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The Shift to Digitizing Classrooms and How Institutions Can Play a Part

Emerging technologies are going to replace traditional textbooks when it comes to classroom resources in the near future, but institutions need to ensure they are part of the process when it comes to determining pricing models.

The following interview is with Nik Osborne, the Chief of Staff for the Vice President for Information Technology at Indiana University. At the recent EDUCAUSE conference, Osborne spoke on the importance of moving to online resources to lower costs for students. In this interview, Osborne discusses the advantages of the emerging digitized classroom resources, explains what some of the barriers to their use are and shares his thoughts on how institutions can ensure they are part of the pricing process for emerging technologies.

1. There’s been a lot of innovation recently in the textbook industry, with publishers developing electronic textbooks and companies like Apple setting up their products for advanced highlighting and note-taking functions. Why is digitizing classroom and educational resources gaining so much attention?

I think overall the biggest problem that this process is set up to master is the problem with costs. There is more and more focus on lowering the cost of education for students. A lot of institutions are feeling the pressure of trying to lower tuition so that more and more students can come and get a great education. This piece with the textbook market has been a large part of this cost.

For some of our students we’re seeing they’re spending between $600 to a $1000 per semester on their books depending on the classes they’re taking. So, when the shift to digital happens, and as it is happening now, this is a way to cut down some of those costs so that students can lower the price of education. The way it’s doing that is twisting up the model that has been in place for many, many years with the textbook industry; publishers and authors have this textbook model has been fighting the used textbook market, they’ve been fighting piracy, they’ve been fighting the fact that students can simply walk into class without a textbook at all. Every time that happens, it cuts more and more into the profits for their book and they have to raise the price.

It’s this vicious circular model that students are looking for better and better deals, that in turn causes book publishers and authors to raise the prices and so you have this circular thing that doesn’t do good for anybody.

With the shift to digital, what we’re beginning to see a little more is that publishers can go directly to the student, and as things are online and require access codes there’s no longer a used textbook market that can take away from some of those sales.

Publishers for example, at Indiana University, we have deals with several publishers and we can guarantee them 100 percent sell-through whenever a faculty has selected their eBook. This is unheard of in their current marketplace. Even in the current textbook market, they may get a sales person to have a faculty member sign on for a textbook, but that doesn’t mean that any of the students are actually going to buy it new. What these models provide is a way for the publishers to get their content to every student in a classroom. As they continue to develop and we move past basic electronic versions of a textbook into more interactive software, tutorials and things that require a lot of student interaction, we’re beginning to see more and more where students actually go to a publisher’s website in order to take quizzes and things like that. When that happens what you’ll see is the student’s ability to go out and buy it—obviously they can’t buy a used version, they can’t pirate a version, and they can’t choose to walk into a class without the content—because they have to go to these websites to do these quizzes, they have to do these tutorials in order to pass the class.

Publishers and authors are seeing some great ways of trying to normalize their revenue streams so that they can account for sales of their content. And vise versa, what institutions are doing, especially what we’re trying to do at IU, is that we’re trying to create a model that works for everybody involved. So, we certainly don’t want to go to a model that the publishers find that they can start charging whatever they want to the students. We want to provide the tension there that says, “we can provide you with this model of 100 percent sell-through, but only if you’re willing to drop the price substantially”.

I think all of those together are what’s gathering so much attention. You touched on some of the digital tools for teaching and learning—the highlighting, the annotation, the shared annotation among students and faculty—there are all sorts of things that this shift has opened up as possibilities.

2. What are some factors standing in the way of these innovations coming to market?

I think initially, even up to a year or so ago, the publishers are still trying to figure out how they want to sell in this new marketplace. We still see a lot of publishers that want to continue selling stuff the way they’ve always sold it, but now, it’s digital. They’re not really thinking of new models and such that can provide direct content to the students or directly through an institution. I think the publishers are figuring that out, I think they are realizing how they can sell differently in this new age. The bookstores are also trying to figure this out. They have for the longest time just been able to put books on their shelf and people purchase them. That’s no longer going to happen with those digital thingies. You don’t really need to go to a bookstore to visit anymore. Bookstores have to figure this out. A lot of the members involved with this whole process are still trying to figure out exactly what they want to do.

