Monday, April 13, 2020

How COVID-19 is Reshaping College Education

COVID-19 will reshape higher education

In 2016, a report by the consulting firm Parthenon identified more than 800 higher ed institutions that were in danger of closing due to declining enrollment, poor course offerings and high annual tuition increases. In recent weeks, institutions will be forced to refund students from accounts depleted due to decreased revenues from ticket sales, bookstore revenue and other sources. A list maintained by Education Drive identifies more than 20 schools which have already closed for good this year. The COVID-19 pandemic represents an existential threat to higher education: We are likely to see a significant realignment in the education market by year end.

When college campus’s began closing, faculty members had to scramble and any publisher with digital product saw an immediate uptick in interest in their digital offers. Online offerings from publishers have been available for many years as have new business models such as inclusive access (where all enrolled students gain access), but the education market is slow to adapt to change and behavior is hard to modify. That all changed over spring break and if there is a silver lining in events, it may be in the growth of online and digital course materials which could produce a step change in the way education is delivered to students.

With more than 50% of college stores managed by Barnes & Noble, Follett and independents closed for business due to the COVID-19 pandemic college retail is unlikely to come back in the form we have known it. There will be some consolidation but if adopted materials are not physical in form the need for a book delivery point (bookstore) diminishes and the raison d’etre for the bookstore erodes. Space previously given over to books will be replaced by sundries, food and beauty products.
Educational materials adopted by faculty are provisioned via intermediary services such as Redshelf, Vitalsource (Ingram) and others and frequently the bookstores run by Barnes & Noble or Follet offer little value add in this process. They do continue the legacy process of collecting course adoption materials but the work of making the materials available to the students is done with the online intermediary. Legacy bookstores run the risk of being disintermediated and this dislocation may only increase as their beneficial position on campus erodes.

As more education material is available online all the processes around evaluating, selecting and ordering (adopting) the materials will also migrate and become more efficient. In the textbook world, the bookstore plays a coordinating role and activities are specific to one campus. (This is even the case in large systems like California where the campus bookstore runs things their way). In an online driven world, more activities can be coordinated and consolidated across the industry which will create scale opportunities and service improvements. In all likelihood, decisions on material selection could also be made much later than the several months advance notice currently required for textbook adoptions.

Course materials are growing in sophistication and are not simply eBook renditions of textbook materials. Advanced materials are adaptive in nature and provides the student and faculty immediate feedback on comprehension and understanding. In turn, this enables faculty to expand on material in-class via cases, workshops or labs knowing that their students have read and mastered the required materials. As with any new approach, take-up would normally have been conservative as faculty experimented, but COVID-19 has forced many to seek out different options.

With doubt about when classes will even return to campus – summer courses are currently being scheduled on-line only - new technology driven options will make significant advances during 2020 and into the 2021 school year. But campus life after COVID-19 may be fundamentally different with comprehensive adoption of on-line learning, broad acceptance of inclusive access business models and a decreased book retailing presence. Sadly, it is also likely that we may see fewer institutions as some fail to reopen.

Michael Cairns is a publishing and media executive with over 25 years experience in business strategy, operations and technology implementation.  He has served on several boards and advisory groups including the Association of American Publishers, Book Industry Study Group and the International ISBN organization.   Additionally, he has public and private company board experience.   He can be reached at

No comments: