Chief judge Professor Mike Horsley reflects on 21 years of the EPAAs

On the eve of the twenty-first anniversary celebrations of the Educational Publishing Awards, co-founder and chief judge Professor Mike Horsley reflects on the importance and influence of the awards and the evolution of educational publishing. Mike is currently Director of the Learning and Teaching Education Research Centre at CQ University.

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Professor Mike Horsley at the 2013 EPAAs

What was the original vision for the awards?

Primarily we wanted to celebrate innovation. Innovative publications often hit the market but it can take a long time for what made them innovative to make an impact, and then gradually that innovation becomes standard practice. In addition, I’ve been researching teaching and learning materials for many years and wanted to infuse educational publishing with research.

Of course, over the years the categories have changed and who judges has changed, but by and large the idea of the awards celebrating educational publishing, trying to reward the good work that publishers do, and promoting innovation – all these aims still exist today.

The criteria for shortlisting and awarding category winners has changed a lot. Innovation is still there but it now reflects the complicated nature of today’s business, which is much more nuanced and sophisticated. Publications do many more things now than they did in 1993.

So the original vision is still there. I do this for nothing, and I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t personally believe that educational publishing was a critical aspect of the education system. As a result we should be awarding it greater recognition.

How did the awards get started?

I started the awards with Sue Donovan, who was the head of the APA schools committee in 1993. The genesis was some research being conducted by Kevin Laws, which I was involved in. The partnership with the APA stemmed from this original research project where we were asking schools about textbooks and the decision-making process behind the purchase of teaching and learning materials. Sue and I thought that we should be celebrating and promoting the innovation we saw in publishing, and that’s where the awards were conceived. So it all came from partnership and research.

Did you expect the awards to continue for 21 years?

No! If you think of all the changes in the industry, and the fact that all these changes come along so regularly, I never thought for a moment that 21 years later we would still be doing this. But on the other hand, celebrating educational publishing is a pretty important priority for me, so I’m glad we’re still going.

Can you recall one of the first winners?

The Publication of the Year in 1994 was a Primary title, Maths of Many Cultures by Calvin Irons, published by Mimosa Publications. It was a very innovative way of trying to embed cultural knowledge and skills into the teaching of a mainstream subject.

What have you observed about how the awards have impacted publishing?

Our original vision was that the awards would promote innovation, but in the longer term what they have actually done is set some sort of benchmark for standards. What’s aided this development is that since 2003 we have had peer judging. Most judges will say they’ve learned a lot – they’ve looked at the whole corpus of material from publishers, and they’ve taken time to sit down and unpack what other publishers and authors have been doing. So I think the standards component has accelerated in the last ten years over the first ten years.

What makes a good EPAAs judge?

My observation over the years has been that the judges are incredibly diligent. They go out of their way to look through all the material at a high level. They’re very skilled because they’re educational publishers themselves – they know how to divide material and chunk it up, what the best way of getting a message across is, how to come up with interesting activities or encourage authors to do so – they bring all this experience to the judging.

Also, all the judges over the years have been truly professional and ethical. I’ve often seen judges voting against their own products and put forward a competitive product to win because they believe that’s best. That’s been a pretty common theme in many panels. The other surprising thing to me is that judges have always been mainly interested in how students would use the material – how it would actually be used in the classroom, which is very outward looking.

What challenges do judges face?

I always speak about this when I brief the judges. There’s a danger that they will be too hard on their own material, or too soft. You have to be able to look at publications you may have had involvement in objectively and with balance. Initially it can be a problem, but with a few years of judging people seem to do it very well. Of course we have processes that get around it too – people must disclose what involvement they’ve had with products and we get independent views sometimes depending on the circumstances.

You’ve been chief judge since the awards’ inception. What are your key responsibilities?

My critical responsibilities are to be independent, and to interact with the APA in such a way that the awards maintain the promotion of innovation and the sense of celebration. I also ensure the validity and reliability of the awards process.

Another important responsibility is to be cool. Often people can get very emotional about an educational publication that they have poured their heart and soul into, or that is critically important for them in their work. I maintain a perspective on the awards as celebrating the entire industry and the people within it. I pride myself as a judge on being cool and following due process.

Have you ever had to step in as chief judge?

Quite a few times panels have been completely divided and haven’t been able to negotiate a way forward. That’s when I step in and provide an argument for one choice or another. Normally I have a pretty good idea of all the entries and share my view of the quality. Generally that resolves the situation, but my responsibility as chief judge means that I reserve the right to make a final decision, especially when there’s a lack of clarity or inability to move forward otherwise.

What does being the chief judge mean to you after 21 years?

Commercially-produced teaching and learning materials are incredibly important, and even more important for teacher planning, so I believe if I’ve had any impact on improving materials that have been produced then I have indirectly helped students achieve and learn, and teachers plan. That’s one of the reasons I do this. I also have a long term interest in research in teaching and learning materials – I’m president of the international research association in this area; I’ve been involved in development of textbooks in many countries; I’ve provided advice to governments and ministries. So the awards are part of a package of trying to improve teaching and learning materials so that the students learn more and teachers plan better.

What do you see for the future for the awards?

All these things evolve. The first time the awards were run it was a very in-house affair with APA people. I’m not even sure we had a PowerPoint! From that to the slick modern production we have now where publishers have really taken control of it – I think it’s a pretty powerful academy awards for educational publishing. Obviously there’ll be changes in the operations of publishing houses and the way we reach out to the educational community, and that’s our greatest need: to get more awareness in the education community about the part that publishers play.

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About Mike

As well as being Director of the LTERC, Mike is head of Campus Noosa, where he manages the Eye Tracking Laboratory. He is also currently the Quality Learning Specialist in the Australian aid-funded Access to Quality Learning Program (AQEP) in Fiji.

Starting his career as a secondary school teacher, Mike became president of the Economics and Business Studies Teachers of NSW, and went on to become deputy director of a UNESCO/UNDP/IOE regional vocational education curriculum project in the 11 countries of the South Pacific. With Ni-Vanuatu partners he established a new business school in Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu and has been a long time resident of Samoa and Fiji. Between 1991-2001 he was the director of the Diploma in Education at the University of Sydney, and subsequently became foundation director of the Master of Teaching; the world’s first case based teacher education program. This led to appointments on Board of Studies Curriculum Committees and to the Review of Teacher Education in NSW, which prepared the path for the NSW Institute of Teachers.

For almost 10 years Mike conducted learning and homework centres for Sydney’s Islander (Samoan, Tongan, Fijian) communities. He is a world authority on homework research and in 2012 Reforming Homework, jointly authored by Richard Walker from the University of Sydney, was published by Palgrave Macmillan.

 Mike is currently the President of the International Association for Research on Textbooks and Educational Media (IARTEM), and is the lead editor of the IARTEM eJournal.

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