Bringing Academic Books Online: How Universities Can Adapt

With the widening availability of academic books online, how can universities and libraries adapt?

The meteoric rise in textbook costs appears to have settled into a plateau. But students — particularly those hardest hit by the financial fallout from the pandemic — are still feeling the pinch, increasing the urgency of initiatives that move academic textbooks online.

According to a national survey conducted by advocacy group U.S. PIRG, in 2020, 65 percent of students skipped buying a textbook because of cost. For food-insecure students, the rate was even higher at 82 percent.  

The impacts of poor student well-being due to lack of access to proper course materials are extensive. When students suffer, the higher education system suffers too. A lack of access to course materials can hamper academic success, student retention, and graduation rates.

One bright spot is that the abrupt shift to remote learning prompted many more faculty members to experiment with new lower-cost digital tools, e-textbooks included. According to a study conducted by Bay View Analytics, in 2020, 32 percent of instructors added a digital textbook option for students, and 10 percent switched to all-digital textbook options.

The shift to digital is nothing new — it’s the continuation of a long-term trend. Between 2012 and 2016, students using e-textbooks for coursework rose from 42 percent to 66 percent, with the high cost of print materials being the number one reason for this increase.
Even as many students return to class, adoption rates for e-textbooks are likely to climb even higher. The preference for print among students and faculty is fading, and the range of digital content continues to increase. Digital textbooks now provide new functionalities, like search and interactive discussions, that are impossible to get with paper textbooks.

close up photo of a stack of ooks

Beware: Not All Digital Textbook Delivery Models Are Created Equal

The future of academic materials is digital, but the way forward is full of twists and turns for leaders and faculty. Access codes, for example, put all types of learning content (textbooks included) behind a paywall and have been widely criticized for contributing to the rising costs of digital materials. The U.S. PIRG survey also found that in 2020, 21 percent of students reported not buying an access code, an increase from 17 percent in 2019.

But ultimately, there is no going back to the traditional brick-and-mortar campus bookstore model; to say that this system left students a little squeezed would be an understatement. Between 2006 and 2016, textbook costs rose by 88 percent, outpacing the inflation rate by a considerable margin. By 2018, the #TextbookBroke movement was very much abuzz on Twitter.

So what are some digital alternatives that put students first? One solution is a university-wide approach for the digital delivery of textbooks called Universal Learning.

Unlike access codes, Universal Learning standardizes — and lowers —the cost of learning content,  providing students with digital access to the content they need for their courses on the first day of class. Students pay via their enrollment — allowing financial aid can be applied. Done well, Universal Learning solutions lower content costs for students by 30-50% and include a wide range of content from thousands of publishers, including Open Education Resources (OER), via a single platform.

There are benefits for institutions too. The right platforms that enable Universal Learning can streamline and automate the workflows associated with identifying, selecting, procuring, and distributing content--helping institutions achieve significant cost avoidance savings of up to $500,000 per year.

How to Pivot to a Cost-Effective Model for Digital Textbooks

Diving headfirst into a Universal Learning approach can seem like a daunting task, and it might seem possible to get broad-based support from academic leadership and faculty at first. Starting with a pilot is the logical first step, whether you are still rooted in a paper model for textbooks or your faculty has started exploring digital alternatives in earnest.

A pilot program can take as little as two weeks and guarantees a more streamlined expansion the following semester from bringing your textbooks and other academic books online. Here are few steps you can take to make the ramp-up easier.

Step #1: Select the Right Vendor

Universal Learning is best delivered through a learning enablement platform that is API-agnostic, meaning that the platform can integrate with any LMS through learning tools interoperability.

With the right vendor, you'll need minimal input from your coordinator and IT team to get your pilot up and running. It shouldn’t matter whether you're using Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard, or any other type of LMS. Whatever the case, a good learning enablement provider will ensure you won’t have to stress about the tech.

Step #2: Find Champions

Within any kind of organization, human resistance is often the biggest blocker to successful tech transformation. That’s why you need champions who can help build momentum and spread the positive word. Identify other forward-thinking admins, faculty, staff, and students who can spread their enthusiasm.

One way to nurture enthusiasts is to work closely with academics and give them digital textbook access early to become adept with all the features. When faculty promote active learning through tools like in-book quizzes and discussion prompts, they increase the chances of students reaping the full benefits of using digital textbooks.

Step #3: Build Your Digital Content List

Consult reading lists, library records, and academics to help determine which titles you should prioritize digitally. Core courses and courses with higher student enrollments often have the highest textbook usage, so consider starting the process with titles from those courses.
In particular, first-year courses offer a clear picture of how students will adopt digital. Understanding which books are a top priority for academics and students is key to creating a scalable digital content strategy.

Step #4: Track the Most Impactful Data

As you expand your program, don’t forget to use your most important asset for building a persuasive argument: data. Bringing your textbooks and academic books online provides the opportunity for academic leaders to collect real-time engagement data (while ensuring students’ privacy). This can help leaders assess whether the pilot project is meeting goals such as providing more personalized learning, widening participation, or increasing student retention.

For example, analytics can help institutions surface insights about:

  • Time spent by every title
  • Reading engagement
  • Accessibility indicators for students

With the correct data, e-textbook champions can demonstrate the benefits of digital and make course corrections if necessary.

Making Textbooks Work for Everyone

Using a Universal Learning approach, academic leaders can break free from the legacy of a system that squeezes higher education’s most important stakeholder group: the students.

Digital textbooks provide more opportunities for active learning in a format students love at a more affordable cost. The benefits of going digital are too hard to ignore — and when students win, everybody wins.

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