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Overcoming the Barriers to eText Adoption--Higher Education's Initiatives to Tame the Digital Content Tiger

The conversion from printed instructional content to digital content is inevitable. Just as the music industry progressed from vinyl to tape to CD and now to digital formats, so progresses the instructional content industry. With any change comes some level of resistance, doubt, and barriers to progress. The conversion from printed to digital content is no exception. Here, we'll propose initiatives to overcome these barriers.

eText Pricing Strategies

One of the major barriers to widespread adoption of low-cost, high-engagement eText is the lack of competitive, consistent, affordable and, readily available pricing (eText and eMaterials) from all sources and providers--publishers, open educational resources [OER], and institution-generated content. In an effort to address this barrier, the concept of creating a mechanism to solicit, aggregate, and disseminate eText pricing on a large-scale basis (to take advantage of economies of scale and concentrated buying power) is necessary and sustainable.

The strategies to accomplish this initiative are fairly straightforward, though they will require much coordination and input from across the spectrum of higher education institutions. Cost effective eText access benefits all sectors of higher ed (public, private, proprietary, two-year, four-year, professional, and graduate). Therefore, the needs for each of these sectors will have to be identified and addressed.

The format for this initiative can be that of a Request for Proposals (RFP). The results for the RFP could be in the form of an electronic catalog, available to all institutions whose use of eText aligns with the concepts and requirements of the RFP. The RFP would be designed to address all of the components of a long-term, dynamic digital content catalog, and may not be directly affected by various regulatory bodies (purchasing rules, etc.) of the public sector. After all, the end user of the eText is not the institution, but that of the student. Current textbook acquisition is primarily that of Retail List Price, (a cost basis with little or no reason or control) and is subject to little, if any price negotiation, (a primary failure of the current textbook model).

The components of the RFP will need to be clearly identified and organized in such a manner to produce the maximum cost savings to the student purchaser from all participating digital instructional content providers. Where similar initiatives have been implemented, though on a single institutional basis, the outcomes have been most promising and have produced significant cost savings to the students. This is a content acquisition process where the content provider gains an advantage, the student greatly benefits, and instructional engagement/success is amplified, truly a win-win-win. These are the primary objectives of an eText/Digital Content RFP.

While some eText supportive and education-related entity will be necessary to "house" and organize the initial RFP process, a more permanent entity will need to be conceived and created to formally issue, receive, evaluate, document, and award the responding proposals resulting from the RFP. This entity could maintain a source of eText and digital content access, update the content available, award access to additional content providers, and support the continuation of eText technology through research, evaluation, and communications.

Existing education (related) organizations may serve that purpose or host a permanent eText entity. However, an organization of the institutions themselves and/or their state system representation may serve as a preferred model. These institutions, representing their students, possess the buying power and are the entities who will state a commitment to the eText content providers that their institution(s) will adopt and expand eText/eMaterials usage with those providers who participate in this eText-Digital Content initiative.

Therefore, an eText consortium could be created and would serve the participating institutions in the drafting of the RFP. One participating institution might serve as fiscal agent for the RFP process thus clearly representing the entire consortium of institutions and higher education systems.

The national exposure and instant legitimacy of an eText consortium will serve multiple purposes for the advancement of this technology.

The desire of the publishers to re-capture market, guarantee sales, and eliminate the used-book competitors will clearly attract their attention and response to the RFP. In addition, this global RFP initiative will for the first time address OER and institution-generated content provider participation, a perfect no-cost marketing avenue for these organizations.

It is predicted that eText costs will reduce the cost of instructional text content and supplemental instructional content more than 80 percent, just based upon the outcomes of previous digital content RFP efforts.

Having ease of access to these eText prices via some electronic means and source will both encourage institutional eText adoption/expansion and promote this technology among institutions still on the fence. Student/faculty awareness and demand will also promote adoption/expansion.

eText Consortium Creation

The power of numbers and the concentration of purchasing are a couple of the most significant cost reduction drivers with respect to eText technology. The technology itself is far more efficient and much less costly than traditional printed textbooks. Currently, colleges and universities (their students) are subject to eText pricing offered directly from publishers and other content sources, or from bookstore operators (whose primary objective is sales revenue, not reducing the cost of content to the student purchaser).

To obtain this power of numbers and concentrated purchasing, institutions either have to possess large enrollment numbers (potential eText sales) or must "partner" with other institutions to create a potentially very large sales volume.

An additional major price reduction drive is the 100 percent sell-through model. Current printed content publishers capture a rather small percentage of textbook sales as an estimated 40 percent of students don't acquire textbooks (too expensive) and an estimated 45 percent purchase used textbooks (where publishers receive no income). If an institution can "guarantee" that every student (who elects to enroll in a section designated as an eText section) will purchase an eText, sales will increase by an estimated six-and-a-half times, coupled with content that costs the publisher an estimated 42-48 percent less to produce including overhead. Far more sales, and far less cost should equal far lower content prices to create equal or greater profits.

Where a few colleges and universities have addressed eText pricing as described above--and have solicited such via an RFP process with the multitude of content providers--the resulting price reductions have been phenomenal (60-70 percent less than traditional textbooks).

If one combines both of these "drivers" and magnifies the potential sales by consorting with other institutions, the result could make the cost of eTexts and eMaterials as immaterial to students as a course lab fee (glassware, chemicals etc. for chemistry or specimens for biology). If instructional resources can be made more cost effective and if all students come to class equipped with the instructional tools to promote academic success, the result will greatly expand access to higher education and lead to much improved completion rates.

There are some existing higher education organizations, state systems, and other entities that might serve the role as a central point of eText price negotiating. All have missions that may loosely include, but are not focused on, eText technology. The time and effort to best promote this technology may rest with an organization whose sole purpose is the support and advancement of eText/eMaterials technology.

Another approach might include having eText/eMaterial technology hosted by a subset organization of one of the existing higher education organizations. This solution could be successful if the "parent" organization has the same basic mission and interest in advancing higher education technology.

Lastly, a separate organization could be created whose sole purpose is the support and advancement of eText/eMaterials technology. This organization could be comprised of higher education institutions from all post-secondary sectors. Providers of digital content, digital instructional materials, and related digital services can be invited to participate via trade show venues, "road mapping" discussions, beta testing coordination, and the like.

The discussion and decision on addressing this issue could be accomplished via a small-scale convening of the primary eText leader institutions and individuals. Further input from other eText adopting institutions could be requested in the form of responding to recommendations from the primary eText leader group.

Once an organizational model is chosen, a team of volunteers from the eText leader institutions could be charged with taking the necessary steps to create the eText Consortium in the format determined most advantageous.

Depending on the outcome of determining if the Consortium would be stand alone, or be an affiliate of an existing organization, or perhaps just be a service of an existing organization, partner organizations and providers could be considered and offered some appropriate relationship to support the activities of the Consortium.

The basic outcome to be achieved is that of the creation, activation, and successful operation of a consortium entity to support, enhance, and promote eText/eMaterial technology. The type of entity, entity location, and structure are necessary, but of lesser importance than the accomplishment of the goals and objectives of the Consortium. Once those goals and objectives are determined, success can also be measured.

Success with this initiative can be planned and measured based upon the active participation of colleges and universities in the adoption of Consortium services and offerings. Once the Consortium matures beyond the initial stage, the degree of success can be obtained, measured, evaluated, and refined to better serve the cause of this technology. 

These are most interesting times for higher education as funding is constantly reduced, costs increased, and access thus limited. Conversion from printed to digital content significantly reduces cost, increases access, and provides enhancements to the teaching/learning process.

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