5 ways colleges are making digital deliveries

Institutions are overcoming challenges in getting digital course materials into students’ hands
By: | Issue: January, 2014
January 6, 2014

Preparing to take a college-level course once meant simply heading to the campus bookstore and purchasing the textbook. Today, preparing for a course may require students to gather a wide variety of resources, both printed and digital. And while the printed items are still available at the bookstore, accessing a variety of digital materials is not always an easy task.

“The types of digital course materials have expanded greatly over the past couple of years,” says Anthony Sanders, associate director of North Carolina State University Bookstores.

Digital course materials may include e-textbooks, multimedia videos and interactive teaching and learning tools that make their way onto course syllabi. Institutions and individual professors may have differing views on the scope of these materials, but they do seem to agree that the definition is expanding as more formats become available. Still, figuring out the best way to make those diverse resources accessible to students has become a challenging process on many campuses. There is no streamlined, standardized process for students to quickly, easily access required digital materials.

At San Diego State University, digital course content may include homework and assessment tools, blog posts, news articles, YouTube videos, podcasts, Flickr images and slideshare presentation decks, says Todd Summer, director of SDSU’s campus stores division.

More professors are also incorporating open education resources—digital content such as sound recordings and images—into their courses, says Elizabeth McIntyre, vice president of communications and public relations at the National Association of College Stores (NACS). “Digital materials can now include web-based content such as videos, simulations, interactive quizzes and exercises and class discussion forums.

E-textbooks are advancing beyond being reproductions of printed pages in PDF forms, as well. Students can highlight, annotate, search on words in the text and share notes with instructors, classmates and even other students using the same book elsewhere, McIntyre says.

In terms of getting these digital materials to students, the main challenges tend to be lack of equipment and bandwidth, the absence of standardization, faculty resistance and student ambivalence, McIntyre says.

Some schools may need to strengthen their campus wireless networks, and some instructors don’t want students using computers during open-book tests. When the price is the same, college students surveyed by NACS still prefer printed textbooks to e-books—“but the percentage favoring digital is growing every year,” she says.

Institutions also must overcome compatibility issues to ensure all students will be able to view the materials on their devices and in the proper platforms.

Another consideration is that digital materials may be accessible from the library, the bookstore, online merchants and other vendors. The lack of a single source for all course materials can be confusing for students and detrimental to the campus store’s bottom line. In addition, institutions must work with publishers and vendors who are still trying to figure out the new paradigm as well.

NC State’s bookstore uses Rafter to maintain a streamlined e-commerce site for textbook purchasing and rental, but hasn’t yet developed a streamlined system for distributing digital content. “The bookstore has tried a number of methods to distribute digital course materials, but none of these efforts have been successful in reaching a large portion of the customer base,” Sanders says. “Part of the shortcomings are related to retail prices, limited duration of e-book materials and digital format.”

Like a number of colleges and universities, NC State is currently addressing those concerns. Following are five solutions in the works at various institutions. 

1. Streamline e-commerce.

Streamlining digital delivery methods has been the greatest challenge surrounding digital course materials at NC State, Sanders says. The three bookstores on campus currently sell about two-thirds of all course materials units through e-commerce platforms, so it makes sense to deliver access to digital materials through the same channel. However, “the friction point has been integration with vendors to produce an elegant customer interface,” Sanders says. Bookstore customers need help obtaining these materials efficiently, and staff are needed to process returns and handle customer service needs.

The campus bookstore is in the process of developing a system that would serve as an extension of the academic content delivery methods that the bookstore currently has in place. The goal is to handle distribution through one channel “with multiple sources, such as the school’s LMS, pointing back to that one distribution channel,” Sanders says.

In this one location, students would be able to find information for all of the required and optional course materials they will need, along with the current cost, alternate vendors, and any other pertinent information.  

“The real trick in implementing this type of solution is to include all of the campus stakeholders in the discussion and getting everyone to buy in to the concept,” Sanders says. NC State plans to have this system in place by the summer of 2014, and it will “most likely involve some partnership with a third party content provider with a well developed tech solution in place,” he adds.

2. Turn digital to print.

While many college students are comfortable with digital learning materials, “there is a large population that still prefer the printed format,” says George Masforrol, associate vice president for auxiliary services at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Providing materials in a format that best serves those students is an easy, workable solution for Broward.

