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Education publishers are seeing the writing on the wall for digital content. Are you?

At this year’s Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) Ed Tech Summit, many of the sessions concerned open education resources (OER) and digital content. The attendees and presenters at SIIA are members of the software and technology industry, and most are publishers of content. In sessions such as “Competing with Free: OER Business Models,” panelists and audience members struggled with fundamental questions about the use of content in both higher ed and K-12 markets, now that technology has become ubiquitous on campuses.

Given the topic, you might have thought that people who make their living by selling educational products would be chanting, “Hell, no! We won’t go!” But no one was saying the industry should not or could not change; everyone was asking how the industry could adapt to what customers—students and instructors—want. Companies were talking about new business models that did indeed “compete with free.”

Companies realize that they have to change, as the current business model for textbooks in higher education is not sustainable. At SIIA, Una Daley, associate director of the Open Textbooks Collaborative at Foothill College (CA), spoke eloquently about why her institution has provided strong support to OER—and cost was at the top of her list. She estimated that students spend $900 a year on textbooks and prices are rising at four times the rate of inflation. OnCampus Research, a division of the National Association of College Stores, recently released the results of a survey of 16,000 students at 19 representative nationwide campuses, which found that students spent an average of $667 on required course materials in the previous 12 months. It’s easy to see from these numbers how cost is a significant driver of change.

And then there’s the other change factor: Students, and increasingly their professors, are bypassing texts and turning to the web as a significant source of content and information for their classes.

So the question for institutions of higher education is: Are you willing to change your way of doing business? How aggressively will colleges and universities adopt new and cheaper models for providing content to students and professors? Will they let the bookstores drive (or inhibit) the changes? Will they leave it up to individual profs, or will they see the opportunity to impact the university in a larger way, by encouraging other business models that save students money?

For CIOs and technologists, these innovations in content delivery can have enormous impact. As students demand access to less costly materials, and professors see the advantages of more flexible and engaging content, demand for bandwidth will explode even more than it has in the past few years. Tech support requests and the demands on learning management systems will increase. Maybe the most important—and most time-intensive—need will be requests for help in using this content effectively with students.

My advice to CIOs: Follow the content. It can affect your jobs.

—Geoff Fletcher, Editorial Director

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About the Author

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

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