E-content is quickly becoming an integral part of the higher education environment and it has already shown itself as a cost-saving alternative to traditional textbooks. Institutions across the country are now attempting to devise and implement effective e-content strategies by discussing the risks, challenges, opportunities, and best practices. By observing these discussions, EDUCAUSE has developed a quick reference “do and don’t” checklist for the constantly evolving e-content landscape, providing short-term and long-term strategies.
- Get Started
E-content is actively being used by students today in the form of web articles, video clips, shared files, and short snippets from various sources. Institutions need to support these activities by having learning management environments that contain repositories and links to popular content.
- Conduct Pilots
With so many different platforms and suppliers of e-content in the market already, and many more to come, now is the time to explore all available options. Institutions should consider conducting trials that examine several different approaches over the next few terms. E-content is a fast-moving area; waiting too long could prevent an institution from helping to shape the marketplace going forward. Institutions should be careful not to leave students and faculty sitting on the sidelines simply watching others.
- Engage Students
Establishing a standing student committee that focuses on e-content will be key in the coming years. Students can serve as members of a focus group, an early-evaluation assessment team, a tech trend-watch committee, or a user community.
- Test Platforms for Devices and Reader Software
There are many e-reader platforms on the market today, but testing every one of them is not necessary. By building a test-bed that includes the dominant players, institutions can allow interested parties to trail different platforms with various forms of e-content. Institutions can also consider partnering with other, nearby campuses to share a common test-bed, thus reducing costs and expanding information sharing.
- Set Standards for Accessibility
Some of the biggest challenges associated with an institutional e-content strategy are the unknowns and shortcomings surrounding the accessibility of e-content. Many e-content providers and e-reader platforms have committed to support accessibility by working with an institution’s local accessibility community and with national accessibility organizations. New technologies offer opportunities to address issues ranging from color blindness and text size to audio conversion and descriptive interactive graphics.
- Adopt Open Technology Standards
Many of the products offered in today’s e-content marketplace are shifting from proprietary apps to open standards such as HTML5. Open-standard products and software offer many of the same features as closed applications but provide the additional benefit of working across the most common device platforms. Open-standard products and software also allow for greater longevity, since the e-content can continue to be accessed through various devices even as technologies develop further.
- Engage Faculty
Faculty have many different perspectives on e-content and have likely already engaged with various types and platforms. Institutional leaders should establish an open communication channel both formally with the academic senate and informally with faculty members who are particularly progressive in this area. Having both a senate and a faculty focus group, combined with student input, will prove invaluable in developing an institutional strategy.
- Work with the Library
Most libraries pay large license fees for students and faculty to have access to huge amounts of content. Depending on an institution’s agreements, much of this content has likely been paid for already and can be distributed electronically to students for use in the classroom.
- Consider Various Business Models
The team evaluating different types of technology should include someone who has the business expertise to help develop/consider different types of e-content delivery models. The historical approach in which a student purchases a textbook in its entirety is no longer the sole method of acquiring content. Institutions should consider working directly with authors for content, or with publishers for individual chapters instead of whole books, or with platform providers for a blend of traditional content and new media. Pricing models are still being developed, but just as iTunes revolutionized music by allowing people to purchase a single song, faculty should be able to have their students purchase only a few chapters, rather than an entire textbook, or mix content from various sources.
- Engage Campus Business Leadership and the CFO
The cost of content continues to be a major component of the overall cost of education. Moving to different business models, even in exploratory phases, will be of interest to campus financial leaders. Institutions can ask a member of the budget or CFO office to participate on the governing board or can, at the least, provide regular updates to that group.
- Choose Open Content
Purchasing content through traditional channels is no longer the only option available to an institution. There is outstanding open content being developed specifically for electronic consumption—content being published under Creative Commons or other open licenses that allow it to be freely distributed and remixed, without restriction. Open content may not meet the needs of all faculty and students, but it is a fantastic option for faculty interested in adopting free, customizable content.
- Consider Comparison Content
As faculty evaluate content, they should have an easy-to-use comparison tool that can gather the content for their subject matter and show the financial impact that their choices can have on students. Considering that textbooks represent one of the largest costs for higher education outside of housing and tuition, a price comparison of available content can help faculty directly influence the cost of education.
