The time has come to ask the question: When will we see the complete digital transformation of higher education in the United States?
The need for the shift to digital are painfully clear: Grades are lagging, students aren’t graduating, and those who do earn a degree often don’t have the skills that employers want. While digital learning won’t solve all these problems, we need to find ways to drive students’ performance to help them recoup their college investment, and I believe that digital represents the fastest and best option.
With these needs in mind, I’m willing to put my stake in the ground.
As I see it, the publishing industry needs to do all it can to ensure that within 36 months, higher education in the U.S. will be completely digital. I’m not talking about a slight or even gradual increase in e-book adoptions or the use of adaptive learning. I’m talking about a total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems. Aside from the college library, you hopefully won’t be able to find a printed textbook on a college campus in three years. And if you are, we should all be disappointed.
To date, the rate of adoption of digital course materials has been slower than most would have expected. Only around 3 percent of students today purchase e-books over print, and less than half of my company’s customers come to us for digital.
There are a few reasons why I think we haven’t seen greater uptake. For one, education is a high-stakes endeavor for students, with important outcomes riding on it. While students may be willing to switch to digital in some aspects of their lives, when it comes to studying, they often want to stick with what they know. There’s also the fact that until recently, the user experience offered by e-books and other digital technology just hasn’t been very good. A glorified PDF of a printed page is not compelling to students. Finally, and I think most importantly, the value proposition of digital to students and institutions hasn’t been clear. Many students and colleges are unaware of how digital can enhance the learning experience beyond making it more portable and affordable – and provide real results.
For such a big transition — a leap forward, really — three years may seem like a short period of time. In today’s technology landscape, it’s an eon. Thirty-six months ago the iPad didn’t exist. Now, 65 million units later, it has changed the way we consume, create and share information. If that number isn’t big enough for you, try this one: 760 million — that is how many tablets Forrester expects will be in use by 2016 .The adoption of these devices is happening at a lightning rate, and the inevitability of falling prices will make them even more accessible to students.
Student attitudes toward digital in the classroom are also evolving. Studies show that after using technology in an education setting for only a short time, students are realizing that they can’t live without it . As the design of digital education materials and technology continues to improve, students’ affinity for it will only grow.
It’s one thing for digital content and learning systems to offer a nice user experience and some interactive features. It’s another to help make meaningful gains in student performance.
Today’s digital technology already meets this challenge. Super-adaptive systems such as McGraw-Hill’s LearnSmart, a digital homework tutor that adapts to each student’s individual knowledge levels and creates custom study paths, are making a dramatic impact on student outcomes by scaling a personalized learning experience. An effectiveness study of LearnSmart  showed that students using the program have seen significant improvements in pass rates, retention rates and increases in their overall academic performance. Results like these – whether they come from McGraw-Hill or other leading companies in our field – are something we just can’t afford to ignore, especially in light of the rising costs for higher education and falling student achievement.
If you want to get a sense of how confident we are in the effectiveness of this technology, take a look at a recent pay-for-performance partnership  McGraw-Hill Education formed with Western Governors University. This partnership ties the fees we receive for learning materials to the grades of the students using those materials in class.
For professors – the foundation of our higher education system – digital provides an important collateral benefit. Working with students who come to class prepared and have an active interest in what they're learning allows them to spend less class time reviewing the basics and more time exploring advanced concepts. This is the type of teaching that leads to higher-order learning, and it’s the type of teaching that professors love doing the most.
When we talk about innovation, it’s usually in the context of technology. But where innovation is really shining through in education is in the models that learning companies are developing with colleges and universities to provide digital technology to students more affordably.
Colleges such as Indiana University and the University of Minnesota are partnering with  learning companies  to ensure that all students have access to the learning materials for their courses at a price that’s substantially lower than what they’re used to paying – as much as 60 percent less than a print textbook. At a price that’s comparable with a used print book, students receive all of the benefits of going digital: portability, instant access to course material on the first day of class, and seamless integration with adaptive learning systems that provide personalized instruction.
While the transition to an all-digital learning materials experience may not always be comfortable, it’s one that is a necessary part of the solution. Technology isn’t just about improving access or engagement, it’s about achieving what should be the main goal of our higher education system today: improving student performance.
If my 36-month timeline sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. We have the tools to help solve one of the greatest challenges of our times – we just have to put them to use.
Brian Kibby is president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education.