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The Future of Digital: Where We've Been and Where We're Headed

Posted by admin on 11/20/13 10:00 PM
Topics: digital content, retail technology, college store stories

Our industry has heard about the digital revolution for years; how e-books will overtake print and the textbooks on our shelves will become a thing of the past. Although, we’ve certainly seen a growing number of students taking advantage of digital content, the percentage has remained minimal, leaving the majority of stores wondering if this major shift will ever come.

Debbie Cottrell, CCR, director of UMHB Bookstore at University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, knows this issue is one that many collegiate retailers are interested in exploring further. So, when she was looking for a topic for her presentation at this year’s Southwest College Bookstore Association meeting, the future of digital quickly came to mind.

She didn’t want her presentation to simply summarize the same information that’s so often discussed in the media, however. She set about finding new and engaging information that would appeal to her industry colleagues.

“I always like to get my audience thinking in a different way by giving them something they haven’t heard before,” she said. “I try to present my information from a different perspective.”

She started by researching the predictions we all heard so long ago, using data from 2009 that anticipated the state of digital content in 2013. She quoted several sources, all of whom foresaw a much more sizable usage of digital books than what we have actually experienced.

“In five years, I think the majority of students will be using digital textbooks. They can be better than traditional textbooks,” said William M. Habermehl, superintendent of the 500,000-student Orange County schools, in an August 2009 article from The New York Times.

Mark Nelson agreed in a 2009 article from The College Store that “a reasonable estimate is that by 2011-2012 as much as 10% to 15% of textbook sales could be digital.”

While many stores have yet to reach those percentages, Cottrell stressed that we are still on a path to increased usage.

“There is a growing push for digital delivery in public schools that will push forward the digital movement,” she explained. “A primary goal is to align U.S. students at a competitive level with international students, and that will result in more digital titles being adopted.”

To elaborate on the trend fueling digital growth, she referenced her own experience in her hometown of Belton, Texas.

“The public schools in this area have a vested interest in digital,” she described. “A few years ago, a new middle school was opened as the ‘technology school’ in our town, and each student was given an iPad. Now, they’re in all the middle schools and the high school. This younger generation is really starting to use technology in their learning experience and I’ve always believed that will be the turning point for higher education: when those kids, who grew up with apps and e-books, enter college.”

Cottrell compared this instance with the Los Angeles public school system’s failed iPad integration, which made the news lately for its budget issues and student activity concerns. Her takeaway point from these two sides of the spectrum was that there will be successes and there will be failures. Schools and stores alike must consider proper planning, effective implementation strategies and future implications in order for digital to thrive.

As a past member of the Course Materials and Intellectual Property Council within the National Association of College Stores (NACS), Cottrell has discussed each of these integral aspects at length. Last year, her group worked on updating the 7 Steps to Digital, which had originally been created in 2002, and she was pleased to see that much of the information was still relevant. With a few revisions and a lot more information, the committee came up with the 8 Steps to Digital Leadership, which Cottrell then used to close her presentation.

Some of her suggestions included building a relationship with campus library personnel, talking to the users of various digital products including both students and faculty to assess their needs and looking for ways your bookstore can play an active role in digital content projects, among others. (Read more on these points here)

Cottrell’s most significant advice, however, was to start planning now.

“Every store should continue aggressively planning for the future. Digital is growing at a slow rate, and we’re not there yet, but it’s still coming,” she emphasized. “Today’s students are embracing part of the digital movement – the online access codes for labs and other ancillary course materials – but, they still prefer the tangible book. As students progress and we see more technology used at a younger age, I think the next wave of college students will be looking for digital content.”

“So, start now; take a leadership role,” she said. “It’s always been my philosophy that the worst thing you can do is nothing at all. Digital is coming, and we all need to be prepared.”

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