‘The Bomber Mafia,’ Original Audiobooks and Teaching as a Team Sport

An unrelated higher education riff on the new Malcolm Gladwell production.

May 12, 2021

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War by Malcolm Gladwell

Published in April 2021

We -- those of us in higher education -- should be paying attention to The Bomber Mafia. But not for the usual reasons that we pay attention to a new book.

Books matter in higher education. More than any other industry, academia is built on ideas.

Part of the reason that ideas -- and hence books -- matter so much in higher education is that we are both consumers and creators.

Higher education is in the knowledge-making business. We are also in the teaching, learning and credentialing business -- and in some nodes, all those functions come together.

So books matter to higher education. The books we read, the books we discuss, the books we publish and the books we write.

Why The Bomber Mafia matters to higher ed is not the ideas contained within the book, but the format that the book takes.

Yes, the story that Malcolm Gladwell has to tell about the birth of precision (and not-so-precision) bombing in the Second World War is fascinating. No matter how critical you may be of Malcolm Gladwell, and the nonfiction academic popularizing juggernaut that he represents, there is no argument about his skills as a writer.

The Bomber Mafia was first conceived and produced as an audiobook. The print and ebook editions were only put together after the script for the audiobook was completed.

And oh, what an audiobook.

There is a new species of audiobooks in the wild. These are “original” audiobooks. Books that are born audio. Explicitly developed by a team for listening.

An original audiobook is different from an enhanced audiobook. Enhanced audiobooks are print-first. The audio version may have multiple voice actors and sound effects, but it is still at heart a text that is being performed.

Original audiobooks are written and created by a team of creative talent. An original audiobook will have an author, but the author works with a team of collaborators at every step of the process. This team may include producers, researchers, sound engineers, actors, archivists, composers, musicians, fact-checkers and attorneys.

The Bomber Mafia sounds like something different. There are archival clips, interviews, music and sound effects embedded into the reading. The writing complements and enhances the media content.

As one of the world’s most famous nonfiction authors and a longtime podcaster, Gladwell is perfectly optimized to produce original audiobooks. Pushkin, the company he co-founded with Jacob Weisberg, is poised to grow the footprint of original audiobooks.

The Bomber Mafia matters for higher education in what this original audiobook says about the evolution of mediums for ideas.

A book is one medium to disseminate ideas. So is a lecture, a class, a course and a degree.

Education today is, and will be, digitally mediated. More of our teaching and learning is now, and will be, born digital.

The bar for compelling, engaging and immersive educational experiences is getting raised. Increasingly, education will be a team sport. The professor will work with a team one nonfaculty educators, including learning designers, media educators, assessment experts, developers, librarians, accessibility experts and others.

The teams that will create the education of tomorrow will look more and more like the teams creating original audiobooks.

Colleges and universities interested in maintaining their reputations as places where high-quality teaching and learning occur will need to invest in developing teams of nonfaculty educators.

The culture of academia will need to shift so that teaching is less of a single-person craft and more a team exercise.

The status, power and autonomy differences between faculty and nonfaculty educators will need to be eroded.

All educators, faculty and nonfaculty, will need to collaborate on the new higher education.

Want to glimpse the future of teaching and learning? Listen to The Bomber Mafia.

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