6 steps to successfully break the print textbook model

Why we can’t answer 21st century demands to adopt new, affordable types of course content with an outdated 20th century model for buying print textbooks.

The higher education course content market is in chaos. Print textbook prices continue to soar, up 73 percent in the past 10 years, more than 4 times the rate of inflation, according to US PIRG report. Students are delaying or worse, not buying course materials because they aren’t affordable, according to a recent survey. And while faculty are slowly starting to embrace low-cost or free textbook alternatives, namely Open Educational Resources [OER], their awareness levels remain in the basement, according to a new Babson Research survey.

Meantime, two- and four-year public institutions’ online and physical bookstores continue to issue RFPs with recurring themes and required elements:

  • Support the institution’s mission by providing necessary textbooks and related course materials to students at the lowest possible cost
  • Offer used and rental textbooks, “cost-saving solutions”
  • Return commission revenues to the institution to support campus programs

Therein lies the rub: we can’t answer  21st century demands to adopt new, affordable  types of course content with an outdated 20th century model for buying  textbooks.

Looking to the Uber Model

The industry is on the cusp of change. Emerging content formats—adaptive course content, e-texts with reader analytics, virtual science kits—can more deeply align and integrate with the learning experience and cost less than traditional textbooks. In tandem with this shift, new technology is also opening a digital opportunity to reinvent how we select, purchase and distribute course materials.

Change can be daunting, but it often creates more efficient and effective ways of doing things. Think Uber:  it ushered in a new model for the taxi industry.  Tap a button on your mobile phone, the car comes to you, the driver has directions on a GPS, you know your ETA, a record of your trips is readily available and no money changes hands.  The experience is faster, better, and often more economical than traditional cabs.

The same can be done for course content selection and acquisition; our industry has the opportunity to reinvent the process and cross the digital divide.  Together, we can create a model that utilizes a more holistic, strategic approach where all campus stakeholders benefit and course materials are aligned with the institutional mission of teaching and learning.

(Next page: 6 steps to successfully break the print textbook model)

Key Elements in Transitioning to a New Strategic Content Model

A key lever that opens the door to change comes courtesy of the new U.S. Department of Education regulations that took effect in July 2016, embracing “Inclusive Access” to course materials.  It allows institutions to include the cost of course materials in a fee or tuition and charge students’ Bursar accounts based on easily met criteria. In this new all-inclusive model, every student receives course materials on or before their first day of class and publishers often provide aggressive discounts in exchange for volume. The best prices typically accompany a transition away from hard copy to digital course materials. In this new all-in model, institutions regain control of course content distribution and dramatically reduce the cost of course materials and support their student success missions.

Institutions can take advantage of this new opportunity to reduce costs, but they will need to do so while undergoing an operational shift.  It requires effective change management to support students, faculty and administrators through a successful switchover.

Before making the move, institutions should consider some key elements in transitioning to a new strategic content model, including:

1. Decide where responsibility for this new enterprise initiative to introduce digital course materials should reside: with Academics, Administration or Technology.

2. Embrace incremental change using a subset of the campus. It’s a big transition, so work out the hitches with a manageable portion of the campus. Choose a specific student population such as incoming freshmen or a particular online program. This means integrating with your Student Information System to automatically identify specific cohorts, charge Bursar accounts and apply financial aid, when applicable.

3. Train and over-communicate—these are key factors that keep people informed and make them feel comfortable and supported throughout the transition. Be sure expectations are clear and benefits and successes are shared. Some public institutions have greater success providing early adopter faculty members a stipend or free tablet as an incentive adopt digital course materials for their courses.

4. Understand that learning materials will evolve from print to digital resulting in lower prices, personalization and easier distribution. This also ushers in new vehicles for distributing materials — integration with campus portals or learning management systems. These integrations will allow students and faculty to access materials with a single sign-on and avoid managing and entering access codes.

5. Preserve academic freedom by either incorporating your current book list in a digital format or supporting faculty in their discovery and selection of Open Resources or Library materials you already own.

6. Provide students and faculty choices during transition by offering the option of a low-cost print companion for those reluctant to immediately embrace digital.

Don’t Forget the Bookstore

The last piece of the chaos puzzle is lost bookstore commission revenues, which often pay for programs that benefit students, and can also be re-conceived under a new content strategy model.  If institutions can regain control of content distribution—student sales, posting to Bursar accounts, student opt-out, managing suppliers, student cohorts, the institution may receive more revenue while students pay less.  A win-win.

Imagine the benefits all parties would reap if we took a more holistic and strategic approach to course content — one that is aligned with the promise and reality of a digital campus. Tackling this issue and guiding institutions to stop the content chaos and transition to a 21st century model has been my passion and mission for the past 15 years.  With financial pressures facing every stakeholder in the higher education ecosystem, there has never been a more important time to deliver a superior learning experience while concurrently introducing operational efficiencies and an up-to-date, cost-effective course materials strategy.

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