Incorporating tech-enabled practices
One of the critical ways college bookstores are building trust with the student community is by using an online price comparison tool part of the bookstore’s website.
“A price comparison tool part of the college bookstore’s website is quickly becoming a critical component, and usually consists of a set of subscription-based apps, or a software, that’s integrated with various e-commerce systems,” said Schlichenmayer. “A product’s identifying information is readily available on the online open market and that’s where the tech gathers information.”
Swarthmore College offers just one example of a price comparison tool via a college bookstore website. The website, which writes on its homepage that its main mission is to benefit the campus community, includes a “Textbook Price Comparison Tool” that includes price information from major online textbook retailers, such as Amazon, Abebooks, and Half.com.
“We strive to get you the lowest price on textbooks. Sometimes, however, another online source can beat our price…let our [tool] do the research for you,” says the tool’s description.
Clicking on the comparison tool, students choose the term, department, course, and then the title/professor of the course.
Randomly selecting a term, subject, course, and title (“Animal Behavior [Baugh],”) the comparison tool shows all books that are required reading for the course. And though Swarthmore’s used version of the required textbook is the cheapest version, new versions of the textbook are cheaper on Abebooks and Alibris than via Swarthmore. The tool also lets students know when the course material will arrive if ordered immediately from the various sites.
“These tools not only help students, it helps faculty,” said Schlichenmayer. “When faculty give bookstores information on their required materials, the bookstore can plug it into the software and see what the price is, as well as comparative shop on similar texts and formats. Bookstores can then give that information to faculty to help them make the most informed choices on their required texts for students, with the goal of ultimately saving students money.
According to the NACS Spring 2015 edition of their twice-yearly survey on student spending, the early-textbook-information practice seems to be working: the average annual spending from surveyed college students on required materials has dropped from $701 in 2007-2008 to $563 in 2014-2015 (down $75 from 2013-2014’s $638 average), with “faculty working with campus stores to source less costly materials in use for multiple semesters” listed as one of the major factors contributing to the student spending decline.
Another way Schlichenmayer says college bookstores’ tech-supported practices help faculty make informed course material decisions is by harnessing the data available via digital and online course materials.
“Most people think when you say ‘digital course materials’ that you mean e-books, but higher education has really leapfrogged to interactive, analytics-based digital materials,” he emphasized. “If a faculty member chooses to use a digital textbook that has the capability to monitor data—such as amount of time used by the student, ideas highlighted and looked-up by the student, proficiency on assessments offered by the textbook, etc.—the bookstore can work with the publisher to have access to that data (organized into broad general trends) and let faculty members know which texts are the most used, which are the hardest to potentially comprehend, which help in succeeding on assessments, and more.”
Schlichenmayer noted, however, that not all faculty may want this data, explaining that first the faculty has to choose an analytics-enabled course material, then the bookstore has to gain access to the data (which may include a fee), and “many faculty may see this process and data aggregation as intrusive for not only their course but for their students.”
(Next page: Better cross-campus partnerships; future possibilities)