Improving first-day access to learning content is a matter of equity.
College students feel more secure, confident, and prepared for academic challenges when they have all the textbooks, journals, and other content they need right at the start of a course. Every student should have the opportunity to experience higher learning this way – but with the average textbook priced at $84, that’s not how it typically plays out in practice.
For students from low-income socioeconomic backgrounds, textbooks and course materials are often a “last-dollar expense” — they prioritize essentials like college tuition and fees, childcare, and other living expenses.
Many students have no option but to delay purchasing textbooks until they receive student aid money. For students waiting on FAFSA support to order a physical textbook, this means content can be delayed 2-3 weeks after the start of the semester, putting them at a disadvantage from the first day of class. A high proportion also skips buying textbooks altogether: According to a US PIRG report, 65% of students did not purchase textbooks in 2020 because of cost, and that percentage was much higher (82%) for food-insecure students.
The impact on academic performance can be severe: A survey by researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) found that 47% of students who skipped buying a textbook said it negatively impacted their grades.
Compressed courses, which are becoming more common, also present a challenge. In this context, waiting just a couple of weeks to get a textbook can have an even more significant impact on academic outcomes.
With US inflation rates reaching their highest levels in 40 years, more students will face tough choices regarding expenses, and the first-day access problem could worsen.
Forward-thinking institutions are trying to tame textbook costs and address the college affordability crisis. Many institutions provide free, peer-reviewed digital textbooks via OpenStax, a non-profit charity. Cash-strapped students can also benefit from free and publicly available remixable educational content called Open Educational Resources (OERs).
Progress is happening, but a new kind of accessibility issue crops up when digital content is delivered in such an ad hoc way. Students might encounter broken links, for example, or have to create multiple accounts to complete course readings. Additionally, material may only be available via desktop when a student is online, meaning they cannot take content on-the-go should they need to. When trying to provide less traditional content options, instructors might struggle to find quality material that fits the course's objectives. All of these challenges can interfere with day-one access.
With all these challenges present, any worthwhile solution would need to address accessibility and affordability from the start. Luckily, there are digital-first content solutions that exist to tackle these problems in an efficient way that puts the student first. Universal Learning is a content procurement and provisioning model where content is packaged with enrollment in a class, and there is a set per-student fee per course. With this approach to content, students can:
Universal Learning presents the possibility of equalizing access to opportunity across the entire higher education system.
On top of promoting equity in education by reducing the cost factor, Universal Learning — as a digital-first approach — yields benefits in terms of academic performance.
For example, a study by Greenshoots found that Coventry University students who used digital textbooks via BibliU’s Universal Learning platform received a 2.4% higher mean module mark than those who did not (61.9% vs. 59.5% respectively).
There are many benefits associated with digital textbooks in higher education. Here are three key advantages of using a digital-first approach for learning content:
Digital-first content is more accessible to students with learning needs.
Features such as keyboard commands, reader settings that magnify content, flux and night reading modes, and text-to-speech capabilities make learning easier for students with specific learning needs. Some digital textbook platform providers also make it easy to adjust the background color, and research has shown that warm-colored backgrounds can help students with reading performance.
This is critical for higher learning leaders to address systemically: students with dyslexia experience significantly lower retention rates. Even gifted students with this learning difference face a higher risk of dropping out of college.
When students actively engage with — rather than passively consume — course content, they engage in deep learning, which promotes understanding, critical and analytical thinking, and application of learning concepts across different instances or real-life scenarios. This boosts the application of new knowledge and improves higher-order functions like analysis and synthesis.
Digital textbooks provide more opportunities for active engagement with course materials that support student success. For example, the Greenshoots study suggests that extra features like favorites tagging, referencing, highlighting, downloads, and comments help further improve academic performance. Some digital-first learning enablement platforms, like BibliU, also come equipped with features like in-book discussions, providing more opportunities for students to actively absorb and apply new concepts.
Unless students proactively ask for assistance, instructors typically fly blind when determining who is working on completing (or even starting) assigned readings.
In contrast, many digital learning platforms can deliver usage statistics that datafy the student experience and help instructors understand where help is needed most. Key metrics include reading time, weekly trends, and social research methods.
With these actionable insights, instructors can identify at-risk students before critical assessments and intervene earlier. Proactive academic advising also has positive impacts on student outcomes and retention. With the proper data, faculty and academics can make informed decisions about how to support students before a problem arises.
Students are facing an affordability crisis. Cost barriers often get in the way of first-day access to critical course content, affecting students from low-income backgrounds the most. But it doesn’t have to be this way forever.
An increasing number of higher learning leaders are stepping up, using Universal Learning to help students get learning content on the first day of class at a much lower cost. This digital-first approach provides numerous benefits, from making learning more active to using data to inform good decisions about student success.
Stay tuned for part two of this post, which will focus on how to build the case for digital on-campus.
You can download the full Greenshoots report on Coventry University here.
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