Mapping the Course Content Ecosystem
NACS NACS Foundation
The Future of Course Materials and the Impact on Higher Education

The learning content ecosystem is changing dramatically and rapidly with implications for all. The National Association of College Stores (NACS) wanted to better understand those implications—now and moving forward—for all players and identify specific actions institutions can take to support the migration to more affordable and effective course materials.

We conducted a deep analysis of the current learning content ecosystem—capturing the views of faculty, academic administrators, campus IT, content creators and publishers, content distributors and sellers, libraries, and others—to understand the forces at play and how they might shape future scenarios.

Take a look at the summary of findings and conclusions below.

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With the value and cost of a college degree increasingly in question, concern about the expense and effectiveness of course materials and accountability for student success is also intensifying. The traditional model of course content creation and distribution—faculty-authored and publisher-produced textbooks—once the preeminent form of learning content, is being challenged. It also is being disrupted by new digital players and learning content formats, such as courseware, open educational resources (OER), and adaptive (or personalized) learning that promise lower costs and better outcomes.

Faculty, who largely still prefer print textbooks, will face increasing accountability for the impact their course materials decisions have on students’ pocketbooks and overall success. This, combined with backlash from students over required course materials that aren’t used, and more widespread use of learning analytics, will further push institutions to more carefully consider how course materials are selected, distributed, used, and ultimately how they contribute to student outcomes.  

Several key factors emerging, driving change

While overlapping waves of digital innovation are the most influential and destabilizing variable affecting the ecosystem, other important forces are at work as well:

  • U.S. college and university enrollments overall are flat.
  • U.S. policymakers and educators are shifting their focus from funding and policies that make college accessible and affordable to those that address student success (e.g. graduation rates and workforce readiness).
  • Enrollment in fully online courses and programs is now commonplace, and online students source more of their learning content online and in digital form than do on-campus students.
  • Today’s students and faculty prefer print textbooks but students are willing to shift to digital when costs and circumstances are right.
  • While the prices of new textbooks continue to rise, student per capita spending on learning content is declining. Students rent new and used books; buy used, older, or foreign editions; use (legal and illegal) download sites; or borrow course materials. A few even forego purchasing course materials entirely.
  • Amazon has entered the college learning content ecosystem with its Amazon Campus program. Its scale, brand power, and technology leadership is a game changer.

NACS expects a growing shift towards digital in the next three to five years

Although NACS’ latest Student Watch™ survey from Spring 2015 shows that current students (and faculty) prefer print textbooks, potential cost savings and enhanced learning experiences are fueling interest in the transition to digital content—and ultimately adaptive learning courseware and platform-based products. Student Watch™ also showed that the use of digital course materials is slowly but steadily climbing in use, about three percent during the 2014-15 academic year.

  • Digital course content and learning products will continue to grow in the short term.
  • Institutions will begin exploring licensed courseware, that integrates classroom lectures and discussion with content.
  • There will be a greater emphasis on improving student outcomes through personalized learning.
  • Demands for affordability and improved outcomes will fuel the race to courseware and adaptive content.

Power is shifting from few to many  

There will continue to be a proliferation of content creators, producers, and distributors. In the distribution channel, conditions will favor retailing giants and smaller, “niche” players that can provide value-added, localized, in-person services. Large retailers have the ability and scale to negotiate favorable pricing. Smaller retailers can use customer, campus, and industry knowledge to better serve students and contribute to their success. Implementing a “concierge services” (online or in person) to guide students through the content options universe and match course materials options to their profiles/needs is one example of assistance smaller retailers can provide to students.

Never in its history has the learning content ecosystem experienced such widespread ambiguity and change—all elements of the learning content ecosystem are in flux. But one thing is certain: Every institution will need to consider a multidimensional and boundary-spanning learning content strategy if the transition to digital learning content and courseware is to proceed smoothly. Failure to do so likely will fragment the student experience as decisions to adopt learning content vary from course to course and as untested courseware and digital academic services are adopted and discarded. Unmanaged, the gap between courseware’s capabilities and the faculty's use of them will frustrate students and lead to substantial underutilization of the institution’s investments.

Getting the institution’s arms around learning content strategy needs to be both a team effort and a priority

  • Changes in learning content and services will intersect with academic policy, technology, student privacy, pedagogy, instructional costs, course materials accessibility, incentives, revenue management, and more.
  • Developing an effective policy and strategy needs to begin sooner rather than later and include all relevant campus stakeholders and service providers.

Institutions should carefully evaluate models for the delivery of course materials as well as formats

The institution’s objectives and the type of campus must be carefully weighed; what works at one campus won’t necessarily work for another. In deciding what’s best, administrators, campus store leaders, IT, libraries, and faculty should work together to come up with a recommendation.

There are many factors and tradeoffs to consider as the institution evaluates organizational cost, revenue, and value structures related to learning content on campus, such as:

  • The desired level of faculty and other campus stakeholder involvement in the creation of both custom and commercial learning content
  • Copyright, fair use, licensed use, and compliance in an increasingly “open” world
  • The  use of third-party solution providers and the related implications for control of offerings, pricing, revenues, and service levels compared to the economies of scale and potentially expanded options for students
  • Mobile usage: Students want to make course material purchases through their mobile phones or tablets, and be able to access their course materials via these devices as well
  • Students’ ability  to use financial aid to purchase their course materials

There will be an emerging student learning and success services market:

  • Campuses could create a one-stop physical and virtual environment that aligns providers of instruction and services—library, dean of students, academic advising and related student services, residential life, tutoring, career counseling, and placement.
  • As students have more learning options and become smarter consumers of education, this could be a differentiator for institutions in the future. Institutions (potentially with the campus store as an aggregator) that can offer the “smartest” and most effective student success support services will win hearts and minds.

As the course materials and retailing experts on campus, the professionals who manage the institution’s store should play a key role in making decisions about course materials and related services supporting student success in the future.

  • Campus store professionals have deep knowledge of course material formats and delivery.
  • They have years of experience managing and sourcing multiple content providers to support students, faculty, and the academic missions of their institutions.
  • This knowledge is a significant institutional asset that should be tapped by college administrators when exploring delivery models and options for sourcing and providing course materials.
  • The store is a logical organizer for campus discussions about learning content strategy; it is connected to all parties—students, faculty, content creators, and other campus service centers such as the library and IT.
  • The store can serve as a knowledgeable resource on the market, contracts, and other variables that will affect the economics and success of course materials sales and academic content licensing.
  • Campus stores are well-positioned to play a leading role in envisioning, sourcing, brokering, and delivering student learning content for their institutions, but they will need the support of the administration to make this happen.