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Print and Digital Course Materials; The Iceberg Drifts On

Posted by Jason Smallheer on Mar 10, 2017 5:30:00 AM
Topics: Higher Ed, course materials, alternative content

The search for a clear winner in the battle for course material supremacy drags on. During the last 12 months there have been surveys and studies conducted with the goal of determining which direction students are moving in their preference, and like a search for the Loch Ness Monster, the picture is fuzzy.

Print and Digital Course Materials; The Iceberg Drifts On

The common thread in the research is the predictability of the results — faculty has their unique view, while publishers are reporting vast digital growth. Keep this in mind when you dive into the next great paper on colossal findings on student preferences.

The Independent College Bookstore Association surveyed 2,902 faculty at both two and four-year colleges and universities for their 2015-16 survey and found faculty has concerns about making the move to digital course materials. Their prime concerns when adopting materials are the quality of the product, cost to the student and reputation of the book. Acknowledging digital materials often cost less, faculty were not able to find any clear differentiators warranting a shift into the digital space. While the learning experience may be richer with the addition of videos, audio and multi-layered graphs, faculty see the shift from print to digital as being slow.

Some faculty say the primary obstacles they face are the complexities of the digital products, as opposed to the ease of opening a book, and the cost is not quite low enough to warrant the shift. The ICBA survey, “Going Digital,” found the magic number to be 40% — the amount a digital product would need to save students in order to commit to adopting all digital course materials.

Publishers, on the other hand, are reporting huge sales from their digital products, touting digital as the future of education due to the platform outselling print textbooks. But how skewed are the results? In 2015, McGraw-Hill Education said their digital products outsold all of their print products and digital products had caught on in the higher education space.

Cengage Learning is saying the same and expects digital course materials to be the primary revenue maker for the company.

“As we see more instructors and students using and wanting the benefits of a digital learning experience — from greater personalization to improved mastery of concepts — the technology-based learning tools are proving their advantages over the static printed page,” said Sandi Kirshner, Cengage chief communication officer in a prepared statement.

Analysts see these findings as being skewed based on the how costs and revenues are reported. Some texts are sold with a digital supplement, and the value of the sale is placed in the digital silo. In other examples, a student who buys a used book also purchases supplemental digital material. The publisher already added the sale of the print book to their ledger when the book was new, resulting in subsequent sales generating 100% digital revenues.

To add another element to the already confusing puzzle, more research showed college students who use digital course materials receive higher grades. A study by the Association of American Publishers showed students who used Pearson’s digital platform for a two-semester anatomy and physiology course had a 13% improvement in their grades in the first semester and a 27% improvement the second. Another study conducted by McGraw-Hill showed more students earned As and Bs when using their digital resources compared to those who did not.

David E. Anderson, AAP executive director of higher education, said publishers have heard what students are looking for and can easily respond.

“In addition to paying less, students are also getting better grades, passing more classes and graduating on time,” Anderson said.

While most digital course materials have an average lower cost when compared to a print textbook, students enjoy the interactive features, practice activities, quizzes and additional resources placing them in a bracket with a higher chance of classroom success.

The National Association of College Store’s 2016 study Student Watch™: Attitudes and Behaviors toward Course Materials: 2015-2016 Report, said 40% of students prefer a printed textbook, and more than a quarter of students have some form of print/digital bundle in their bag right now. Why the slow shift? Some students say it keeps costs low, others cite the convenience of not carrying a lot of books, and another group says it’s the requirement of the instructor pushing them down the digital path.

The shift is on, but when you ask a publisher, instructor and a student their views and rationale on the digital movement, you will get three different answers. The commonality? Like an iceberg — it’s a slow mover.

Simplifying Digital Content

About Jason Smallheer

Jason Smallheer worked for MBS from 2016 to 2017. His diverse career includes freelance work, broadcast radio and ski resort marketing. He has a passion for sharing ideas, helping businesses grow and professional development. When not expressing himself through writing, he enjoys time with his family and being outside doing anything that can result in scuffed knees and dirty clothes.

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