The Indiana University eText Experience: Recipe for Success
John Gosney, Director of Faculty Engagement and Outreach, Learning Technologies, UITS, Indiana University
Anastasia Morrone, IU Associate Vice President for Learning Technologies; Dean of Information Technology, IUPUI; Professor of Educational Psychology, IUPUI School of Education
Challenging the Archetype of the Traditional Printed Textbook
Communicating about new initiatives can be challenging, regardless of the topic or the size of the institution. If the audience is familiar with the topic being communicated (or otherwise believes they are familiar with the topic), the challenge in having them not only read but also understand the information in your communications can be, ironically, more difficult. In the case of eTexts (i.e., communicating a new eText program), the irony of this challenge is thrown into sharp relief: the concept of the traditional textbook is deeply ingrained in the faculty script of teaching and learning, so messaging about an eText initiative could easily be misconstrued as simply sharing another way to purchase otherwise traditional course materials.
The key to rolling out an eText program is to socialize, socialize, socialize. It is essential that communication announcing a new eText initiative be viewed as part of a larger socialization process, where it’s clearly understood by the project team (more on this below) that the very concept of an eText—not just the technology—represents a cultural change.
Encouraging Change Through an Inclusive Socialization Process
How, then, is the perceived cultural change of eTexts best addressed? Communication through now pervasive electronic channels (e.g., email, listservs, social media) is important. However, these channels are again only one aspect of the larger socialization process that must serve as the underlying framework of an inclusive eText implementation strategy. A strong leadership team, with a focus on communication and education, is essential.
Socialization Through Empowered and Authoritative Faculty Leadership
The term eText will initially suggest, to many faculty and students, that it is just a technology issue. Moreover, if much of the early communication is sent by individuals/groups who are not in faculty roles—for example IT administrators, support staff, or publishing reps external to the university—the tendency for many faculty and students will be to view those communications as at best a novelty, or at worst something to be ignored. Therefore, initial communications about eTexts should be delivered by leaders who are empowered via their academic/university leadership positions (such as provosts, deans, other administrative appointments), or are widely recognized as authorities of successful change management based on their understanding of technology, teaching and learning, and history of project leadership either within and external to the university.
Socialization Through Frequent Communication To and Solicitation of Faculty
Again, communication through a single channel is, at best, nominally successful in reaching the broadest audience; this is frequently true in a decentralized university environment where any communication that even hints at a “top-down” change process is anathema to faculty. Therefore, and especially with a topic like eTexts that could be perceived as a challenge to long-established tradition, it is crucial that faculty be “met where they are” both literally (e.g., departmental meetings, faculty committees, etc.) and figuratively (i.e., their comfort level with technology, willingness to consider a change to their instructional strategies, etc.). And, it is equally critical that faculty are frequently met where they are, to keep the central message of the eText initiative at or near the top of the ever-growing list of issues they can give some attention. Also, frequent interactions with faculty, and in a variety of venues and contexts, provide communication leaders with multiple opportunities to solicit feedback, answer questions, and dispel myths and rumors surrounding eTexts.
Socialization Through Faculty Choice
As noted above, it is rare that any type of initiative/change process will be successful if it is overly-prescribed/presented via a top-down implementation strategy. Any type of initiative perceived as a challenge or threat to long-established tradition will absolutely and quickly fail if faculty feel they are being forced to accept it. Therefore, one of the key messages in these frequent and varied eText communications to faculty should be that adoption of eTexts is an option and not a requirement. Some individual departments or schools may find that having all their faculty adopt eTexts is most conducive to their teaching and learning mission, or more effectively facilitates the associated administrative and operational facets of that mission by streamlining textbook orders or facilitating updates to curriculum. However, any type of eText adoption mandate should be made exclusively at the school or department level.
Rolling Out the eText Program at Indiana University
In rolling out the eText program at Indiana University, we set out to reach as many groups as possible to explain the new eText program and to provide ample time for questions during each session. We actively requested time with students, faculty, administration, faculty governance, and trustees. The student government groups were eager for some relief from the high cost of textbooks and embraced this new model that would lower their textbook costs. Faculty were initially concerned that they would be required to use an eText and that they would lose the ability to choose their textbook of choice. The IU eTexts program has always been completely voluntary and it remains that way today. Faculty can choose to use an IU eText or they can continue to order their textbooks through the official university bookstore.
Another frequent concern was whether faculty and students could print some or all of the eText. This was key to the early success of the program because faculty and students could choose to print up to 50 pages at once (about the length of a typical textbook chapter) and/or they could order a low-cost, print-on-demand (POD) version of the entire book. In practice, very few students or faculty print their eTexts, but we continue to provide print options for people who do not want to read their eText on a digital device.
