Should College Bookstores Sell Books?

You may have seen the recent post on the Akademos blog summarizing outcomes from our survey of college and university CFOs about textbook trends and bookstore services practices. Many of our findings were not a surprise—such as the idea that students are leaving the college bookstore to shop at third-party retailers because of perceived better pricing. Others were a bit confounding—like the desire to offer students lower-cost textbooks, while simultaneously hesitating to sell textbooks from anywhere but brick-and-mortar college bookstores.

As college administrators search for the right direction regarding bookstore operations, I think lessons from changes in the trade bookstore business are worth considering in this discussion of how college bookstores may evolve. Today’s trade book consumer is fiercely value-conscious, and the brick-and-mortar bookstore business has been revolutionized by the selection, price, and speed of delivery offered by online retailers. Local bookstores that have survived have done so by offering unique services and products not readily available from online sellers.

Are college students any less concerned about value? A recent article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Students Get Savvier About Textbook Buying“) shows that students are also diligent bargain-hunters. We see little evidence that college bookstores are adapting quickly to this challenge of providing superior value to their students. In fact, the trends we see from examining RFPs and college bookstore contracts suggest the opposite.

Bookstore contracts are too frequently awarded to service providers who promise double-digit commissions to schools, or multi-million dollar capital commitments to rebuild student centers or other campus facilities. Yet aren’t students the ones really paying for these high-cost contract commitments? And what of the corresponding business practices resulting from these agreements that conflict with the mission of higher education?

Here are a few consequences that give us concern:

  • Financial aid dollars are tied to use at the college bookstore, so students face the dilemma of using out-of-pocket funds to purchase low-cost textbooks outside the college bookstore, or running up their already high debt burden by overpaying for their course materials in their college bookstore.
  • Custom textbooks that offer little incremental value beyond the standard editions are developed in a coordinated effort between publishers, faculty, and bookstore operators. These books are often priced extremely high, and their exclusive availability in the college bookstores thwarts students from renting or purchasing used editions of these textbooks elsewhere.

We think it’s time to focus on how this cycle impacts student outcomes and drives up the cost of education, particularly with regard to attrition. It is estimated that “as many as one in three [students] frequently opt not to purchase required academic materials due to cost” (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2012). We know that for many community college students, the cost of learning materials can be as much as the cost of tuition. How is this cycle burdening schools with unintended costs from poorly prepared and under-performing students who don’t persist to completion?

It is only a matter of time before colleges must actively consider more efficient ways of meeting their students’ needs through alternative textbook and course material delivery platforms. If it is possible to provide complete availability of course materials, a robust used and rental marketplace, and access to free teaching materials like Open Educational Resources, then why are college administrators not more engaged in exploring alternatives to stocking textbooks in their physical stores?

In the end, we see the conversation about textbook costs as moving into a broader circle, involving the college CFO, provost, and president. College presidents have not been fully engaged in considering how schools meet this critical student need more efficiently. But since they are also under enormous pressure to cut costs and improve educational outcomes, the day when college presidents turn their attention to this key piece of student performance is surely close at hand.

We will soon share a comparable survey of college presidents and provosts to explore how their impressions of the issues raised here compare to those who, understandably, are primarily focused on the financial interests of their schools.

To learn more, sign up for our textbook delivery and bookstore services alerts.

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Why Students are Leaving the College Bookstore (According to College CFOs)

As an education technology company that provides online bookstore services to schools and their students, Akademos has always had anecdotal information from clients and students regarding the changing landscape for textbook services. We sought to validate the concerns that college chief financial officers (CFOs) had expressed to us about the future of their textbook services given the challenges presented by a vast marketplace of external competition, and the requirements of meeting new digital delivery needs presented by growing online curriculum.

Thus, we commissioned the first comprehensive survey of college CFOs regarding the future of bookstore services, with the results published in March 2013 here in a white paper. Here is a snapshot of some key findings:

  • 89% of respondents confirmed that students are increasingly turning away from campus-based bookstores in favor of third-party providers, citing, on average, 28% of students are shopping elsewhere.
  • Respondents pointed to price as the primary reason students bypass the college bookstore (78%), with students’ inclination to purchase online a distant second (12%).
  • Survey respondents indicated that on average, 56% of textbook sales are transacted with financial aid.
  • Respondents ranked giving students access to high-quality, low-cost textbooks as the most important service institutions can provide regarding the sale of textbooks.
  • 88% believe textbook costs impact student retention and persistence.
  • 82% indicated that textbook sales have been flat or down over the past three years.
  • 18% stated they believe textbooks will be sold exclusively in a school online bookstore, while 80% are of the opinion that their school will utilize both an online and brick-and-mortar store.

