The COVID-19 pandemic may be remembered as a breakthrough moment for the acceptance of digital course materials. A new survey shows that the share of faculty members who agreed that “students learn better from print materials than they do from digital” has fallen to 33 percent, down from 43 percent just two years ago.
Indeed, as college campuses closed across the country and learning went remote, the use of online textbooks and other technologies sharply rose, while the use of traditional print textbooks decreased. By the fall of 2020, spending on digital course materials had risen by 23 percent.
Even so, the adoption of digital course materials — and faculty views around their impact — remains mixed. While the shift in recent years has been significant, the fact remains that many faculty still harbor doubts about digital materials, only turning to them out of necessity as the pandemic prevented students from seeking out and purchasing print materials.
Growing awareness around digital options isn’t always translating to wider adoption. According to the National Association of College Stores, digital usage on college campuses may be returning to pre-pandemic levels. Awareness of open educational resources (OER), for example, has dramatically increased over the last two years, with more than 90 percent of faculty having at least heard of OER. Usage, however, has remained flat.
At a time when more students than ever before are studying online or using digital resources for instruction, this is the moment when faculty have the opportunity to reconsider some of their assumptions.
On the most basic level, the accessibility and lower cost of digital textbooks mean more students can have access to required reading materials on the first day of class. This is critical when 65 percent of students are not buying textbooks because of their cost, even when 90 percent report that doing so negatively affects their grades. In one survey, 43 percent of students said they have skipped meals so they can afford to pay for textbooks, and nearly 70 percent said they work during the school year to help pay for the books. No student should be forced to choose between eating and learning. Low-cost course materials can ease that burden and help ensure students are ready to learn on day one.
But the power of teaching with digital resources goes beyond their affordability or use as a handy alternative to be used when print textbooks are difficult to come by. Digital course materials are in and of themselves an increasingly important way of improving learning and retention. They allow us to meet learners where they are today: on the devices on which they spend much of their lives.
To their detriment, earlier digital textbooks attempted to simply recreate the experience of print learning materials. Today’s digital textbooks, however, foreground the features that most engage students. Many of the usability issues students and faculty were worried about a decade ago have also been improved upon. Students can instantly search for keywords and concepts. They can easily highlight important passages and take in-depth and interactive notes. Images and text are flowable — meaning they can be resized and read on a large number of devices — and imbued with text-to-speech capabilities, addressing accessibility needs for a wide range of learners.
Digital materials also provide faculty with far greater insights into how their students learn. The analytics from digital textbooks allow faculty to have better visibility into student engagement, which means they can intervene in real time and respond to students’ struggles earlier and with a deeper understanding of where the difficulties lie. Rather than as a mere alternative for physical texts, faculty may begin to view them as an extension of their own teaching practice — as digital assistants that can help and guide students and make the experience of learning more engaging and interactive.
Digital course materials have come a long way from what many still envision. They are more interactive, responsive, and loaded with features to help both students and instructors. Indeed, research is starting to show that student engagement increases and course success rates increase, especially among historically underserved populations, when they use digital learning materials.
Despite the fact that the adoption of digital course materials is accelerating, higher education appears to still be just scratching the surface in terms of achieving the materials’ full potential. The ubiquity of digital content and resources is changing the way we think about access to information and the retention of knowledge. To be sure, many key questions remain to be answered as we balance the increased use of digital resources with live instruction, hard-copy resources, project-based learning, and assessments, but long-standing apprehensions should not outweigh the need for exploration and innovation.
Far too many learners who could benefit from digital materials are missing out. We cannot allow the increase in adoption during the pandemic to become a footnote in the story of digital course materials. Faculty have the opportunity to open their minds to the possibilities of these powerful learning tools — and to encourage their students to do the same.
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