It’s a cruel reality: The faculty who embrace the shift to digital course materials in greater numbers and the students who would most benefit from the cheaper alternatives to textbooks are at community colleges, where faculty most often report their students don’t have the tech platforms they need to access the digital content.
Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project, recently conducted a survey of 2,900 college and university faculty at 29 two- and four-year colleges and universities. The study, "Going Digital: Faculty Perspectives on Digital and OER Course Materials," was sponsored by the Independent College Bookstore Association, and asked faculty for their perspectives on digital course materials and open educational resources, or OER.
Green called the access issue “the great irony that jumped out from the data.”
“The students who might benefit most from lower-cost digital and OER course materials are not able to do so,” Green said.
Some colleges open computer labs and libraries for student use, but that doesn’t solve the problem, as many community college students, especially, are juggling work and home commitments and need to study on the go. Printed textbooks can go with them.
At the K-12 level, 1:1 device programs have loaned laptops or tablets to every single student in a district. Colleges more often expect students to bring their own devices. But just like elementary or secondary students from low-income backgrounds, struggling colleges students often don’t have the money to buy one. And this reality could seriously hamper the shift to digital course materials.
Nearly half of all undergraduates are studying at community colleges. For many of these students, whether textbooks are preferable based on content or learning outcomes or not, they will, logistically, remain more accessible.
The "Going Digital" study did find that faculty care about the cost of their course materials. Fully 86% of respondents rated cost of textbooks and course materials to be important or very important in their selection process. The only consideration more people ranked so high was their own assessment of quality. This goes against the somewhat common narrative that faculty don’t pay attention to cost.
But even though digital materials may be cheaper, faculty still don’t seem to trust them. Fewer than half of the faculty respondents reported strong support of digital course materials and their usefulness in the classroom. For example:
- 44% of faculty agree or strongly agree that students prefer digital course materials over print.
- 45% agree or strongly agree that digital course materials include significant added-value content not available in print.
- 27% agree or strongly agree they have a beneficial impact on student learning compared to print
- 35% agree or strongly agree they provide for a richer and more effective learning experience than print.
Chief information officers, on the other hand, are more likely to sing the praises of digital content. In the 2015 Campus Computing Survey, 96% of CIOs said digital curricular resources make learning more efficient and effective.
Almost the same percentage — 94% — expected open educational resources to become an important source for instructional resources within the next five years. By contrast, just 36% of respondents in the Going Digital survey said OER materials provide a viable alternative to print resources in their field.
“While the transition from print to digital course materials may be inevitable, these new survey data make two things clear,” said Fred Weber, CEO of the Independent College Bookstore Association, in a prepared statement. “First is that the pace of this change is much slower than anticipated by publishers, administrators, and campus IT professionals. And, second, most faculty are not convinced that digital products have a positive impact on student learning outcomes.”
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