- Plan for Analytics
One of the biggest advantages of e-content over traditional textbooks is the e-content metadata (information about the use of the e-content), because its analysis can be particularly helpful to faculty, students, and the institution as a whole. Metadata can suggest when students are struggling over a particular piece of course material, when students aren’t reading at all, or when faculty need to freshen up the content to improve student learning. With e-content analytics, this data can be gathered and utilized quickly to help aid faculty and improve the development of core curriculum. However, Institutions need to be sure that their agreements identify this data as the property of the institution, because in addition to privacy concerns, access to this data could violate aspects of FERPA or other regional legislation. Campuses must also carefully consider how to anonymize the data, handle the small sample problem, and store the data so that it can be maintained over time and used by departments, faculty, and eventually students.
- Focus Solely on Textbooks
Ultimately, the platform providing the e-content is going to be the primary multimedia consumption device for the community. The iPad has already shown its versatility by delivering video, interactive graphics, dynamic content, and rich text. Planning only for text as part of a campus strategy will leave significant gaps in the testing and evaluation of delivered e-content.
- Set Hardware Standards
Many institutions struggled with hardware standards early on, since they wanted to ensure that everyone had a similar experience with the content. Hardware standards can drive costs down, but only when there are sufficient resources to ensure that everyone has the same standard. Some institutions or schools within larger campuses may be able to use a student technology fee or other source of funds to provide a standard e-content device. However, in a market as young and dynamic as this, standards are premature at this stage and will likely evolve rapidly in the immediate future.
- Provide Exclusivity
Many content providers—such as publishers, platform providers, and most commonly, campus bookstores being run by large national bookstores (e.g., Barnes & Noble or Follett)—are offering improved terms, rebates, student support services, and many other “perks” in exchange for contracts with digital exclusivity or an extension of existing exclusivities. In some cases, institutions have signed extensions to their bookstore contracts without noticing the addition of exclusivity language for e-content. One institution, for example, recently signed a contract that provided its bookstore with exclusivity for fifteen years. These contracts are often signed by people who may not be familiar with the pace of technology or the risks involved in long-term contracts. A coordinated discussion of the various aspects of e-content will help reduce the likelihood that a clause in the bookstore agreement will cause problems for the institution at a later date.
- Sign Agreements with Proprietary Providers
Many of the current e-content providers offer compelling solutions. However, these types of agreements can result in long-term vendor lock-in that requires the purchase of ongoing licenses for access to both the content and the e-content platform. Ultimately, deals of this type can end up costing an institution, or its users, more in the long run.
- Accept Limited Terms for Content Access
Students purchasing physical textbooks expect to sell back their textbooks, for a limited amount, in exchange for one semester of access. But students won’t have the ability to “sell back” e-content because publishers put significant restrictions on resale or sharing. Thus, students purchasing e-content need to have the ability to retain long-term access to that e-content. Ensuring that access rights be given not just for the current quarter or semester but for the duration of the student’s time at the institution, at a minimum, is the best path forward. Students should also have the right to purchase permanent access to e-content that is central to their ongoing scholarship or should be provided purchase rights for print versions.
- Forget Research
Faculty who have a special interest in the educational impact of e-content should be engaged in pilot studies. Faculty can evaluate the various benefits, challenges, and pedagogical impacts of these new models and can provide a structured approach to document the evolution of the technologies over time and the use/benefit of new types of e-content as it is incorporated into courses in innovative ways.
- Leave E-Content to the Bookstore
Pricing negotiations should not be left to the bookstore or to students. Institutional purchasing power can be leveraged to obtain discounts of 60 percent, 70 percent, or more off the list price. It’s going to take time to experiment with and consider new approaches before the industry adopts pricing structures that recognize the lower-cost delivery models that e-content can provide.
- Ignore Faculty Authors
Many faculty are publishing their work as they have for decades: through individual publishers. If faculty use a publisher who provides e-content in an inaccessible format, institutions may have a real challenge with campus (and federal) accessibility guidelines. Instead, campuses should support faculty by providing information on how they can engage in this new digital publishing era. Conversely, if an institution has strong guidelines, is the university limiting opportunities to innovate? Faculty need to know what works today and what might present a problem. Good behavior should be incentivized.
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