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8 Questions for Kirsten Campbell-Howes [Interview]

Kirsten Campbell-Howes
 
Kirsten Campbell-Howes has over ten years experience in bringing e-learning materials from concept through to production. She has been described as having a ‘rare combination of industriousness, creativity, passion, generosity, honesty, humor, and self-awareness’. We want to know more…
 
 
 
You are well placed to bridge the gap between educational technology and traditional publishing. How can they work better together?
 
 
This is a question I ask myself all the time and I don’t believe there’s one simple answer. In some respects I think the distinction between the two will eventually blur, until traditional educational publishers are simply publishers of educational products (in whatever form). But for now, they still make uneasy bedfellows, especially because so many people at a senior level in traditional publishing houses are firmly wedded to print.

They could work better together by talking to each other more, which fortunately is starting to happen. In my educational games meetup group I meet a lot of people with good ideas and prototypes for educational products who would really benefit from the resources a traditional publisher can provide. But I also think there’s a strong movement towards self-publishing or finding new routes to market that bypass traditional publishing. Khan Academy is probably one of the best recent examples of this.

 

What would you advise publishing companies to do in order to keep ahead of the game?

Come to one of my meetups and talk to people! On the other hand, I think there’s actually a benefit to the larger publishers from staying quite firmly behind the game. If you run a large publishing house and need to keep your employees’ pension pot secure, being on the bleeding edge of ed tech is pretty risky. I think companies like Pearson are handling this well through acquisitions, because I think they realise that innovation is best done by the smaller players with less to lose. However, I really believe that all the big publishing companies need to embrace multi-disciplinary teams. Innovation in startups happens because the designers, writers, developers, marketers and managers all talk to each other every day. If you silo these people into separate teams on different floors your business will stagnate.

I’d also very much like to see some of my peers in publishing set up new, more nimble publishing houses or even incubator funds specifically for educational products. Another option is for the larger publishers to invest more in R&D, but that’s hard when margins are tightening. One thing I know for sure – there are tonnes of great ideas out there which no one is capitalising on, and that’s a real shame. Meanwhile some really awful products *are* getting investment. There’s lots of room for improvement.

 

You’re writing a text book for Harper Collins, are we allowed to know more…?

Yes, despite being very much immersed in digital publishing I’ve just signed my first proper book contract and admit to finding it quite thrilling. I’m co-writing a book on Writing Skills as part of the new Collins English for Life series, with a great author called Clare Dignall (who’s just been working on a book with Lynne Truss). We’ve gone for a very punchy, modern twist on the traditional ELT skills book – there’s even a chapter on how to write for Twitter!

 

So your new project, the London Educational Games Meetup seems to be going well. What has been happening at these events? Why should we come?

It’s a group for games makers and other people in the ed tech arena to come and talk about what they do, meet people to bounce ideas off of and potentially collaborate with. For example, a new member recently asked the group for help designing an app to raise awareness about the disappearing trees in Elephant and Castle. She left with lots of great ideas and offers for help. We’ve had presentations on topics as diverse as an alternate reality game about love, a location-based game for training firefighters in Southern Australia, and the UK Parliament’s MyUK game, where you can be Prime Minister for the day.

Rather than bigging it up myself I’ll share a review one of the members wrote on our site, which I think sums it up very well: “The London Educational Games Meetup Group consists of many smart, cool and very supportive people who want to exchange their ideas about education, games, business, philosophy and life…. Intellectually stimulating crowd!”

The next meetup is on November 16th in London. Anyone who’d like to come along can join up here.

 

What’s your biggest achievement?

Work-wise – that would have to be Our Discovery Island, the digital component of Pearson’s new global ELT series, which I co-wrote with a brilliant games designer called Rob Stringer. It’s a six-level online immersive world for kids to explore and which reinforces the vocabulary and grammar they learn in class. Kids we tested it with didn’t realise they were studying English – they just had fun playing the missions and talking to the characters. Our brief was to keep it light and fun, but I made it my personal mission to make it as educationally robust as possible, and I like to think we achieved both successfully. It was released last month, so we’ll soon find out.

Personally, I’m pretty proud of what the Educational Games Meetup is achieving, and I’m hoping to keep that going and develop it more.

 

Where would you like to be in 5 years time?

Helping my partner’s kids through their exams, possibly moving out of London to a house near the sea in Hastings, still writing great products for the ELT market, still organising events and encouraging collaboration. I have some more specific plans, but I’ll keep them under wraps for now 😉

 

Who do you most admire?

In publishing I admire Marjorie Scardino for the way she’s lead Pearson through the financial crisis and made it such a key player across the board in education. I also think Jamie Byng at Canongate is a model for all aspiring publishers – he’s someone who takes risks and succeeds at it.

In general there are loads of people I admire at the moment – especially those who use their spare time and energy to create new and interesting things or run exciting events: BookMachine is one example, then there are the folk behind Learning Without Frontiers, Culture Hack Day, Coding for kids… Too many people and organisations to mention!

 

What has Twitter done for you?

I don’t think I could do anything these days without Twitter. It’s how I find work, friends, collaborators – I even met my partner on Twitter. Certainly I would be pretty clueless about what was going on in teaching, ed tech and publishing if I didn’t spend as much time as I do on Twitter.


Laura Summers

Laura Summers

Co-founder of @bookmachine - the network for forward-thinking #publishing folks; and BookMachine Works - the fresh new creative agency for publishers

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