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Pearson’s recent “digital first” announcement regarding collegiate curricular materials follows Cengage’s move some 18 months ago to promote digital curricular content with a one price, “all you can read” strategy.  Also playing an increasingly larger role in the conversation about digital course materials is the OER content from both non-profit (e.g., MIT Open Courseware, Merlot, and OpenStax, among others) and for-profit providers (e.g., Lumen Learning) that promote OER, primarily in digital formats.   

Pearson’s announcement this summer follows by seven years the 2012 proclamation by then McGraw-Hill Higher Education president Brian Kibby of the need for higher ed curricular content to be all digital by 2015.  (Spoiler alert: that did not happen – at McGraw-Hill or elsewhere.)  Still, there is much that should be attractive, indeed compelling, about an “all digital” strategy – for students and for the content providers. 

On the student side, all digital should reduce the cost of course content.  Also important is that the all digital discussion is closely linked to the Day One course content efforts that try to provide students with access to course materials on the first day of their classes.

For the providers, digital will reduce some production costs related to printing and shipping books.  However, as digital materials increasing encompass other supplements and different kinds of development costs, some of the projected savings may be transactional, not actual.

Interestingly, the Pearson announcement also suggests the CQI – Continuous Quality Improvement – strategy long deployed across many industries, including the software industry.  Rather than let calendar or other issues drive the release of product enhancements, CQI advocates for doing it ASAP, rather than waiting. As reported by Lindsay McKenzie at Inside Higher Ed on July 16th, Pearson intends to “update [digital materials] on an ongoing basis -- reflecting new research developments, technology breakthroughs and the latest pedagogical trends.”

All good, it would seem.  These strategies suggest lower cost, “fresher” (or constantly improving) curricular content along with better options for Day One access.   After all, textbook prices are the low-hanging fruit (and publishers the villains) in one component of the continuing public anger and angst about college costs.  So strategies that promise to reduce costs and enhance Day One access are good things.

And yet, going digital or digital first strategies may actually disadvantage large numbers of low-income, full- and part-time undergraduates, primarily enrolled in community colleges or public four-year comprehensives, who are the intended beneficiaries of these initiatives.  As shown below, there is consistent and significant concern from faculty, from provosts/Chief Academic Officers, and from CIOs, about digital access as a key issue in the process of going digital.

Digital Access.  Over the past three years I have conducted three national surveys of faculty, provosts/CAOs, and CIOs focused, in part “going digital.” The consistent message about digital content from all three surveys is a clear concern that many (low-income) students do not own the necessary digital devices required to access digital textbooks and related digital course content.

  • The 2016 Going Digital SurveyOver a fourth (27 percent) of the 2900 surveyed faculty across 29 two- and four-year (primarily public) colleges and universities reported that their students do not have easy access to tech resources that would allow them to make full use of digital content.
  • The 2017 Provosts, Pedagogy, and Digital Learning Survey.  Provosts and Chief Academic Officers overwhelmingly agreed that “digital curricular resources make learning more efficient and effective for students” (86 percent agree/strongly, agree).  However, fully two-fifths (40 percent) also report that “our efforts to go ‘all digital’ with course materials are impeded by the fact that many of our students do not own the digital devices (computers or tablets) they need to access digital content and resources.”
  • The 2018 Campus Computing Survey.  Like CAOs, CIOs are also effusive about the potential of digital course content: 94 percent agreed/strongly agreed that ““digital curricular resources make learning more efficient and effective for students.” concurrently, almost a third of CIOs (29 percent; 45 percent in community colleges) expressed concern that “our efforts to go ‘all digital’ with course materials are impeded by the fact that many of our students do not own the digital devices (computers or tablets) they need to access digital content and resources.”

Obviously the price of a computer is one of the costs of college attendance for presumably all students. Indeed, most of us might stipulate that a computer is an essential resource for college students – and has been for several years (several decades?).

And yet, although campus financial aid budgets allocate money for textbooks and course materials (about $1240-1440 annually for undergraduates according to recent numbers from the College Board), the financial aid calculation at almost all institutions does not include the cost of a computer.  My recent efforts to spot check financial aid budgets at some 20 public and private four-year colleges and universities –including the elite, the expensive, and also the less expensive – found no institution that included the cost a computer in the undergraduate financial aid budget.

Resolution and Remedy?  Alas, there appear to be no easy solutions to the challenge of digital access for students who need digital platforms.  In theory, adding a computer to the financial aid budget might help some students, although it also might simply increase their loan obligations, already a very big and contentious issue that involves public policy (and potentially election year politics: free tuition and free computers?).  Too, were campuses to add computers to the cost of attendance calculation, this would no doubt increase financial budgets (and contribute to rising discount rates) at many institutions as students qualify for additional financial aid.

So perhaps one strategy here is to crowdsource the discussion.  We can define the problem.  The question is how does – or will, or should – your institution address and resolve the issue of access to digital course content for students who cannot afford a computer?

Please post your comments about an institution strategy – or what you think your campus should do – to address the digital access issue.  Thanks!


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