And then of course the institutions are the other piece here, as representation of the students. They have to decide how they’re going to engage in this process. Are they going to sit of the sideline and wait for publishers to figure it out themselves? Wait for maybe a company like Apple to come out and revolutionize things like they did with the music industry or are they going to be actively involved? At Indiana University, we choose to be actively involved because we want to shape the market. We want to help model exactly what this process is going to look like and we want to do so in partnership with the publisher.

The other thing that I think is preventing this from taking off—but I think again, it will take off in the next three years or so—the software provided by the publishers is going to get better, and it needs to get better. Then I think the hardware needs to get better. With the software piece from the publishers, they’re spending lots of money to develop these really great tools. They have data analytics embedded in them that can really grow with the students. For example, they’re looking into software programs that as a student progresses through the material, it may take them on different pathways. So, if one student is struggling with certain subject matter, it may direct that student off to a different area to help them catch up on that subject matter so that they can continue on the longer journey through the content. Another student may just be whipping through everything, so that software program will know that and push them on a different path further into the content. So, you have the software that learns with an individual student and backed by tons of data analytics that’s from all over the nation. You can see where these software programs can really change the way students are learning, the way the student interacts with what we used to call a textbook.

I think the other piece too is the hardware. The iPad raised a lot of eyebrows. Everyone just ran out and bought one. I know a lot of K-12 school systems are running out and saying:

“Oh we’re going to buy iPads for our students! We’re going to buy iPads for our students! Now, what was the question? What were we trying to solve? We’ve got the iPad, now what do we do?”

I think that’s a piece that still needs to get stronger. The tablet devices are an amazing innovation, but it’s one thing to read a book on a tablet when you’re sitting at the beach and you’re just flipping through a novel. Kindles, iPads, they’re great for that. But when a student actually learns through a textbook, they’re not just flipping pages; they’re really digging into the content. Most students, when they have a physical textbook in front of them, they’ve got a highlighter, they’ve got a red pen, they are digging in that content, they are writing notes in the margins. They are really just delving into that book. An iPad and some of these other tablets, yes, they allow highlighting, they allow annotation but it’s just not quite the same experience. I think as the hardware starts to learn how maybe the students are going to interact with the digital textbook, they will start adding features that allow that to be more closely related to what they experience with a physical textbook.

I can see things with styluses coming out, so with your stylus you could sit and write notes right in the margin, just like you do with the traditional textbook. Right now you have to use your fingers, and you’re spreading things out. Sometimes it’s too small, sometimes it’s too big. These are all things that are going to get better and better. We know that the software and hardware is going to improve moving forward and that’s why we’ve focused so much here at Indiana University on getting the model in place. Once we have the model in place, then we can deliver the content, we can deliver the hardware, we can do those things. We want to get the model in place first before we start defining exactly what the content is.

3. What role should institutions have in making sure these innovations come to the forefront of higher education?

I think institutions have to make a decision—they need to decide the role they are going to play.

Some institutions are just fine letting the publishers and other market shapers figure this out themselves and then they will jump in at a later date and say, “Okay, this is what we have to work with we’ll now work with it and deliver it to our student.” Other institutions are going to be more aggressive, Indiana University is one of them. We feel that it’s important to jump in and shape this.

I think all institutions need to be at least thinking that through and deciding what side of the line they stand on. There are lots of opportunities for them to jump in now. Indiana University worked really hard with Internet2 and EDUCASE to develop a pilot program so that various institutions around the nation could try eTech out of their campus. They could bring it directly without having to go through a huge two or three year long process that IU went through. They could dip out on their campus and start learning immediately from their faculty and students. Learning what their students like and faculty like and dislike. They can start using that data to help them in future negotiations with publishers.

I think those are the opportunities that are out there for institutions to take advantage of, but they have to make the decision. Sitting on the sidelines or not putting this transition into the top of someone’s stack of “to-dos” is going to be a real problem. I think that’s one of the things that IU did clearly, as my boss and myself took this as one of our top to-do items and pushed it really hard. Other institutions… this is an afterthought that they give to someone in their department… it’s not given the emphasis that it needs.

