Why Digital-First for Textbooks?

By Jason Lorgan | October 17, 2022
Equitable Access

Why Digital-First for Textbooks?

Learning from Other Forms of Intellectual Property Distribution

Music and movies are examples of intellectual property that have moved to a digital distribution model.  15 years ago, many of us rented or purchased our movies at Blockbuster Video, Hollywood Video and other brick and mortar retailers.  We bought or rented physical copies of movies and when finished, we often returned them to the store.  Similarly, with music, we used to travel to a brick and mortar store, such as Tower Records, and we purchased physical copies of our music at individual retail prices.

Today, the vast majority of consumers have rejected that intellectual property distribution model and moved to digital distribution subscription models, often at a flat rate, regardless of how much they consume.  We use services like Spotify, Netflix and Hulu.  While brick and mortar music and video stores still exist, they are few and far between and digital distribution of music and movies is the overwhelming standard.

When thinking about how our campus sold textbooks, we wanted to look more like Spotify and Netflix, and less like Blockbuster and Tower.  This was the thinking that lead us to a digital-first Equitable Access program at UC Davis. It was our feeling that an Equitable Access program that was not digital-first was similar to the original Netflix model, where they mailed DVD’s to their customers and their customers mailed them back.  If we were going to evolve our business model, we wanted to emulate the flat rate model of digital delivery versus a flat rate model requiring students to pick up and return their books.

Increasing Access to Content

When our campus decided to disrupt our traditional method of selling, buying back, and renting print textbooks, our number one goal was to increase student access to faculty-chosen required content.  As we developed our Equitable Access program, we understood that we would need to clearly define the problem we were trying to solve and be able to measure our impact.  Before the launch of Equitable Access, a survey of UC Davis students found 78% self-reporting that they did not have access to all of their required content in the prior 12 months.  After the launch of Equitable Access, only 27% of UC Davis students self-reported not having access to all their required textbooks.  Moving to a digital-first flat-rate model dramatically increased our student access to content compared to where it was when we were a print centric campus.

Convenience of Digital Delivery

When faculty-chosen content is available digitally, it can be delivered to all students in a course through the Learning Management System (LMS).  When digital is not available, and our campus supplies print, a student needs to pick up the print copy or have it shipped to them.

Each term, thousands of students add and drop courses during the add/drop period, when their textbook is print, the student is inconvenienced and must return or ship back their print book for their dropped course and obtain a new print book for their added course.  With digital, no effort on the part of the student is needed. The student loses access to the dropped digital content in the Learning Management System and they gain access to the digital content of the course they added.  Lots of effort with print, almost no effort with digital.  How many of us would prefer to go back to a Blockbuster Video model versus just have the show we want available at any time digitally?  I suspect not many of us.

Student Acceptance of Digital First

Prior to moving to a digital-first Equitable Access textbook model, we often sold print textbooks to about 30% of the enrolled students in a course.  After the first two years of our digital first program, we are selling digital textbooks to nearly 80% of the enrolled students.  That dramatic increase in the percentage of students obtaining their textbooks through our campus store is the greatest measurement of student acceptance.  It relies on what students are doing versus what students are saying.  Many suggest that students prefer print, and perhaps that might be the case if everything were equal.  But the price and convenience that comes with digital is something students are seeing value in, and they are choosing the Equitable Access option, versus opting out and obtaining print textbooks on their own.

Over 80% of the units our program delivers are digital versions.  We expect this number to grow over time.  For the student that still has to visit the store to pick up a print copy, we have at least eliminated the need for a student to return their print copy when they are finished.  While many other Equitable Access programs require students to return their print copies for re-use, our program does not require students to return their physical copies.  So, for those students that still have a print book, we have at least eliminated the trip they need to make to return their book

Carbon Impact of Going Digital First

Recent reports have noted that the carbon footprint of producing a single printed paper back book is 3 kg CO2.  Hard copies of textbooks are reported to produce 9 kg CO2 per copy.  Our campus distributed 192,000 units of digital materials last year.  Using the conservative paper back estimate, using digital instead of producing print copies saved 576,000 kg of CO2 on the low end.  Converted to pounds, this equates to a savings of 1,269,862 pounds of carbon in a single year.  This number does not account for the environmental impacts of shipping and transportation of all those print books that would have been happened were we not digital-first.

The Student and Faculty Service Advantage

For decades, many college students and faculty faced stressful situations at the start of a term when their textbooks were not in stock.  This happened for a variety of reasons, such as the publisher being out of stock, the freight shipment got lost or delayed, the bookstore ordered too few, a section was added, among others.  These problems don’t exist with digital.  We can’t run out or under order and the shipment cannot get delayed or lost.  The lack of stress for students, faculty and college stores that exist with a digital-first program is transformative and a truly welcome change.

For more information on the UC Davis digital-first Equitable Access program, please visit equitableaccess.ucdavis.edu