Any school, instructor, or student engaging with digital content right now knows it isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. In fact, the transition can feel overwhelming—whether it’s managing the behind-the-scenes operations like publisher and platform integrations; handling licenses, fees, and opt-outs for schools; or navigating access and usage for faculty and students.
In some instances digital course materials are being used to complement print materials in a bundled approach, and in others they are being used as stand-alone resources. Schools are applying digital materials across all types of learning experiences, including remote, in-person, and hybrid environments. In fact, Student Watch 2021 reveals that 58% of students used more digital materials this academic year, while only 6% reported they used digital materials less than the previous academic year.
Digital course materials offer a variety of teaching and learning benefits. E-books represent digital renditions of printed books, some of which include progress indicators and analytics, as well as note-taking capabilities and search options. Schools looking for more interactivity can adopt digital courseware, which adds labs, study guides, videos, audio clips, links, and more.
On the flip side, not all courses are suited to digital content. Digital materials often require faculty and students to juggle numerous platforms and systems. There is a learning curve to mastering these different applications, not to mention device and connectivity requirements to access the content. There is also individual preference. In the Faculty Watch 2021 report, 47% said they are satisfied with the non-digital content they’re already using.
Some faculty and students are opting for digital materials, but tried-and-true print materials reign supreme for others. Student Watch 2021 reports that digital materials represented 29% of the materials purchased during the 2020–2021 academic year, compared to 32% new print and 31% used print materials.
So is there one right answer, or is there a way to blend the two given the emphasis on engagement and personalization in today’s educational experiences?
The Faculty Experience
Faculty usage of digital materials seems to ebb and flow. While the use of new technology increased in 2021, faculty usage of digital course materials was slightly down. Roughly 54% of faculty respondents reported using e-books for their courses—compared to 62% in 2020—according to Faculty Watch.
A lot of faculty are adopting printed textbooks with digital components where they can customize the way they are using the digital assets, while others are implementing fully digital options into their courses. Faculty also are taking advantage of the analytics that some digital materials present, allowing them to see how often students are engaging with the digital content so they can decide if and when they need to intervene or offer additional support.
The key to faculty success with digital resources is 1) understanding if it makes sense given the course subject and structure, and 2) selecting the right materials and using them in a way that fits the instructor’s preferences, styles, strengths, and weaknesses. Faculty preparation and training is imperative, especially since just 46% of faculty reported feeling very or extremely comfortable with using digital content.
As is the case with print textbooks, the number of digital add-ons available from publishers and third-party content creators can feel overwhelming. Faculty need to be able to vet, rank, and secure digital resources that will help them meet their courses’ core objectives. It’s also helpful if faculty can compare content costs.
When it comes to faculty usage, some schools and content providers offer webinars, online user guides, and videos to put the content into context and show faculty all the ways it can fit within their courses. Peer groups are another great asset for faculty, allowing them to hear and discuss first-hand how other instructors have made the transition. Faculty training is most productive when it is done on an ongoing basis. Continuous professional development opportunities help faculty evolve the ways in which they apply digital materials.
The Student Experience
Digital materials are not always ideal for every student or every course. Some students simply prefer a tangible hard copy and they like the idea that once they purchase a textbook, it is theirs forever. For those students who do prefer digital materials, they often do so because of the increased accessibility and interactivity. For example, digital materials are immediately available and searchable, which helps with fact-checking and studying. A bundled approach so that students can leverage print and digital can provide the best of both worlds.
The idea of giving students a choice also is important, and something that more schools and faculty are considering when assigning course materials. Some schools offer students the choice upfront to purchase a digital or print version. Or, if digital is assigned, schools can offer students the option to supplement their e-book with a low-cost printed alternative, also known as print-on-demand (POD). Students also need the necessary equipment and technology to access digital materials. Many schools offer device and connectivity options as part of their course materials programs.
Students, too, need support when it comes to digital materials. Some schools provide access to digital materials under a single course materials platform, but for those that don’t, students need various logins, passwords, and access codes, and managing all of this can add stress. It is important that schools keep an open line of communication, as well as offer self-help tools like FAQs and online user guides. Students should be able to easily reset passwords, retrieve access codes, and access instructions if misplaced.
Streamlining Digital Content
Digital content doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing experience. From e-books and publisher direct content, to access codes, codeless access, and courseware, there are lots of options to integrate these resources into the teaching and learning experience. Bundling them with print options can even give faculty and students more ways to engage with each other and with the content.
As schools continue to evolve their on-campus, remote, and hybrid learning programs, they are making bigger investments in technology, digital materials, and devices to supplement print textbooks and other materials. For faculty, digital materials bring additional opportunities to customize content and align resources, plus the analytics give them unique insights into student trends. For students, incorporating digital materials alongside print provides a cohesive learning experience. Digital materials can offer improved availability and accessibility of resources, and they can provide students added options in terms of how they interact with course materials.
The addition of digital materials becomes easier and the materials become more applicable when schools dedicate effort and resources to ensuring easy access and ample support. Bundling print with digital and adding choice to the process can round out a more personalized teaching and learning experience, which can boost retention and student outcomes.
About the Author
Bruce Schneider, vice president of business engineering at Ambassador Education Solutions, has more than 25 years of experience working with institutions and organizations to integrate technologies that allow them to operate more effectively and efficiently. Bruce collaborates with schools to improve the student experience at all levels of the course material supply chain.