When we started the program, we also made it clear to publishers that their prices must be generally equal/better than the net cost of buying and selling a used textbook. (Chapters The Indiana University eText Experience: Negotiating with the Family Feuds and The Role of Physical Bookstores for eTexts cover the economics of this model.) And, we wanted a common e-reader platform for reading/annotation and online/offline access. We use Unizin Engage as our e-reader platform, which is available through the Canvas LMS at IU. (This video provides a brief overview of the features of Unizin Engage: “Rolling out an eText program: Building Support with Faculty and Students.”)
While every eText program rollout will differ based on the unique characteristics of the institution, there are key support issues that must be addressed in order to build both faculty and student confidence in the benefits of the program.
Guarding Against Assumptions: The Potential Intimidating Quality of eTexts
Consumer devices like Amazon’s Kindle have brought eBooks to the mainstream. Even novice technology users have a good general understanding of what an eBook is and how it works. Indeed, reading a book, magazine, or newspaper on an electronic device is common practice.
However, the idea of reading an electronic textbook—or eText—is still, for many faculty and students, a new technology frontier. (For assistive technology users, it can be especially challenging.) This frontier becomes even more unfamiliar and intimidating when they are confronted with not only reading an eText but also interacting with it. Posting and highlight comments for others to see, and asking questions “within the text,” are not necessarily familiar tasks.
For many faculty and students, the print textbook is foundational to their very understanding of the structure of higher education. In this context, it is important to note that activities associated with the textbook give it an almost totemic quality to the higher education experience. If “going to the bookstore” is no longer a required activity for students, and phrases like “open your textbooks to page…” are no longer uttered in the classroom, the hesitation around eTexts is better understood.
As such, it can be easy for those involved in the rollout of an eText program, or others who are proponents of eTexts, to forget that their enthusiasm for eTexts and their benefits to teaching and learning are not widely shared. It is easy to forget that the idea of an eText truly is radically new and, again, intimidating. When talking with faculty and students about eTexts, a good strategy is to avoid assuming they either understand or are even interested in the concept of eTexts.
Stemming a Tidal Wave of Communication: Ensuring eText News Is Received and Understood
As with any new program or initiative, and especially one that seeks to change the traditional pedagogical landscape, it is essential that information about the program be easy to find, and as up-to-date as possible.
For example, the potential cost savings of eTexts is certainly an important message to communicate to both faculty and students. Yet conveying this message and other advantages of eTexts—including the pedagogical benefits, the participating publishers, or even that a university-wide initiative exists—can be challenging.
Any given faculty member or student is, on a daily basis, exposed to an enormous number of university communications. As such, important news and announcements about the institution’s eText program can be easily overlooked. While having a dedicated eText website is useful for consolidating all relevant information, directing faculty and students to the site can be challenging.
One strategy for combating this information overload with faculty is via more direct, “local” contact—for example, distribution of messages to faculty through their dean or department chair, or via presentations at faculty council meetings. Faculty will often listen to other faculty before they turn to a central news source or IT support group. Even limited attendance at faculty meetings where information about eTexts is presented leads to good information dissemination, as faculty will share their interest and questions about eText with their colleagues.
We have also found that webinars targeted to a faculty audience, most often sponsored through campus centers for teaching and learning and focusing on just one aspect of eTexts (for example, cost savings to students or features of the eText reader application), are often well-received and well-attended. We make a practice of recording these webinars for later viewing and have found this to be an effective communication strategy.
Link to the eText Catalog/Ordering Process Should be Conspicuous to Faculty
When launching an eText initiative, the institution will likely build on and integrate with existing production applications such as billing and class scheduling. In doing so, it can be easy to “bury” key access points and unintentionally hide an otherwise accessible direct link to the eText catalog, by requiring faculty to first navigate through other internal systems.
Placing a conspicuously titled “Faculty Ordering” button on the initiative website has been effective at IU. After an instructor clicks on the button, the resulting process works as follows:
- Faculty are immediately asked to authenticate via their username/password.
- They are presented with an option to choose the specific semester for which they want to order an eText.
- Faculty then see a listing of courses they are scheduled to teach that semester and choose a specific course in which they would like to use an eText.
- After clicking on a specific course, they are taken directly to the eText catalog to search for and immediately select a title for use in their course.
