edition of a product and just wants more efficient access to the previous edition. And that’s evolved to where we’re thinking, “Hey, Pearson is a global company, we have a lot of very valuable assets, but we have a tendency to recreate the same things over and over because it’s less expensive to create it new than to find where it is.”
Obviously the industry is in a state of flux. What’s your perspective on how digital has disrupted the business?
I started on the design side back in the day when we were just starting to transition to desktop publishing. It seemed like a pretty dramatic change, but as I was new to the industry, I wasn’t feeling the shift from the old to the new as much as others. And there have been other points over the last 20 years or so where you felt like there were some really significant changes going on, but they were happening essentially within the same product model. It didn’t have the same feel as what we’re looking at today. Now we’re experiencing changes in user behavior, the disruption of the core business model that has been in place for many years, coupled with the opportunities that new technologies bring.
What are the big opportunities?
There’s kind of the Holy Grail of content that is interactive and adaptive where the student is engaging with that content and being assessed in a fluid manner. As you’re engaging with the content it’s also measuring your responses and adapting the content itself. There are so many more possibilities to customizing the experience to the individual needs of the various learners. It’s definitely challenging and disruptive and there’s going to be casualties, and there’s a lot of stress and anxiety that goes along with that, but there are also some clear and exciting opportunities. And I think everybody is feeling that in our industry—that mix of anxiety and excitement about the possibilities for those that get it right.
How does your work contribute to the adaptive future of publishing?
What I like to say is the work my team does really represents the DNA of everything that comes after that. So we’re laying the core foundational elements that allow for discoverability and semantically identifying the content in a way that is presentation neutral. That way you can develop a single-source content file that contains information for all the different kinds of permutations that content might be presented in.
What do you see as the next big step for educational publishing?
One of the biggest challenges for our industry is that right now a lot of the digital products are really taking content that was designed to be a printed textbook and digitizing it—swapping out videos for static images, etc.—but within that traditional textbook format. That’s not bad but it doesn’t really harness the power of these new media. To get to that we really need to rethink the content from the beginning and we need to rethink what design means.
What do you mean by rethinking what design means?
We’ve had the principle digital distribution format being PDF or even Flash or Flex-based—those are still page fidelity models. As you get into formats where content is adapted for tablets, for smart devices, you lose a certain amount of control of presentation. Your design has to be very cognizant of that so the experience is a positive one in a number of different formats. That’s a dramatically different way of thinking. A good example is the two-page spread: that doesn’t really have relevance anymore when you’re thinking about content going onto a tablet or smartphone.
I entered the industry from the design side and before that I was a fine artist, so I have a high degree of appreciation and respect for what designers do. But a lot of our conventions in textbook design are things that have evolved because desktop publishing allowed certain things that weren’t possible before. So there are [design elements] that are aesthetically pleasing but not essential to the pedagogical needs of the product. When you remove the limitations of ink on paper it opens up a lot of possibilities, but it also presents a number of trade-offs. Like you can’t control end-user experience in the way that you used to and you have to think of your designs based on what’s going to be the best overall experience.
Related story: EDUPUB: Getting It Together for Digital Education