I think institutions are going to have to step up and start being aggressive or otherwise they’re just going to be left with what’s shaped without them.

4. How can higher education institutions ensure that these innovations follow the path they want to see? What kinds of activities do they need to take part in to make sure these products meet their needs now and in the future? And on the flip side, what is the worst case scenario if they’re not a part of the process?

One thing that institutions can take advantage of now…they could begin looking at this individually on their own campuses. They can start an eTech initiative and just start engaging with the publishers, piloting things, have a few semesters of pilot programs on their campus and then move from there. We think that maybe that could be a re-creating the wheel situation, simply because IU has started this back in 2009. We’ve gone through five different semesters of pilot programs, we learned a ton. We tried to share that information with everyone that we can. We’ve gone through the process of negotiating with publishers, and in the nine months it took to get the first deal signed, we’ve now rolled it out and we’re going on our third full semester of having a full eTech initiative running on our campus under this model.

You could say, one choice an institution has is just to do it all on their own. Or, they can leapfrog and piggyback on some of the things we’ve learned. That’s where I think the pilots through Internet2 and EDUCASE are a really great way for an institution to get involved and not go through the two, three years of spinning their wheels and re-learning things that have already been learned by an institution. Being a part of those pilot programs are a great way for those institutions to really help shape this. The stronger those pilots are the more institutions that are involved in them, the greater light it will send to the publishers to take this very seriously. I think when we initially began the pilot we had five institutions. The next semester we had 30. We would have had many more than that if some of these institutions hadn’t signed bookstore deals with Barnes and Noble or Follett that really lock them in and prevented them from doing pilots.

I think the more and more institutions that get involved, we can all learn from each other. We don’t have to all re-create this wheel. Higher education has a history of doing that. We all have a history of, “Hey, we can do this all on our own a lot better!”

I think coming together, we can take advantage of the leverage all of our institutions have with the publishers. For example, when IU signed our deal with the publisher, we spoke on behalf of 110,000 students, that’s how many we represent here. When Internet2 and EDUCASE go and sign a deal with the publisher, if they are representing 200-300 institutions, now they are leveraging millions of students that would be involved and speaking for. The publishers are going to take notice of that. From the publishers’ perspective, they would much rather work with one party rather than go out and sign deals with all these various institutions.

I think that’s the best way moving forward. That doesn’t suppose that the IU model is the way for everyone. Internet2 and EDUCASE are trying all sorts of different pilot models. Maybe the one that works for IU does not work for Ball State. Maybe Ball State wants a little bit more of hybrid model. That’s fine, I think that’s what this time right now is for…experimentation and learning and then those institutions can pick and choose what’s best for them.

I think the danger of not doing anything is simply, you’re on the side lines. Whatever happens out there in the field of play, you’re just waiting. If something gets developed and the path forward is defined, publishers get comfortable selling a certain way, other institutions are comfortable buying that way, and it doesn’t work for you, well you’ve just missed your chance to shape that for the benefit of your institution. That’s where it’s really important for all these institutions to get involved. The more and more students we have involved, the more faculty we have involved, the various demographics we have involved, we can figure a lot of this out together.

Sitting on the sidelines isn’t going to help, the future will be shaped without you and you’re going to have to deal with what you’re left with.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of looking to digitize classroom resources to lower costs for students?

Beyond the lower cost, there are some really great things that this shift to digital can provide for teaching and learning. It’s really great when you see some of these software programs and the things that can do. The way they can allow faculty and students to interact with each other and students to interact with each other. It changes the way a professor or faculty member is going to teach a class in the future.

When you start talking about some of these higher-end software tutorials and things that learn with a student, think about it for even a K-12 setting when you can have first-graders in a software program that’s helping teach them individually. So, if you do have students that are a little further behind than some of the others, they are not going to be left behind. They are going to learn at a different pace. That program is going to be able to individually focus on their needs and provide them with the instruction they need to continue on that path.

I think there is lots of opportunity here; it’s a really exciting time for education.