GOING DIGITAL: Faculty Pespectives on Digital and OER Course Materials

Quality and the cost of course materials for students emerge as the key factors that drive the decisions of college faculty about textbooks and other course materials. And although the movement to digital course content seems inevitable and a majority of the surveyed faculty express interest in adaptive technologies for their courses, it is also clear that college and university faculty have real concerns about some of the proclaimed instructional benefits of going digital.

These are the key findings from a fall 2015/winter 2016 survey of 2,902 college and university faculty at 29 two- and four-year colleges and universities sponsored by the Independent College Bookstore Association (ICBA) and conducted for Kenneth C. Green of Campus Computing for the ICBA.

Not surprisingly, faculty identified their own assessment of the quality of course materials as the top issue in their selection of course materials (97 percent rating as important/very important).  Ranked second was the cost of course materials for students (86 percent), followed by the comments of students or teaching assistants and also comments from colleagues (tied at 71 percent).  In contrast, just over two-fifths of the survey participants indicated student or instructor supplements were important/very important in their decisions about course materials, and only a fifth said comments and reviews on public web sites had a major impact on their decisions about course materials.

The survey data also reveal that “being digital,” in and of itself, was not a key factor in the faculty decision about course materials.  Less than two-fifths of the survey participants indicated that digital formats were important or very important for core texts or other required course materials.

Four-fifths of the survey participants acknowledged that “digital course materials generally cost less” for their students.  Yet perhaps more important for digital advocates, college publishers, and other digital content providers was that less than half of the surveyed faculty agreed/strongly agreed that:

  • digital course materials provide significant added value content not available in print (45 percent);
  • students prefer digital course materials over print (44 percent);
  • they would be more likely to use digital curricular resources if they offered analytics and reports on class performance (44 percent);
  • digital course materials provide for a richer and more effective learning experience than print (35 percent);
  • digital course materials have a beneficial impact on student learning compared to print (27 percent); and
  • digital course materials are higher quality than similar print materials (19 percent).

Although the movement in course materials in colleges and universities is clearly from print towards digital, the survey data suggest it will be a slow process.  Asked when they thought the majority of their course materials would be primarily digital, fully a fourth of the surveyed faculty indicated “never,” while another 9 percent said by fall 2022, and 17 percent indicated by fall 2020. In contrast, fully a sixth (16 percent) reported that majority of their current course materials were digital as of fall 2015, and a third (34 percent) anticipated primarily digital course materials by fall 2018.  

However, despite what appears to be faculty resistance to going digital for course materials, just over two-thirds (69 percent) of the survey participants agreed/strongly agreed that they have used or would like to use “curricular materials that make use of adaptive learning technologies.”

While the transition from print to digital course materials may be inevitable, these new survey data make two things clear.  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.”

The survey also provides new data that reveal faculty perspectives on the emerging Open Educational Resource (OER) movement for free or low-cost curricular materials.  Two-fifths (39 percent) of the survey participants indicated that they had never heard of OER, while just over a third (36 percent) indicated that they knew a little about OER but had not used or reviewed OER materials.  A tenth (10 percent) had reviewed but decided not to use OER materials for their classes, while another tenth (11 percent) were using OER materials and 4 percent were currently using OER in their classes and also making their own course materials available as OER.

Asked what might prompt them to adopt OER for their courses, quality (74 percent reporting important/very important) and cost (71 percent) were the top issues, just as they were for more traditional or conventional course materials.  Yet the option to remix OER without worrying about copyright issues or other restrictions was also attractive to many faculty (65 percent citing important/very important).

And perhaps because most have had little exposure to or experience with OER, faculty expect the movement to primarily OER materials in their courses to be slower than the overall movement to digital.  Fully two-fifths (41 percent) of the survey participants said their course materials would “never” be primarily OER compared to 24 percent responding “never” for the migration to primarily digital course materials.

The survey data reveal also reveal a core conundrum regarding cost and access to digital course materials especially OER materials. Faculty overwhelmingly report that a major benefit of going digital is the lower cost of course materials.  Yet many faculty, especially in community colleges, also report that their students don't own the tech platforms required access digital content.  Consequently, the students who might benefit most from lower-cost digital and OER course materials are not able to do so.

Finally, the survey data affirm the role of college bookstores as a trusted resource and distribution channel for course materials. Almost a three-fourths (72 percent) of the survey participants agree/strongly agree that “my campus bookstore is a trustworthy and objective source for information about course materials.”  Concurrently, three-fifths (59 percent) report that their “campus bookstore can play an important role helping faculty select and effectively use digital curricular course materials.”

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GOING DIGITAL - 2016 ICBA Faculty Survey_3.pdf