Q&A: The Future Textbook Will Merge With All Other Learning Content

EdTech, Platforms & Data / by

David Bickford

While the Obama administration challenges schools to embrace digital textbooks, the University of Phoenix, which has been ahead of the curve for nearly a decade, models ways that institutions can license and provide affordable digital textbooks to its students. The university currently has about 1,800 textbooks licensed by its students from four of the world’s largest publishers, including Pearson, McGraw-Hill, John Wiley & Sons, and Cengage. David Bickford, the Vice President of Academic Affairs for University of Phoenix, joins us today to discuss the challenges, benefits, and method behind its digital textbook program.

Q:  When did you first make the decision to switch to digital textbooks? What motivated this switch?

We began discussing the transition in 2001, and completed the transition over the next few years. As our population of learners grew, we were looking for ways to solve the logistical problems inherent in shipping physical books and course materials to students and faculty around the world. Digital content allowed us to level the playing field, ensuring that all members of our academic community would enjoy the same level of access regardless of location or modality of instruction. Also, we observed the constantly rising costs in relation to course materials for our students and wanted to find ways we could be helpful in that regard. We believed the big breakthrough for our students and our organization was not necessarily the shift from print to digital, but from individual purchase decisions to collectively licensing textbooks on behalf of individual students. As the nation’s largest university, we can collectively pool our buying power on behalf of our students and instead of having 20 students from one class individually buying a textbook, we might have 20,000 using the same textbook.

Q: Did you receive any push back from instructors or students?

As with any change, we encountered some resistance. We listened to our students and faculty and made adjustments based on their feedback. As we solved some of the logistical challenges, we communicated with our community the overall benefits of having course materials provided at a reasonable cost, due to our ability to collectively negotiate the rights.

Q: Have you faced any other challenges with the shift?

With some textbooks, securing digital rights to all of the content remains a struggle. While the ownership of the text itself is usually clear, sometimes the images contained within any given book are owned by myriad parties, making it difficult to obtain 100 percent clearance. Occasionally, we must use a print textbook in order to avoid depriving our students and faculty of the visual content that complements written text.

Q: What steps did you take to make the shift?

We phased in the digital textbooks gradually over several years and hired a dedicated resource to supervise the rollout. Constant communication with students, faculty and campus staff was necessary to ensure a positive outcome.

Q: What sort of infrastructure was needed for students and instructors to make the switch to digital textbooks (technology, tech support, policies, expectations, etc.)?

Since we currently host digital textbooks on our own infrastructure, we had to upgrade our existing data center and add additional facilities to ensure backup coverage. We also had to develop a set of policies around our student materials fee to ensure a predictable per-course charge for learners while also complying with financial aid regulations and employer policies regarding course material reimbursement.

Q: What have you seen as the major benefits of digital textbooks?

The main benefit is that our students and faculty have the materials they need in a highly available format and at a good price. We would hear from students, “the delivery driver lost my textbook.”  However, since making the transition to digital textbooks, we have largely gotten away from logistical challenges as an impediment to learning. The future brings the potential for better integration among different types of content in multiple media.

Q: How do you think digital textbooks are changing the way we research, write, and more?

The digital textbook of tomorrow will not be so much adjunct to the course, but will instead merge with the course so that it will be hard to tell when one is reading the textbook, learning from ancillary content, completing assignments, or engaging in discussions with the instructor and classmate.

Q: Is University of Phoenix looking into OER as an option to drive down the cost of texts for students even further?

We continue to experiment with new models of content distribution and delivery, including open educational resources.

Q: How can other schools and universities create partnerships to license digital textbooks from publishers?

Colleges and universities would do well to find ways to aggregate buying power while still respecting academic freedom. In addition, we find that licensing textbooks and content on behalf of our students and then redistributing that content to them via a set per-course fee allows us to deliver better value to students than traditional models in which students make atomized textbook purchasing decisions.

Q: How do you see the role of publishers evolving in the education market with digital textbooks?

Publishers need to realize that sometimes what educators seek is not their titles, but their content. This means there will have to be more openness to disaggregated content with costs broken down into smaller units. While this may result in reduced sales of entire titles, smart publishers can offset that with increased revenues from additional content and services that augment the desired text content.

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