ELT Publishing: The Competitive Edge of Going Digital

Interactive white boards, virtual courses and cloud-based class management systems would suggest that the education industry is ahead in the digital game. That is why the inertia of physical textbooks surprises us. The concept of students carrying around 50 pounds worth of books that wear and tear seems archaic, especially since most editions become outdated in just a few years. Why, we ask, are they not on computers, tablets and smartphones yet?

The case for digital textbooks is not merely a matter of convenience—in English Language Teaching (ELT) publishing, in particular, I would argue that interactive ebooks are the most powerful but underutilized teaching tool.

Consider the scale of English language learning. According to “English Next,” a study commissioned by the British Council, the number of English learners will likely peak at 2 billion people within the next five to ten years—indeed, it may have already reached this level. As entrepreneur Jay Walker argued in his TED talk, “The world’s English mania,” China will soon be the largest English-speaking country.

Trying to supply 2 billion learners with paper materials is costly and wasteful, and trying to deliver written, visual, audio and video content in four separate mediums is unwieldy. This is what makes language learning different from virtually any other academic subject—students have be to immersed, not just taught. And publishers are faced with the task of providing this experience in more than 190 different countries.

By going digital, ELT publishers gain the ability to revamp their value proposition. Digital textbooks will allow them to deliver better content, in more markets and outside of entrenched distribution channels that lower margins for publishers and raise costs for students and teachers.

Digital unifies and improves content

ELT courses teach students to give and receive—fluency is only achieved when students can speak and write as well as they can listen and read. To practice these skills, students need access to texts, imagery, sound clips and videos (not to mention language partners). Typically, this requires teachers and students to deal with multiple texts, visual aids, CDs, DVDs and streamed content. Switching between mediums and supplying everyone with these tools is inefficient and often unmanageable.

Digital textbooks not only combine these mediums into one mobile experience, but also weave them into a coherent narrative. Reading, writing, listening, speaking and seeing become unified rather than disjointed and accessible rather than inconvenient. ELT content improves and so does the learning experience.

Turkey to Taiwan: Meet the Cross-Cultural Challenge

Talk to any English teacher who has taught in more than one country, and he or she will tell you how much English learning varies across cultural contexts. Therefore, the teaching materials must vary as well, and ELT publishers are used to publishing for different markets. A textbook for the Middle East will differ from one designed for Japan or South Korea.

However, variations in the adoption of digital technology add another layer to cultural differences. While iOS and Android are neck-and-neck in the US, Symbian has a strong lead in China, India and Brazil, while South Korea is overwhelmingly on Android devices, according to an infographic from iCrossing. ELT publishers need deliver to different operating systems and devices in order to meet the global diversification of digital technology. By doing so, they gain an opportunity to reach and lock in a growing number of markets that dismissing printed material.


Native English speakers are now outnumbered by nearly 2 billion English-language learners who see this second tongue as a key to education, job opportunities and a modern consumer lifestyle. ELT publishers stand to deliver more effective content to more teachers and learners in more countries at a significantly higher profit margin by embracing the digital revolution.

We do not need an interactive whiteboard presentation or virtual course to see the logic of going digital. ELT publishers already create materials for one of the world’s most high demand subjects. They will, however, need the value proposition of digital content to retain a competitive advantage in their current markets and expand to new ones.

1 reply

  1. I am afraid the answer is obvious. Textbooks are huge moneyspinners, especially if they are adopted as standard texts for a particular course. I know a text-book writer who had to retire to the Channel Islands to escape UK taxes because he had made so much money. If they were digitised everyone could simply take a copy for free (even if the original digital copy were protected in some way, there is always a way around the protection).

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