The Direct Network

Increasing the Amount of Digital Content You Offer

Posted by Carrie Watkins on Nov 18, 2015 7:00:00 AM
Topics: online courses, digital content, Higher Ed
Technology is ubiquitous in the lives of the online student. From the LMS to the word processing and researching tools students need to complete their coursework, student devices are critical to a successful experience. So it only makes sense that students access their course materials on their devices as well. But it’s not always a simple task to replace a print textbook with its digital twin. While publishers are converting more and more of their newer content to a digital platform, there is still a lot of material that is only available in a low-tech format.

If increasing your percentage of digital course materials is high on your list for next year, here are a few suggestions to make the most of your options:

  1. Understand what you are trying to achieve: Lower cost, additional learning tools for students or simply a lighter backpack.

Low cost: While not everything is available digitally, there is enough out there to cover a core curriculum. Whether it covers what your faculty want students to learn is another story. If you are just looking for an inexpensive option, find the material with the lowest sticker price that still sets a solid backbone for the course and supplement with open educational resources to hit the points the book misses. Material from publishers such as OpenStax College and Flatworld provide low-cost options and are available in the VitalSource® platform for the learning functionality required by the modern student. Repositories such as MERLOT and OER Commons provide great supplemental materials to support the scope and sequence of the low-cost textbook.

Increased functionality: No one enjoys reading a PDF version of a 200-page academic textbook. If you are more concerned with adding functionality and engagement to your content, find a platform or two with the tools that you want your students to have. Any digital content platform worth your time should have highlighting and the ability to take notes. Many platforms will allow students to export their notes and highlights into a usable format – so students can create study guides or easily add citations to a paper. Also look for collaborative tools such as sharing notes with other classmates, embedded resources such as videos and assessments, and analytics. VitalSource, Copia, Kindle and iBooks are popular and typically have a broad catalog. Also, your students are likely to have multiple devices with multiple operating systems – an iPhone and a Windows laptop. Be sure the reader you choose will work for your students across all their devices.

Lighter backpack: Taking one or two of those heavy books and putting them on a device can take five pounds out of a student’s backpack. If you are looking to replace a few of your core materials, staying with your current adoptions should give you a couple options for digital content. Be sure to talk with your account manager to get a digital match list for your current booklist.

  1. Familiarize yourself with what "digital content" means: eBooks, access codes, course packs and open educational resources.

Digital content often means different things to different people. Are you talking about a static PDF, where students can’t do anything but read the document? Are you talking about an access code to a publisher portal with videos, assessments and other resources? The material that MBS Direct can provide to current partners includes ebooks, access codes and digital course packs.

eBooks: For the purpose of a common vernacular, eBooks are commissioned by a publisher, written by a subject matter expert, and distributed by a publisher. eBooks are accessed through a platform with learning functionality, such as highlighting and note taking, which is the primary difference between eBooks and a PDF of a book. Content-wise, eBooks are a digital representation of the print textbook, with the learning functionality of a eReader.

Access codes: Publishers are recognizing the need for content to be more flexible so faculty can choose only the pieces that make the most sense to their class. Access codes are a series of letters and numbers that give the user access to a publisher portal. Access codes are different for each publisher, both the portal and the resources housed there. These resources often include supplemental material that corresponds with the textbook, such as additional projects, assessments and sometimes even a digital copy of the textbook. Some access codes, including most Pearson and HMH codes, require set-up by the faculty member prior to the start of class. Most access code products do require the student to be connected to the Internet in order to access the material.

Curated Course Packs: Course Packs are collections of curated content, pulled together by a faculty member or course designer, cleared for copyright and provided in either a printed or a digital version. Depending on the vendor, the digital version can be accessed through a browser, or through a mobile app. Course packs are a great way to use only the material that makes sense for the specific learning objectives of the course, or to find a digital option for an out-of-print edition. Course packs used to be a tedious process for an often-low quality product. There are resources now that allow faculty to create a course pack with digital-first material – not scans – and see how much it will cost before ever adopting the material. These platforms also allow faculty to add in their own content, such as presentations or videos, directly in the course pack.

OER: Open Educational Resources, or OER, are materials found on the web and created by other faculty or subject matter experts. OER are considered open because the author allows other people to use, mix and customize the material at little or no cost. To know if the material you want to use is open, use a site that expressly gives permission, such as OER Commons and MIT’s Open Courseware. Many non-profit organizations have pre-made lesson plans available, such as The National Park Service and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many authors will also use the Creative Commons logo to specify how the material can be used, for example if it just needs attribution and if it can be used for commercial purposes. You can find more information at org/licenses.

  1. Ask your faculty how tied they are to their specific adoption.

Would they be willing to look at new editions of the same book? Would they be willing to look at a different title entirely? Publishers are jumping on the digital bandwagon, continually growing their catalog of available titles. However, converting a title to a digital format is an investment so publishers are only converting their most recent editions. Using the most recent edition of the titles will give your faculty members the most availability. But not all titles are available, so if faculty members are willing to look at other titles in the subject matter, chances are they will find something available digitally. We can always provide samples to faculty members so they can make sure the title matches their curriculum.

 Course packs may be a good option for faculty who are not eager to change editions, but the title is not available digitally. Talk with your account manager about our course pack options, including our eText Builder.

  1. When you've found a digital title you like, make sure it works with the device(s) your students are using.

If it's an access code, will it work well on a tablet? If it's an eBook, will it work on all platforms, including the ones your students have at home? Be sure to ask your access code provider how the product works specifically on the device your students will be using, and get a sample to try just to be sure. Some publishers have wonderful animations on their portals, but if they are flash-based, those animations won't work on an iPad. Some publishers have apps for mobile devices to help with that, and that's good information to know up front. Most eBook platforms work across devices, with apps for mobile. Even if your school is dedicated to a particular device, such as an iPad or a Chromebook, your students may need to access the book through a different device at home or while traveling. Making sure the eBook platform is available however the student needs to use it can help your students be successful.


Adding this technology to the classroom is a big move for many schools, and MBS Direct wants to help make the transition as smooth as possible. Reach out to your account manager if you have any questions about the digital options available for your school, and how MBS Direct can provide tools and training on the platforms you would like to use. Ask about setting up a training for your course designers or faculty on these options.

About Carrie Watkins

Carrie is a former digital consultant for MBS Direct, who specialized in traveling around the country to learn about new products and services MBS Direct can provide to partner schools and bringing those ideas back into the office to work on with the digital solutions team.

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