Overall, textbook delivery and bookstore services are only now becoming a prominent issue for CFOs (the topic doesn’t even come up on previous surveys about CFOs’ general responsibilities). This rise in priority is likely due in part to increasing attention to the costs vs. outcomes of higher education from students and their families, accreditation committees, and the government (e.g., HEOA). The question becomes whether the competitive and technical challenges of serving student-needs in an increasingly online world can be met by the current model, particularly by college bookstores that sell textbooks in a brick-and-mortar environment.

Competition from online, third-party providers is of major concern for the viability of the textbook business at campus bookstores. Students are leaving the school-sanctioned bookstore because of better pricing elsewhere, and this loss of customers is driving schools to more closely examine their textbook affordability, both for business reasons—revenue from textbooks appears to be in decline—and for educational reasons—charging students exorbitant mark-ups on course materials to help fund school initiatives is becoming an increasingly questionable practice in higher education.

Below is a summary of top outcomes and analysis from our survey on textbook delivery and bookstore services.

Textbook costs impact retention and persistence

The impact of college affordability on student outcomes such as retention, persistence and completion is becoming more evident, particularly in those programs where the cost of textbooks could exceed the cost of the course.

The majority of CFOs (89%) indicated textbooks costs do have some impact on retention and persistence. Given students are reporting that they do not buy all of their required books for a course, and graduation rates are tied to accreditation and other funding, textbook costs are joining tuition and fees as a potential cause of attrition.

Students are shopping outside the school-sanctioned bookstore for textbooks—predominantly choosing third-party, online retailers

Whether you are a college CFO, a faculty member, a student or parent, or just a member of the general public, you likely recognize that students are shopping online in order to find lower cost textbook prices.

Most CFOs (89%) confirmed that students are indeed shopping for textbooks outside of the school bookstore. What percentage of students shopping outside the school bookstore is too much? We think that is, and will continue to be, a central question in bookstore services. If you are a CFO reading this, do you know how many student customers are buying their books at your bookstore and how many are leaving?

CFOs in our survey reported that on average, 28% of their students are shopping elsewhere. Yet in the recent National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), between 25% and 33% of students reported not even buying required textbooks. So who is shopping at the school bookstore for their texts (see Financial Aid point below in this post)? In our experience, the portion of students perceived as shopping outside the bookstore is under-reported. The majority of schools are either not tracking this data, or not analyzing this data in an actionable way. Additionally, one-on-one feedback from school administrators across the country in the last year actually points to the contrary—that less than 30% of students are shopping in the school-sanctioned bookstore for textbooks. This discrepancy is surely a challenge to be reconciled by schools and their bookstore providers.

Further, a follow-up focus group indicated an interest in understanding how many of those students are purchasing the majority of their books at the school bookstore.

Cost is the biggest issue chasing students away

It is likely no surprise that respondents pointed to price as the dominant reason (79%) for students shopping elsewhere, with the belief that students are more inclined to purchase online as a distant second (12%). When you put these together, it confirms an overall trend we have heard from administrators and students alike: Students are increasingly buying textbooks on third-party websites because they can find better deals there than at the school bookstore. And, again, it is no surprise that school bookstores are experiencing challenges competing when you consider the costs of running a brick-and-mortar with limited or local inventory vs. an online operation with national inventory.

Access to high-quality, low-cost textbooks is the most important service schools can provide

The “most important service schools can provide students regarding the sale of textbooks,” as ranked by 53.5% of respondents, is to provide “access to high-quality, low-cost textbooks.”

Additionally, in the open-ended answers, textbook affordability was listed as the second most-cited concern about bookstore services (after staying competitive).

