Monday, February 29, 2016

Where are all the e-Textbook Users?

A whiff of great expectations and inevitability trails behind any discussion of digital textbooks like the scent of Grey Flannel from a middle-aged man. But it’s time to clear the air of both, and face the fact that the highly anticipated digital revolution just isn’t happening.  

I’ve been as guilty as anyone, speculating about the demise of print in the classroom. But a combination of institutional resistance, vested interest and simple disinterest have ultimately conspired to position digital textbooks on the slow train to never.  In fact, in a recent survey conducted by Campus Computing on behalf of the National Association of College Stores (NACS), “never” was the answer over 24% of respondents gave when asked when content in the classroom will be primarily digital.  [Correction: The survey was sponsored by the Independent College Stores Association, not NACS - sorry]

Surveying faculty and students on the adoption of and/or readiness for academic digital content has become a competitive sport, resulting in regular reports presented by associations, trade groups and retailers.   You don’t need to look at many of these to spot the themes consistent to all:  Students prefer print, textbook cost is an issue and faculty isn’t inclined to experiment.

In spring 2015, NACS announced the findings from their Student Watch™ survey and admitted that digital course materials were growing steadily, but only at a rate of approximately 3% per year.  Hardly fuel for a revolution.  They went on to make the following statement regarding the future of educational content in the classroom:
But one thing is certain: Every institution will need to consider a multidimensional and boundary-spanning learning content strategy if the transition to digital learning content and courseware is to proceed smoothly. Failure to do so likely will fragment the student experience as decisions to adopt learning content vary from course to course and as untested courseware and digital academic services are adopted and discarded. Unmanaged, the gap between courseware’s capabilities and the faculty's use of them will frustrate students and lead to substantial underutilization of the institution’s investments.
My response to that is . . . why?  If the growth of digital is slow and its value to students and teachers questionable, why does NACS believe that doing the above has become such an imperative?

Is it a justification for the big investments made by the largest educational publishers, who have bought companies and built content creation and delivery platforms to facilitate digital delivery?   Perhaps these investments, which looked so strategic and important to the industry (myself included), were premature or even misguided.  Recent financial results for some of the largest educational publishers have been soft and maybe the slow take-up in digital, coupled with heavy up-front investment, is partly to blame.  The most important question to ask now may be “Is there a digital future for educational content at all?

There are certainly many boosters who would answer “yes”.  Several years ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that the US educational market needed to move, as quickly as possible, away from print to digital, primarily to compete with other countries already making serious advances in this area. 

“Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete," he declared, going on to say that students in other countries are leaving their American counterparts in the dust because of those countries’ more enlightened education policy.   Duncan noted that South Korea “has set a goal to go fully digital with its textbooks by 2015.”   But, in 2016, our government appears to have done little to support the expansion and development of the infrastructure required to support digital content delivery in colleges--particularly community colleges, across the US.   

While the number of community college faculty surveyed by the recent NACS study was small relative to that of four-year institutions, the concerns over accessibility were clear.  Most students attending community colleges can’t afford digital devices and their lifestyles – balancing academic, work and home life – make using anything other than a print textbook difficult.   These problems are pretty basic but they don’t have easy solutions – and may not until the tablet is as affordable and ubiquitous as the Slimline phone.

To my mind, there are other challenges which may be even more intractable, and these concern institutional resistance and vested interests.   Publishers, colleges and faculty, retailers and others are dis-incentivized to move away from print content to digital.  I’m not at all saying they operate unethically or outside the best interests of their constituents; however, the current print-based world does afford important benefits to many of those who participate in the business model. Consequently, the desire to press for change might be somewhat muted.

The survey conducted by Campus Computing sampled approximately 3,000 faculty members at 29 two- and four-year colleges and summarized the findings:
  • The majority of faculty agreed that digital materials generally cost less money.
  • Less than half believed that digital content added value to their courses.
  • 55 percent said that students prefer print textbooks to digital.
  • 39 percent reported they had never heard of open educational resources (OER).

While the majority of faculty members professed concern over high textbook prices, there were some inconsistencies in the responses that may not entirely bear that out.  For example, faculty members believe themselves to be the final arbiters of textbook selection and, certainly, the price of the textbook is a known variable they can take into account during the selection process.  Even more telling is the finding that very few faculty members know about, are aware of, or would select open-source content for their course material.  If selected, this courseware would be free to the student!   As summarized in Campus Computing:
Two-fifths (39 percent) of the survey participants indicated that they had never heard of OER, while just over a third (36 percent) indicated that they knew a little about OER but had not used or reviewed OER materials. A tenth (10 percent) had reviewed but decided not to use OER materials for their classes, while another tenth (11 percent) were using OER materials and 4 percent were currently using OER in their classes and also making their own course materials available as OER.
The results were similar with respect to digital content: While respondents believe it to be cheaper than traditional print textbook content, a disappointing proportion of faculty are willing to select digital content for their students.  Despite their apparent unwillingness to experiment with the selection of digital course materials, the faculty surveyed are more than willing to judge the quality of digital course materials as inferior to traditional textbooks.  It’s hard to understand how the ‘quality’ of digital content can be questioned when it’s seldom selected!

These and other contradictions may be a result of the survey methodology itself (i.e., how the questions were asked), but what is patently clear is that digital transformation of content in higher education is going to be progressive, not revolutionary as predicted.  This doesn’t make sense when you consider all of the great advantages perceived in providing digital content to students.  But obstacles remain and may be difficult to overcome--especially since they are, in a sense, “protected” by incumbent publishers, administrators and suppliers.  In the meantime, Arne Duncan’s fear that the US is losing the education race to countries at the digital vanguard becomes more and more real.


Nathaniel Hoffelder said...

Nathaniel Hoffelder said...

"There are certainly many boosters who would answer yes."

I think those are mainly people who have fallen under the sway of marketers/lobbyists working for textbook publishers.

Publishers love digital textbooks because it means no used market, no physical distribution, etc. Users, on the other hand, have to contend with high prices, hardware costs, and access issues.

The difference between publisher/govt interest and student/educator interest makes me wonder whether publishers are really the only ones who like the idea because they can tap public funds (think No Child Left Behind).

That's not completely accurate, I know. Some people are adopting OER, and even more people are using non-OER digital resources (Wikipedia, etc) without realizing it. But they're also not buying digital textbooks, not to the degree that publishers would like.

"Is there a digital future for educational content at all?"

I think the answer is yes, only that future will more closely reflect the internet than a retail textbook market. Go look up Pluralsight, for example. That startup does instructional videos, and so it is a textbook competitor - just not one that textbook publishers would recognize.

Nate, editor of The Digital Reader

Michael Cairns said...

Thanks - good perspective. Agreed.

Neil Schlager said...

Good article, Michael. I think the device issue is partially a red herring. Virtually 100% of students have smartphones, and it's possible to design effective course materials for this space--which is where students already spend all their lives. They shouldn't need a computer or tablet. However, there is no denying that publishers haven't designed specifically for the smartphone space. When (if?) we eventually see course materials that are engaging, well priced, and perfectly suited to smartphone use, I believe we will see a shift in student attitudes toward digital materials.