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The Future of Digital Learning For Higher Education

As a college student, can you imagine your professor knowing what content and how much you have read in your textbook? For the 63 percent of college students who neglect to even purchase textbooks due to high cost, that idea may be a little bit scary.

But the technology to track student reading, engagement with material, and capture feedback are only a few ways that digital learning is changing the future of education. We have seen a dramatic increase in college students who have Internet-capable devices – 12 percent who owned one device in 2004 up to 30 percent who owned 4 or more in 2013, according to EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research. Just like any brand or business trying to keep pace with an industry under pressure from new technology, institutions of higher learning must become acclimated to the idea of on-screen, always accessible, digital content.

Delivering knowledge in real-time is only just beginning to effectively integrate into higher education through all the necessary channels – publishers, teachers, and students. I was recently introduced to Greg Fenton, cofounder and CEO of Redshelf, an EdTech company that streamlines processes and reduces outlandish textbook costs. Here is what he had to say about how universities are delivering eTextbooks digitally:

Q: Can you explain a bit about your background and how your previous experiences helped to get you where you are today?

Fenton: I was part of the first generation of college students to start using digital content in the classroom, which was one of our early advantages to understanding the market. After using the classic, clunky corporate software produced by large education companies, we knew student-focused easy-to-use software would resonate well with students.

Q: You’ve managed to integrate all parties involved in the eTextbook space, publishers, institutions, students, and teachers. How were you able to get everyone on board?

Fenton: It was hard for a long time, but focusing on software that all parties could use and not favoring any one side of the industry allowed us to bring everyone together. There is a desire for affordable, quality content; the problem is simply the inefficiencies of the print textbook market. After sharing our data and evidence that a digital textbook, supported by quality software, would make textbooks less expensive and increase the usability of textbooks, the industry was onboard.

With ebooks you can can have a whole library’s books at your fingertips for a lower cost.

Q: What are a few of the biggest pain points in the process of creating, updating and selling textbooks?

Fenton: Our biggest pain points are a result of a very complex and fractured textbook market. There are hundreds of publishers and thousands of universities. Connecting all of them together through RedShelf’s eReading software can be challenging. However, we are solving the industry’s issues with delivering digital textbooks by integrating directly with each party and centralizing everything through RedShelf.

Q: Does Redshelf only service brick-and-mortar universities, or do you have partnerships with online universities?

Fenton: We have brick-and-mortar bookstore partnerships and online university partnerships. Depending on the school, we can integrate directly with the bookstore point-of-sale system and create a campus-branded, white-labeled eCommerce platform to develop an online bookstore presence.

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The last decade it seemed the brick-and-mortar book store was dead, but Amazon’s recent entry is a bid of confidence in the model.

Q: How does the growing cost of physical textbooks hinder a student’s learning process?

Fenton: The cost of printed textbooks is becoming so taxing that some students are opting out of purchasing course materials altogether and instead, are trying to get through class by borrowing textbooks from classmates or researching coursework online. This is obviously a pain point for the student, but with $300+ textbooks on the market, it’s easy to understand why some are choosing to go without required content. Hopefully, RedShelf can help, as we believe if textbooks go digital, the market can transition to a rental or subscription model where a student pays, for example, $30 per semester for access to an eTextbook.

Q: In a digital world, technology is ingrained in every industry, especially as future generations expect information in real-time. How do you see eTextbooks shaping the future of higher education?

Fenton: I think digital textbooks will shape the future of learning in two main areas. The first will be with data and analytics. Publishers and professors have never been able to see exactly how, how often, when and why students use textbooks. With RedShelf’s software, we’re able to gather usage data on the study tools used most often, reading habits, and the amount of time students spend studying. All of this information and more can help inform the editorial process of a textbook and the teaching and learning that go along with it. The second way a digital transition can help shape the future of education is through interactivity and content advancement. With digital textbooks, updates can become automated, feedback on questions within the book can serve up the answer in real time, video and audio files can be embedded; this list goes on, and the possibilities are endless.

Q: What was one of the most difficult lessons you learned on your journey?

Fenton: If you want to run a company no one will care about how you feel. Starting a business is hard, and you will have horrible days. If you think clients or customers will “understand” when they don’t get what they want, they won’t… you’ll just get replaced.

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Greg Fenton, CEO & Co-founder RedShelf

About the author

Nick Hastreiter

I write about the future of business. I approach this by interviewing founders, CEO's, and other game changers to share their vision for the future of their industry.

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