Used books are the most important resource to the future of schools’ bookstores

When asked to rank resources such as new, used, digital, rental, and OER (Open Educational Resources) in order of importance to the future of the school’s bookstore, nearly 80% of respondents ranked used books as number one. It is interesting to note that a majority of CFOs rated both supplying used books and supplying rentals as very important, yet revenue from new books is still outpacing that from both of these categories combined.

Financial aid, designed to assist financially-challenged students, is actually leading them to the most expensive options for textbooks

On average, new books make up approximately half of all textbook sales at respondents’ school bookstores. New books are also the students’ most expensive option. If our neediest students buy elsewhere, they are forgoing their aid. But, if they buy at the school bookstore, they are likely spending more than they need to on textbooks. This Catch-22 is contributing to both the rising student debt burden and mounting budgetary pressures on financial aid.

In the face of competition, schools still believe they will be in the business of selling textbooks out of a brick-and-mortar in the coming years

This might be the most surprising outcome of the survey. A majority of CFOs believe that their school will continue to sell books at their brick-and-mortar bookstore. Only 18% of college CFOs believe textbooks will be sold solely online. It is particularly surprising given CFOs recognize that cost is the biggest issue chasing students away, and that financial aid is binding students to shop at stores where costs are less competitive than online alternatives.

How feasible is it for schools to balance textbook pricing for their online bookstore and their brick-and-mortar store, particularly without unnecessarily inflating prices for students?

When the responses were posed to a focus group following the survey, some cited long-term contracts for brick-and-mortar services and the inability to consider alternative options until those contracts expire. The question then becomes, if the bookstore is not competitive in current times, how will long-term contracts affect schools’ ability to keep up with changing trends and technologies five or ten years into the future?

Staying competitive is a top business concern

What are CFOs’ top concerns in their own words? The open-ended answers revealed a consistent set of issues relating to textbook delivery/college bookstores, but staying competitive was the top cited issue.

 

What Can You Do? Best Practices Bookstore Services Audit

If you wish to further examine the issue of textbook affordability at your school, what can you do? We recommend starting with an audit of your bookstore practices, taking into consideration how the economic model is changing as well as how student preparedness affects overall student academic performance. We have put together the Akademos Textbook Affordability Best Practices Audit to assist you with evaluating both the health and the mission of your textbook practices. As always, you can also reach out to us directly to have a conversation about your textbook delivery mission and practices.

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College CFO Survey on Textbooks in Bookstores

 

What do CFOs think about the future of textbooks sold in college bookstores? Our 2013 College CFO Survey on Textbook Delivery and Bookstore Services has been completed and posted to our resources webpage. Check out the summary in our Textbook Delivery infographic below. Or download the full report.

 

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Student Textbook Buying Trends at Our College Bookstores

Hello all! Just a quick post to summarize some students trends and accomplishments lately here at Akademos / TextbookX.

Students are Increasingly Buying eBooks, But Trend Has Yet to Reach Critical Numbers - We analyzed some students buying trends for course materials and noted that eBooks are steadily climbing as a portion of overall revenue year over year, but have yet to reach critical mass. It appears eBooks are seeing an increase later in the Spring term. My hypothesis is that students are buying the digital version of their required textbooks to help them study for final exams. Read more here…

Akademos-TextbookX Saves Students over $46 Million and an Average of 54% on Textbooks in its TextbookX Marketplace – We stand strong behind our bookstore services model. Moving textbook operations completely online helps reduce the cost of textbooks for students and improves efficiencies for administrators. Read more here…

Three College Students Win Akademos-TextbookX Intern Awards for Most Effective On-Campus Marketing – The inaugural year of our bookstore services internship was a success. Students at schools with virtual bookstores got the word out, telling students via social media, print, in-person, email and more, how they could save big money at the school’s own bookstore. Three interns stood out for their on-campus marketing efforts. Read more here…

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Welcome to Textbook Affordability Month

The Chronicle of Higher Education this week released a four part series on textbooks:

-Students Get Savvier About Textbook Buying, When They Buy at All
-Don’t Call Them Textbooks
-For Many Students, Print Is Still King
-Can Textbooks Ever Really Be Free?

It is February, after all–the season of textbook adoption! Faculty across the US are rushing to their computers as we speak to search, discover, compare and adopt their course materials for the Fall 2013 term. So it truly is a good time to spotlight textbook affordability.

