New, comprehensive data reveals the inevitability of digital textbooks and course materials; same old issues of quality, cost, and access.

Faculty and students may still prefer print to digital, but spikes in print costs, as well as a demand for personalization, is pushing digital textbooks and course materials to the implementation forefront. But are any faculty really going digital? Which content distributors will thrive? What are the implementation concerns? And when will going digital really happen?

Thanks to two massive surveys and reports by the National Association of College Stores (NACS) and the Independent College Bookstore Association (ICBA) in partnership with the Campus Computing Survey (CCS), faculty and student perspectives on going digital, as well as the trends moving forward into digital textbooks and course materials, are highlighted.

Why the Push?

According to the NACS report, the traditional model of course content creation and distribution (faculty-authored and publisher-produced textbooks) is being challenged, thanks to new digital players and learning content formats, such as: open courseware, open educational resources (OER), and adaptive/personalized learning—all of which promise lower costs and better outcomes.

The ICBA and CCS report notes that, indeed, quality and cost of course materials for students emerge as the key factors that drive the decisions of college faculty about textbooks and other course materials. Key findings from a fall 2015/winter 2016 survey of 2,902 college and university faculty at 29 two- and four-year institutions found that 97 percent of faculty surveyed report their own assessment of quality as the top factor in their selection of course materials. Ranked second was the cost of course materials for students.

Outside of the two major issues of costs to students and increased accountability through built-in analytics and options for personalization, other forces are contributing to the push, explains the NACS report; for example, as more students move to online courses, more students source their learning content online and in digital form. Also, student rentals, and borrowing, of new and used books in on the rise, as well as the use of legal (and illegal) download websites.

“[Also,] Amazon has entered the college learning content ecosystem with its Amazon Campus Program,” notes the report. “Its scale, brand power, and technology leadership is a game changer.”

Why the Pushback?

Though the faculty surveyed in the ICBA and CCS report note that quality is their utmost concern when choosing textbooks and course materials, and NACS states that personalization and analytics functions within digital are largely considered features in digital textbooks, less than half (45 percent) of the faculty surveyed in the ICBA and CCS report agreed/strongly agreed that digital course materials provide significant added value content not available in print.

(Next page: Digital textbook push back; plans moving forward)

Also, only 44 percent said they would be more likely to use digital textbooks and course materials if they offered analytics and reports on class performance; only 35 percent said that digital course materials provide a more effective learning experience than print; and only 27 percent said that digital course materials have a beneficial impact on student learning compared to print.

And though NACS “expects a growing shift towards digital in the next 3-to-5 years,” thanks to data collected from its latest Student Watch survey from Spring 2015 that showed the use of digital course materials slowly but steadily climbing in use by about 3 percent during the 2014-15 academic year, ICBA and CCS say the shift to digital will be a very slow process.

Asked when they thought the majority of their course materials would be primarily digital, almost 25 percent of faculty surveyed indicated “never,” while 17 percent said by Fall 2020, and 9 percent by Fall 2022. Yet, in contrast, 16 percent of faculty surveyed said that a majority of their current course materials were digital as of Fall 2015, and 34 percent anticipated primarily digital course materials by Fall 2018.

“While the transition from print to digital course materials may be inevitable,” stated Fred Weber, CEO of ICBA, “these new data make two things clear. First is that the pace of change is much slower than anticipated by publishers, administrators, digital advocates, and campus IT professionals. And second, most faculty are not convinced that digital products have a positive impact on student learning outcomes.”

Another problem is the issue of access, explained Casey Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project and the conductor of the ICBA survey. “The survey data reveal a core conundrum regarding cost and access to digital course materials, and especially OER materials. Faculty overwhelmingly report that a major benefit of going digital is the lower cost of course materials. Yet, many faculty, especially in community colleges, also report that their students don’t own the tech platforms required to access digital content. Consequently, many of the students who might benefit most from lower-cost digital and OER course materials are not able to do so.

Mentioning OER, the ICBA and CCS report also reveals that 39 percent of faculty surveyed said they’d never heard of OER, while 36 percent indicated that they knew little about OER but had not used or reviewed OER materials. Only 11 percent were currently using OER in their classes, and only 4 percent were using OER in their own classes and also making their own course materials available. [Read: “3 legitimate reasons why faculty aren’t using OER.”]

Faculty surveyed said that quality and cost were again the two top factors in their consideration of OER adoption; and perhaps because most had little exposure to OER, faculty said they expect the movement to primarily OER materials in their courses to be slower than digital.

(Next page: Crafting an implementation plan; where to go for guidance)

Critical Considerations for Implementation

According to NACS, “every institution will need to consider a multidimensional and boundary-spanning learning content strategy if the transition to digital learning content and courseware is to proceed smoothly.

An all-campus plan is critical, states the report, as failure to do so could fragment the student experience as content varies from course to course, and as untested courseware and services are adopted and discarded. It’s also critical because, unmanaged, students may become frustrated with the gap between digital courseware’s capabilities and the faculty’s use (or non-use) of it.

Other key considerations include:

  • Shifting to digital/OER will also affect academic policy, technology, student privacy, pedagogy, instructional costs, course materials accessibility, incentives, revenue management, and more.
  • Developing an effective all-campus policy and strategy should begin as soon as possible and include all relevant campus stakeholders and service providers.
  • Carefully evaluating models for delivery of course materials, as well as formats.
  • Knowing copyright, fair use, and licensed content for compliance.
  • Knowing the implications for control of offerings, pricing, revenues, and service levels compared to the economies of scale and expanded options for students when using third-party solutions.
  • Understanding, and helping student’s understand their ability to use financial aid to purchase their course materials.

Seek Out the Campus Bookstore

ICBA and CCS’ survey reveals that 72 percent of faculty participants agree/strongly agree that the campus bookstore is a trustworthy and objective source for information about course materials; and 59 percent report that their campus bookstore can play an important role helping faculty select and effectively use digital curricular course materials.

That’s a sentiment strongly mirrored in the NACS report, which emphasizes that campus bookstores acting as an institutional aggregator can offer the “smartest and most effective student success support services [to] win hearts and minds.”

“As the course materials and retailing experts on campus, the professionals who manage the institution’s store should play a key role in making decisions about course materials and related services supporting student success in the future,” it states.

Moving forward, NACS believes that quality, large digital distributors are ones that harness their ability to scale to negotiate favorable pricing. Quality, small digital distributors will use customer, campus, and industry knowledge to better serve students; for example, by implementing a “concierge service (online or in-person) to guide students through the content options universe and match course materials to their profiles/needs.”

But this level of customization offered by smaller digital distributors should occur on campus, too, explains NACS, as an emerging student learning and success services market becomes essential for success.

“Campuses could create a one-stop physical and virtual environment [i.e. a campus bookstore] that aligns providers of instruction and services—library, dean of students, academic advising and related student services, residential life, tutoring, career counseling, and placement…this could be a differentiator for institutions in the future.”

For much more detailed information from the NACS report, read “Mapping the Learning Content Ecosystem: An inquiry into the disruption, evolution, and transformation of the learning content ecosystem.

For more detailed information from the ICBA and CCS report, read “Going Digital: Faculty Perspectives on Digital and OER Course Materials.

Read more about the evolution of the college bookstore here.

Add your opinion to the discussion.