The Direct Network

What is Digital Content?

Posted by Carrie Watkins on Jan 22, 2015 5:17:00 AM
Topics: digital content, mbs direct, K-12

There is a stark difference between a PDF and an enhanced iBook®, but they are often categorized under the same heading: digital content. Depending on platform, a person's experience may have been flat and static or highly interactive and engaging. As you and your school look at adding digital content to your mix of learning tools, the first step is understanding what you want from your content and what is available.


“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

— Princess Bride, 1987


What is digital content?When we start the conversation about digital content, most people automatically think of eBooks. For the sake of this conversation, I’m going to define eBooks as material written by a subject matter expert and commissioned, edited and distributed by a publisher. I am also going to put the stipulation that an eBook is accessed through an eReader with learning tools such as highlighting and taking notes, similar to what you can find in VitalSource® or iBooks. If you are using a static PDF version of a book, I sincerely hope it was free. You’ll find more information about free materials in the Open Educational Resources section below. Pretty much all publishers have jumped on the e-book bandwagon and are providing their material through at least one eReader platform. Many larger publishers have material on two or more platforms. The most popular platforms are VitalSource/CourseSmart®, iBooks, Kindle® and Intel Study®.

The biggest advantage of eBooks compared to other digital content stems from the vetting the publisher does. When a faculty member adopts an eBook, they can assume a certain level of quality based on the author and the editing process. Being part of a platform means students can interact with the material, making it easier to study by searching through the book and highlights. VitalSource and iBooks allow the student to export their notes. Kno and some enhanced iBooks include linking and videos. As new file formats for eBooks become more popular, linking, embedded videos and assessments will become more commonplace.

Some of the disadvantages of eBooks include cost and lack of flexibility. Even though a student can expect a 20-40% discount if they purchase a digital title over a new print title, eBooks can still come with a hefty price tag. Also, faculty members typically can’t edit an eBook if they want to remove or add information. While publishers continuously add to their eBook catalogs, they aren't moving as fast as some schools would like. Schools can typically find eBooks that cover a traditional core curriculum for K-12, and a significant number of titles for introductory-level higher education courses. Finding a digital option that fits how your faculty member wants to teach or a digital title for more specific courses might require more searching.

Access codes

Access codesLike eBooks, access codes are products of a publisher. By purchasing a code, the student has access to a portal that includes supplemental resources. Often those resources include additional practice, further information on a topic, assessments and possibly even a digital version of the textbook. Each publisher has a different platform, and some publishers have multiple portals. Examples include Pearson’s My Labs®, Success Net® and Success Net Plus®. Cengage has Mind Tap®, while Houghton Mifflin Harcourt® has Think Central® and MyHRW®. Resources on these publisher portals provide a lot of flexibility for the instructor. They can pick and choose which materials make the most sense for their class, and students have a place to go for extra support and practice.

Resources in the portal are easy for the publisher to update, making that material more applicable even than the textbook itself. One of the downfalls of access codes is the set-up process. Several of them, including those from Pearson and HMH, require the faculty member to create the class in the system and then add the students who purchased the codes, a cumbersome process for faculty preparing for the first day of class. Also, these portals are almost exclusively online, so students won’t be able to access the material offline, such as during commutes or if they don’t have strong internet access at home. There are access codes for many subject areas and specific book series. Talk with your publisher rep or your MBS Direct account manager to see what is available.

Course packs

Course packs allow faculty a way to pull individual resources together into one document, which often acts as the primary material for the class. True course packs are run through copyright clearance to make sure the material is accurately cited and paid for. Traditional course packs were then photocopied and bound for students to purchase. Plagued with crooked copies, poor resolution and a time consuming process, course packs aren't usually a faculty favorite. Many course pack companies are adapting to an increasingly digital world. Not only will most give you the option for a static PDF of the file, but the best ones also provide the materials through an eReader with learning functionality you would find in an eBook reader.

MBS Direct offers eText Builder, a faculty content creation tool that gives the instructor the option of searching through a library of journal articles, book chapters and other resources, as well as uploading their own material. Using this tool, faculty can easily pair free and open resources with copyright-cleared content from highly regarded publications for cost-conscious course material.

Online courses

Online coursesOnce relegated to non-traditional students in higher education, turn-key online courses are available for all levels of education, and for all students. Universities as well as for-profit organizations are creating course ware that faculty or facilitators can use for the course content, practice and assessments. This leaves the faculty member or facilitator time to lead discussions and more hands-on activities. These online courses are also good for remediation and helping students get back to their peer group, or to provide options for students who need a step above what is provided with in-class instruction.

In higher education, course designers for the school primarily create the course for faculty and adjuncts to use. Open courseware from MOOC providers such as Coursera, Udacity and EdX can be a source of courses to build off of, as well. K12 schools have several options for courseware, including the University of Missouri’s Mizzou K-12 Online, Brigham Young University, Florida Virtual Schools and K12, Inc. Understanding how the organization is accredited and who builds their courses – teachers, subject matter experts, or both? – are critical if you are looking at potential online courses for your schools.

Open educational resources

According to the Hewlett Foundation, OER are “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.” Because OER are easily accessible and usually free, they are great supplements to traditional course materials. Some educators and institutions are even wrapping several OER together to create more formal primary course materials.

Finding high-quality OER that match the learning objectives of the course prove to be the most daunting task for using OER in the classroom. Looking to searchable repositories such as MERLOT, OER Commons and HippoCampus can make the hunt less time consuming. One of the concerns with OER is knowing if the material is available to use and customize. Creative Commons is the most common licensing for open content, and it clearly illustrates what the author allows for each piece. Most OER simply require attribution (BY license) or that if a faculty member uses the work in a new way, that the new work must also be open (Share Alike license). You can find more information about the Creative Commons licenses as well as a catalog of items using them by going to For schools interested in adding digital content to their technology strategy, there are a lot of options. MBS Direct is here to help you understand those options and find the best fit for you, your faculty and your students.

Simplifying Digital Content

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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