Back to The Chronicle. While all of the articles they published relate to our business here at Akademos and TextbookX.com, student-buying habits are especially of interest. In Students Get Savvier About Textbook Buying, When They Buy at All, The Chronicle “talked with students and found that having more choices in how to get books hasn’t solved the main problem: cost.” Among the workarounds–not buying texts at all (as 1/3 of seniors and 1/4 of freshmen reported not having done), and stealing in the form of pirating texts.

I’m not the first to say we are in a sad state of affairs when students are not buying textbooks at all, or stealing them; or when the cost of textbooks is more than the cost of a course. While I think students need to better educate themselves about the total cost of an education, there must be more we can do, especially to help our under-represented students, our financially-challenged students, and our community college students.

I think what is most frustrating, and comments posted on The Chronicle webpage underneath the article allude to this, is that the conversation keeps going round and round, with little appearance of reaching a solution. Now, I know this is not so–I have personally seen actions on the part of many schools, CFO’s, Provosts, faculty, and both not-for-profit and for-profit companies–to help bring visibility and action to this problem. But, we all need to do more.

What if every key stakeholder did one thing, right now, to help make textbooks more affordable for our students? Can’t we gather for a call to action? A call to service? Do we need to name a month, a day, in order to remind us? Then let’s do it. I hereby declare February “National Textbook Affordability Month”. Should we pick a day too–like the don’t buy gas days? National Textbook Affordability Day is…OK, I might need some support on this one people.

So to throw my 10 cents into the ring, here are my top recommendations to help fix the ‘cost’ problem of textbooks:

  1. Schools need more used book inventory – Contrary to a point made in the article, an increase in the supply of used books helps decrease costs for students. Especially if the used books are available from national sources, not just local ones.
  2. Students and their families should comparison shop – Students should always check prices as they would for other items they buy. A good comparison widget is www.campusbooks.com and, of course, a quick plug for our own TextbookX.com.
  3. Administrators – Can consider new business models aimed at lowering the cost of textbooks for students (and forgo margins on course materials).
  4. Governments – Should follow California’s example of developing Open Educational Resource materials for top core courses. Florida has done some important work on this too.
  5. Last but by no means least, faculty can do some comparisons of their own–they can consider the cost of textbooks and other course materials very seriously in their textbook adoptions. One tool we developed to help faculty do this is our textbook adoption tool (yes, it is a plug, but it is a free website open to any faculty).

So what did I do today to help textbook affordability (besides huffing and puffing through this blog)? I finished a white paper summarizing what college CFO’s think about textbooks, especially their costs; and, I tested a new feature of our Akademos Textbook Adoption Tool due to launch any day now, which will rank schools by the affordability of their textbooks. I know it is not much, but it is something. Stay tuned.

What did you do today to help textbook affordability?

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How the Fiscal Cliff will Affect Colleges

We have collected some links to information that can help colleges and universities review information on how the fiscal cliff will affect them and their students. 

NACUBO

Liz Clark, the Director of Congressional Relations at NACUBO, does an excellent job of summarize the potential changes, especially for College CFO’s and other higher education finance administrators.

The White House

Inside Higher Ed

IHE has been covering the fiscal cliff story and how it relates to colleges and universities well for quite a while now. Below you can preview some of their latest stories with links to read more. 

The Fund-Raising Cliff? - For more than a year, higher education organizations have urged Congress to somehow avoid the “fiscal cliff” — the dramatically named combination of spending cuts and tax hikes that will take effect Jan. 2 if lawmakers cannot agree on a plan to reduce the deficit and extend expiring tax cuts and benefits. Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/12/06/colleges-worry-over-proposed-changes-charitable-deduction#ixzz2El2lIR1u

Fiscal Cliff Diving - I have to admit finding the “fiscal cliff” debate a little bit silly, given that the “cliff” in question is entirely artificial. But if you start pulling that thread, it’s not clear where it ends. And even if the cliff is a figment of the collective political imagination, the harm that cliff-driven decisions could do is very real. If you swerve your car to avoid the unicorn you’re hallucinating, the tree you crash into isn’t a hallucination, and the damage done is real and potentially terrible. Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/confessions-community-college-dean/fiscal-cliff-diving#ixzz2El4dIIIs