Toe-may-toe, Ta-ma-toe: Perceived Similarities are Often Significant Differences
As noted earlier, an eText remains a very new paradigm for faculty in the context of how they think about presenting information to students. However, beyond the pedagogical implications of utilizing an eText, faculty often confuse the underlying eText technology infrastructure—that is, the difference between an eText, the platform utilized to deliver the eText, and the learning management system.
Faculty and students often perceive the e-reader platform as the eText itself, when in reality the platform is just the mechanism for accessing and reading the eText. The similarity between the names is confusing. Another important distinction to address with faculty is the difference between placing an order through the institution’s eText initiative and placing an order directly through a publisher’s website.
One way of addressing this challenge is to channel publisher communication through an internal university resource rather than letting publishers directly solicit faculty. Coordinating publisher communications through an internal resource also helps prevent publishers from inadvertently offering options that are outside the scope of their eText agreement with the institution.
One exception to this communication strategy is when faculty have a question concerning the availability of a specific text as an eText. In this case, it is sometimes easier for faculty to inquire directly with the publisher, who can then advise on availability and when the desired text can be added to the institution’s eText catalog.
However, providing faculty a more controlled mechanism of communicating with publishers—and still keeping that communication within the context of the larger eText inquiry/order process—is important. A process to facilitate this communication might work as follows:
- When no results are returned from a search of the institution’s eText catalog, a publisher-specific contact is listed.
- When this contact is clicked, the system automatically generates an email template asking faculty to provide information specific to the text in question — ISBN, title, author, etc.
- This link might also be configured such that both the publisher and eText initiative administrators are copied on the message.
Hence publisher communication is managed in a way that does not lead to confusion.
The Importance of Dedicated Staff
For even a modest eText implementation, dedicated staff is a critical component of a successful program. At IU, the key positon is that of the eText business analyst/operations manager. This position serves as a central point of contact and liaison for all project stakeholders, including the central IT organization, faculty, students, publishers, registrars and bursars on all eight IU campuses. The following table provides examples of the primary job duties and responsibilities of the position.
|% Time Allocated||Duty/responsibility|
|30%||Serve as principal business analyst/operations manager who coordinates major operational functions of the eText program, including tracking of relevant financial data (e.g., generation and payment of purchase orders, account management); serve as central point of contact for publishers and the university, and/or as point of contact between university and third-party consortium working directly with publishers (e.g., the Unizin consortium); provide oversight of eText ordering workflow (i.e., process by which faculty place eText orders for coming term)|
|25%||Provide leadership for and act as principal lead consultant and “eText evangelist” to campus teaching centers and other groups by developing and leading workshops, webinars, and other instructional curricula on best-practice use of eTexts|
|15%||Manage, monitor and sequence response to communication from central IT group, vendors, students and other individuals and groups both internal and external to the university|
|15%||Gather, analyze and report to central IT organization (and/or unit charged with management of eText program) on eText utilization trends, adoption by faculty, and subsequent analysis of said trends|
|10%||Mediate and resolve associated issues between stakeholders/project collaborators|
|5%||Attend and present on the eText program at teaching and learning conferences, campus symposia, school/departmental meetings and faculty committees|
Job duties and responsibilities of IU eText business analyst/operations manager
Other issues to consider when creating an eText business analyst/operations manager position:
- While they are probably not the only person charged with supporting the eTexts initiative, this person will likely become the face of the initiative.
- Many faculty will be more open to meeting with this person when they realize they are not an employee of a specific publisher, but rather the university. We have found that faculty are more comfortable in adopting an eText when they realize this person is ultimately advocating for their interests and the interests of their students rather than a publisher.
- As the initiative grows, a significant percentage of this person’s time will be devoted to communication and ensuring that faculty and students are aware of the initiative.
- As with any administrative role, this position will benefit from an incumbent who is familiar with the characteristics and “unique ways” of the specific institution—in other words, from someone who can practice necessary diplomacy in their communications and interactions with faculty, students, publishers, other stakeholders.
- Beyond just talking about cost savings and the operational aspects of using eTexts, this person should be able to address pedagogical issues surrounding eTexts. This gives them credibility when working with faculty.
- The incumbent should be an “eTexts evangelist” who is able to recognize opportunities for growing the initiative.
Regardless of the size and scope of an initial eText implementation, it will likely be perceived as a significant change for both faculty and students. Reading a hard copy text is an activity that’s ingrained into the larger college experience; regardless of the benefits of moving away from it (and there are many benefits), this process change must be carefully managed. Outreach to faculty and students through a variety of methods (not just email/electronic communication) is essential, to help them in first understanding the benefits of eTexts and then in getting dedicated support as they begin teaching and learning with an eText. If this process change is effectively managed, it will form a strong foundation for a successful eText program.