COVID fueled shift to digital materials. Are they here to stay?

According to a new NACS report, faculty faced challenges early on in the pandemic but embraced technology, leaned away from print and realized some trends may become permanent.
By: | February 23, 2021
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The paradigm shift to remote learning that occurred during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic caused marked upheaval for faculty at higher education institutions, according to a new report released late Tuesday by OnCampus Research, a division of the National Association of College Stores (NACS).

In its annual Faculty Watch: Attitudes and Behaviors toward Course Materials 2020 Report, OnCampus Research noted that more than 50% of instructors said their courses were significantly affected by changes to both the structure and content they delivered last year. Nearly two-thirds said they those pivots were not positive, affecting the quality of the education that students were receiving.

“Many faculty, 62%, reported the pandemic affected the format of materials in their course. High numbers [of faculty] also reported the pandemic impacted the level of rigor of their courses, the number of students in courses, and even the content covered in their courses,” said Brittany Conley, research analyst for NACS OnCampus Research.

And yet, despite the early setbacks, the majority of faculty members revealed that they not only are keen to embrace new technology but also believe many of the changes that happened early and are still occurring – digitally-delivered content and hybrid or Hyflex modalities, for example – will continue in the future.

“It certainly looks like the more that faculty has been exposed to digital, the more they choose to adopt it,” Conley said. “It looks like some of these changes are definitely going to stick around long term.”

The materials, the costs and the future

NACS, the professional association that represents campus retailers and related companies, received 968 responses in its annual survey across 17 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada (conducted in October and November), including public and private two-year and four-year institutions. It highlighted that faculty members not only individually were instructing more courses but also using more materials.

However, student spending did not increase (it has dropped steadily from $602 in 2015-16 to $413), which revealed a key finding from the survey – that more expensive print materials are continuing to fade, while e-books and the use of learning management systems (LMS) are gaining in popularity.

Faculty, spurred on by the pandemic and in keeping with trends over the past few years, clearly have opted for more affordable alternatives for students. More than three-quarters of those surveyed said they are aware of costs of some materials, and 80% said they have given materials to students that were free. Another 40% said they didn’t require materials to be purchased or rented, though students often disagreed on those “requirements”.

That was never more apparent than in the early months of 2020. Print usage tumbled at its highest rate – a 9% drop – to 77%. Just five years ago, print was utilized almost exclusively for course materials, at 93%. Less than half of faculty and students now prefer some printed materials (even if paired with a digital component) and less than a quarter say they want to use solely print. Print is not altogether dead as many students still want both print and digital, but it is definitely trending downward.

That of course, has meant a lean toward digital options. E-book usage was notably up 9%, the largest year-over-year rise in any format, according to OnCampus Research, to 62% (it was 37% in 2015-16). LMS usage rose to 84%, the first time it had eclipsed print in the survey results.

Will those trends continue even after the pandemic?

“It’ll be interesting in the next couple years to see if LMS was so widely used this year just because it was kind of the default when courses switched to online learning,” Conley said. “Or is that going to stick around long term since [faculty have] gotten used to it.”

Other notable numbers

The OnCampus Research team revealed several other trends in its Faculty Watch report.

Open education resources (OER) and inclusive access programs both increased in 2020. Although OERs ticked up only slightly, the faculty members who were polled about them said they were more keenly aware of them this year than last year. The number of those who had no idea what OERs were fell from 26% to 13%.

The number of faculty members who participated in an inclusive access program – those digital course materials negotiated by institutions prior to course delivery – doubled again to more than 20%. What mattered most to them were “quality of materials, ease of implementation in courses, and improved learning outcomes.” Still, 40% of faculty hadn’t heard of inclusive access, so there is still a ways to go before it is largely embraced by institutions.

As for formats, research data showed there may be no slowing down technology or digital delivery. More than two-thirds of faculty members believe digital content is here to stay and that they will continue using it moving forward. More than half believe online-only courses will continue even after the pandemic. Most expect to be in some kind of hybrid format for the foreseeable future.

For those hoping to a return to the traditional or normal, only 3% of faculty surveyed believe institutions will go back to fully in-person classes only.

As for challenges ahead, faculty listed increased workload and research requirements ahead of the pandemic, although those in the 55-and-over age group had COVID-19 as a top concern. Others evolved around the students themselves: their preparedness, their engagement and their well-being.