Research Spending, Before the Cliff - Research university administrators are understandably jittery about the fiscal cliff facing policy makers in Washington, given the prospect that federal budget cutbacks would shave — if not savage — government funds for academic research and development. Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/11/29/spending-academic-research-rose-69-2011#ixzz2El55Zr00

Cliff time - Notwithstanding the impact of Sandy, I have much to be thankful for, including this year’s very welcome Thanksgiving Day break. But what I am most thankful for is not yet a done deal but rather a new feeling that suggests we will avoid the fiscal cliff. The meeting a week before Thanksgiving between the Congressional leadership and President Obama seemed to end with a sense on all sides that fiscal disaster could be avoided. In my opinion, there is no choice but to do so, but I am a spectator and Congress and the President are the ones who need to make it happen. Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/provost-prose/cliff-time#ixzz2El5NQsar

What’s Next for the Pell Grant? - It’s been a nail-biting few years for Pell Grant advocates, as Congressional budget crisis after Congressional budget crisis raised the specter of deep cuts to the major federal financial aid program for low-income students. Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/11/16/how-congress-might-deal-pell-grant-shortfall#ixzz2El5Zcdlm 

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Americans Prefer to Cut Spending on Defense Over Education, Poll Finds - If negotiations in Washington to avoid a “fiscal cliff” come down to a choice between cutting spending on defense or education, a majority of Americans would spare the education programs, accord…Read more: http://chronicle.com/blogs/bottomline/americans-prefer-to-cut-spending-on-defense-over-education-poll-finds/

Colleges Worry That Tax Incentives for Donations Are Again on the Chopping Block - Higher-education advocates are closely watching how the current fiscal negotiations in Washington will affect federal support of colleges and universities. But many are also concerned that a chan…Read more: http://chronicle.com/blogs/bottomline/colleges-worry-that-tax-incentives-for-donations-are-again-on-the-chopping-block/

Amid Federal Budget Battle, Report Cites Centrality of Scientific Research - As negotiations over the federal budget reach a climax, a new report urges the government to spend more money on scientific research and do it more wisely. Read more: http://chronicle.com/article/Amid-Federal-Budget-Battle/136089/

Lessons From America’s First Fiscal Cliff - America faced its first fiscal cliff in 1893. The date should be familiar. It was the start of the Panic of 1893, and it led to the biggest shift ever in the composition of the U.S. Congress. Conte…Read more: http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2012/11/28/lessons-from-americas-first-fiscal-cliff/

Colleges React to Potential Research Cuts

I gathered a few links from universities concerned with cuts to research and development. 

MIT – Webinar Recording: THE FISCAL CLIFF: HOW IT AFFECTS MIT - Will R&D fall off the fiscal cliff? Policymakers still haven’t taken action to avoid sequestration. The sequester was a huge set of budget cuts put in place by Congress as a carrot to make sure the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (known as the “Super Committee”) acted to develop a balanced deficit reduction strategy. As a result of the Super Committee’s failure to come up with a balanced strategy, the discretionary budget — which includes the funding budget for all the major science research agencies — will see a huge across-the-board cut of about 8.7% take effect on January 2, 2013. View the recording: http://alumic.mit.edu/s/1314/03-alumni/wide.aspx?sid=1314&pgid=11547&gid=13&cid=20917&ecid=20917&post_id=0

Princeton - Looming fiscal cliff threatens Princeton research - The University could face severe cuts in research funding and a shrinking endowment in the near future if Congress fails to reach a deal on the so-called fiscal cliff, which will trigger an array of automatic tax increases and budget cuts on Jan. 1. Read more here - http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/12/09/32119/

Washington Post

Family Income and Tax Cuts Calculator - Use this tool, based on data from the Tax Policy Center, to estimate how your family would be affected by the Democratic and Republican plans for dealing with scheduled tax hikes — and what would happen if no deal is reached. The math is complicated: The expiration of all or part of the Bush-era tax cuts could have the biggest impact on most families, but the end of the temporary payroll tax and new taxes related to the health-care overhaul mean that most families would see their tax burden increase under any scenario. Use the tool here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/business/tax-cut-scenarios/