For instance, when some professors have selected online books and other text-based digital materials, the Broward College bookstore has printed several copies of those online texts, bound them on campus and sold them in the bookstore for students who prefer the paper option. “Not every student buys the printed version, but many do, so it has been important for us to make those available for some classes,” Masforrol says.

3. Ensure compatibility

All digital course material has attributes “that must be effectively conveyed to students prior to purchase,” says Jade Roth, vice president of books and digital strategy for Barnes & Noble College. These include both usage and platform requirements. For instance:

  • Is the product available on tablets and desktops?
  • Is an internet connection required?
  • Can content be printed? Is cut and paste allowed?
  • Is the digital asset available for purchase or for rent?

Ensuring that both students and faculty have all the information required before adopting or purchasing these course materials is a crucial part of the process, Roth says.

For instance, content may be used on multiple learning platforms and students may need to navigate “from a campus platform to multiple publisher platforms to open educational resource (OER) platforms,” says San Diego State’s Summer. He believes that as platforms and content evolve over the next few years, there will be simpler ways of using multiple platforms.

Currently, San Diego State utilizes Blackboard as a one-stop shop where professors can upload digital materials and links to outside resources. Some faculty members “post links from their online syllabus or custom web pages,” Summer says. ”Digital core textbooks and other materials are provided by the campus store.”

At Colorado State University-Global Campus, compatibility is a challenge for courses that require lab simulations. To ensure that all students are using compatible browsers or operating systems, the university provides all students with a list of hardware and software needs for all CSU-Global courses, “and we make sure that all of our digital materials are compatible with those requirements,” says Lauren Anuskewicz, associate vice president of engagement.

“We complete extensive research to ensure compatibility to the best of our ability before formal course material approval and adoption. Additionally, we offer 24/7 technical support to our students, should they encounter any issues.”

4. Partner with booksellers and campus store operators.

As off-campus, consumer platforms such as Amazon continue to vie for more of the college market, some institutions are partnering with them to provide better service to students and to retain control of the distribution of materials.

For instance, the University of California, Davis recently began working with Amazon on a pilot program to complement the university’s bookstore services, says Jason Lorgan, director of UC Davis Stores. The partnership launched a unique UC Davis/Amazon storefront at http://davis.amazon.com.

“The UC Davis Stores do not view these new distribution platforms as threats, but as expanding the services our store provides to our campus community,” Lorgan says. “We are working with Amazon and publishers to improve our services, not replace them.”

A growing number of textbook publishers and campus bookstore management companies also are developing programs to help institutions distribute digital materials. For instance, Follett Higher Education Group’s new includED program delivers all required course materials to students as part of their tuition or fees. The material, in most cases, is sent digitally to a students’ LMS, says Elio DiStaola, Follett’s director of public and campus relations.

5. Let bookstores lead.

Many of the schools succeeding at digital course materials use and distribution are allowing campus bookstores to take a leading role. “Campus stores have traditionally played the role of course material information aggregator and have been the gatekeepers and distributors of information on what content is needed,” Lorgan says. “That role continues today.” 

At UC Davis, almost all paid content is distributed through the campus store, which has procedures in place to handle cash transactions. The store also has experience complying with credit card industry standards and a variety of campus based payment methods, such as billing to student accounts, Lorgan says. Content that is available at no charge is distributed by faculty through the LMS and the library. 

While campus stores may lead the charge, the best solutions include input from all stakeholders, such as the library, distance education, registrar’s office, the provost, the CIO, and faculty senate members.

“While the bookstore should continue to be the source for information regarding course materials, we do not need to be the sole distributor,” says Sanders of NC State. “We already provide information regarding faculty reserves in the library. It’s not a big leap to link students directly to those reserve materials.”

The store provides the library with at least one copy of every required textbook each semester. It is important for the bookstore and library to work very closely because our services complement each other, even if they occasionally overlap,” he says.

While a number of direct-to-consumer outlets, such as Amazon, are available to deliver digital content outside of the bookstore sales channel, “these solutions do not factor in the need to provide materials to students on financial aid or athletic scholarships,” Sanders says. The majority of students at NC State benefit from financial aid or athletic scholarships, and the bookstores are equipped to provide tracking and maintenance for these accounts.

In the future, Sanders sees an open platform for vendors to provide digital materials through the campus store sales channel. “The bookstore will realize slimmer profit margins, but should also realize increased efficiency and lower overhead costs by streamlining the distribution methods,” he says. “My hope is that this translates to greater savings for students in obtaining their required course materials.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based freelance writer.