Fed is expected to launch new bond buying program to aid economy as ‘fiscal cliff’ looms - Fed is expected to launch new bond buying program to aid economy as ‘fiscal cliff’ loomsWith a nervous eye on the “fiscal cliff,” the Federal Reserve is expected this week to announce a new bond-buying plan to support the U.S. economy. Read more: http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/fed-is-expected-to-launch-new-bond-buying-program-to-aid-economy-as-fiscal-cliff-looms/2012/12/11/1f5db4e8-4350-11e2-8c8f-fbebf7ccab4e_story.html

K-12 – Fiscal cliff: Schools would be affected inequitably - It is not certain that President Obama and Congress will come to a budget deal before the end of the year to avert automatic budget cuts, including in education. Here Anne O’Brien, deputy director of the Learning First Alliance, explains what would happen to school districts if the country goes over what is being called “the fiscal cliff.” The Learning First Alliance is a partnership of 16 education associations with more than 10 million members dedicated to improving student learning in America’s public schools. Read more: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2012/12/11/fiscal-cliff-schools-would-be-affected-inequitably/

 

Let us know if you have any additions to this list as I am sure there is tons of material about how the fiscal cliff might affect schools, from community colleges to state schools, from not-for-profit to for-profit institutions. 

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Interesting Education News Tidbits

Just a quick roundup of some education news focused on digital textbooks and eBooks, open educational resources, education policy, and textbook publisher trends.

The CAO survey mentioned in the last bullet above advised that “Chief Academic Officers and faculty report that key barriers to adopting OER are the lack of a single, comprehensive catalog of content, difficulty finding content, and concerns about time and energy spent selecting and evaluating the material.” Remember folks, the Akademos Textbook Adoption Tool is open to all faculty from any college or university. It is the only textbook comparison tool that includes OERs and commercial textbook publisher offerings.

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Hurricane Relief for Students’ Textbooks

By: Akademos Team

For those of us who live and work in the New York metropolitan area, Sandy’s effects continue to linger. Even now, gas stations in NY and NJ remain shuttered, and many people speak about their inability to get much work done. The Akademos office in CT and our employees fared well, though some were without power and were displaced from their homes temporarily. Many of our partner schools are located in areas that were in the path of the storm. To those schools, as we have said, if any of your students are experiencing hardship, please let us know. We have already given out a number of textbook scholarships to students at Akademos partner schools whose lives were affected. There is still work to be done in order to rebuild the community. We thank everyone for their well wishes as we begin to get back to normal.

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The eTextbook Bust

 

eTextbooks and Professor EngagementThe final report on a major digital textbook pilot appeared recently and, because I wanted to study the document closely, mark it up with scribble unintelligible to anyone but its author, I immediately printed it out. And as I did that, I felt strangely self-conscious of the act, as if I were prejudicing the report’s conclusions before turning a page.

The pilot, which took place in the spring of this year and included Cornell, Indiana University at Bloomington, and the Universities of Minnesota, Virginia, and Wisconsin at Madison, was pretty close to a complete failure. Certainly there are nuggets of encouragement but these were far outnumbered by student criticisms. One could almost sense the report’s authors straining to put the best face on the results. It’s admirable that they did not flinch from conveying students’ frustrations and disappointments with the reading materials, but the results really were worse than their concluding comments suggest.

Nowhere, for example, do the authors tell us that the pilot was financially artificial. They tell us that in all but one case—Indiana—students were actually given free access to the eTextbooks, yet this subsidy doesn’t weigh in their conclusions. Instead, we learn that the number one reason why students had any interest at all in using the eTexts is because of they were “lower cost.” Really? Low costs implies some cost and the fact that they actually had no cost only serves to make the result look better than they are. For if price is the major motivation for students, as they conclude, moving from “free” to even “low cost” will only increase resistance to their use.

The finding that cost was the top motivator for students is itself deeply problematic, not only for those heralding digital textbooks as a learning advancement, but also for commercial publishers who are striving to preserve the legacy cost structures of physical books as they turn to digital. Price alone is rarely a sufficient condition for a technological change and I don’t expect it will be one here. Instead, a panoply of learning benefits will need to accompany the economic one if digital materials are to come into their own.

The student survey results make clear that this is still some way off. Did use of an eTextbook increase engagement with course content? 21% said either “quite a bit” or “a great deal.” 35% said “somewhat” and 45% said “a little” or “not at all.” What about allowing students “to better organize and structure [student] learning”? About 25% of students thought it did. The rest, not so much. In question after question—from whether eTextbooks inspired students to read more to whether they even valued their own digital highlighting and annotations—the results are almost uniformly negative. One wonders what students would have said if they actually had to pay for the privilege.

Interestingly, the lead research finding is that only a minority of students—12%–elected to purchase physical copies. This is, however, hardly a comforting statistic for the proponents of this digital model. First, the choice for students was not likely between a free digital and a low cost print alternative, but between a free version and an expensive one (as a standard commercial textbook). Second, the 12% figure is misleading since it implies that the universe of student purchasers is 100%; but, those in the industry know that 100% sell-through is never an option unless the materials are included in the course fees. Instead, most people believe that about 1/3 of students do not buy textbooks. They borrow, share, photocopy, or simply try to do without. Remove those students from the pool of possible student buyers and it turns out that more than 18% of students who buy textbooks would have purchased a print copy if they were part of this study. Given the huge price disparity between the two options, and that price is the primary motivator, this is not supporting evidence.

Do the results of the pilot leave me pessimistic about digital course materials? Not at all. What they underscore, instead, is that several developments need still to occur for digital materials to demonstrate their pedagogical superiority over print text (for if they don’t have this what’s really the purpose?).

First, as I noted in a blog post this May, digital interactivity needs to match or exceed the physical interactivity that students enjoy. That’s not simply a matter of offering the capability to make digital highlights and annotations—which invariably feel like inadequate imitations of the real thing—but instead offering interactivity that simply isn’t available in the print world. And central to accomplishing this is faculty involvement. One of the few bright spots in the study is that students’ appreciation for the digital version shot up considerably when faculty were offering their own annotations and highlights in the texts. The problem was that few faculty actually did this. A successful digital initiative will be one in which the faculty are strongly committed to active participation in working with the course materials–when the course materials act not as passive appendages to classroom teaching but rather as direct extensions of that teaching itself; when they are less interchangeable commodities and more directly reflective of the learning environment itself (the institution or the classroom).

Second, conventional thinking about digital rights management (DRM) has to change. As a general rule, the tighter the DRM restrictions, the less appealing the technology from the user’s standpoint. In the case of digital textbooks, it likely precludes mainstream adoption. Expiration dates, and strict limitations on printing, sharing, and remixing content, are all dissuasive to students and faculty.

Third, lower pricing is not a sufficient condition for technological change–but it is a necessary one. By itself, an alternative price structure will not usher in a new era; but, there’s no doubt that it will be a critical ingredient to such change. Look at the success of the Kindle. Price discounts have been important, but if the Kindle didn’t also provide a satisfying experience for general readers, those discounts would have been irrelevant (and, in fact, the discounts were irrelevant in Amazon’s own failed pilot pairing the device with digital textbooks).

It’s uncertain whether commercial publishers have the will and the ability to change their business models sufficiently to meet these new needs. While they continue to experiment with institutionally-direct distribution models (and this digital textbook pilot is an example of that), there’s still little evidence to suggest that it represents the required fundamental change in thinking regarding DRM and costs. The lack of publisher movement in these areas has created an opening for alternative models, especially Open Educational Resources, to emerge that are now challenging the commercial model. But these alternatives have demonstrated no ability to address anything beyond cost. As such, open texts may be successfully adopted in classrooms, but they will not in their present state inspire mainstream use of digital learning materials.

What this e-textbook study and others like it tell us is that the technology of the textbook–with its physical interactivity, rich graphics, and tactile experience–raises the digital transition threshold for study materials well beyond what it is for general reading books. And that’s probably a good thing, for when the transition comes (and it will) it should be one that fundamentally changes not only course materials but the very relations of teacher, student, and text.

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Infographic: Students Want OER and eBooks

 

Check out this new infographic from Inside Higher Ed summarizing an EDUCAUSE student survey study about technology in coursework. Take aways for us here at Akademos and TextbookX? Students want more technology in their coursework, including Open Educational Resources and eBooks.

 

Students Want OER and eBooks

 

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