Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Beyond Opportunities

In the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of EDUCAUSE Review,the article, “If Not Now, When?” predicts that the college bookstores will be “shattered” within five years along with textbooks, learning management systems, and schools. Author Adrian Sannier is the former CTO at Arizona State University who was responsible for the early Kindle pilots at that institution, and now works for Pearson Education.

Sannier argues that the convergence of trends such as wireless, smartphones, social networking, tablets, and data mining, and their convergence will lead to a digital shift in higher education that will change the education system forever. Sannier notes, “We are now poised to capture the value. The stage is set. The long-awaited digital shift in education can begin. Get ready for the Four Beyonds.” The Four Beyonds are- Beyond Textbooks, Beyond Bookstores, Beyond Learning Management Systems, and Beyond Schools.

This is an excerpt on “Beyond Bookstores:"
“The second sign that the digital shift is imminent is the stress that campus bookstores are under. Campus bookstores have been one of the core institutions of higher education, distributing learning materials to students for a century or more. Uniquely adapted to serve as the middleman between professors’ textbook choices and students’ needs to buy, return, and sell those texts, bookstores have filled a local niche, ensuring the necessary supply of eclectic materials that students would otherwise have to travel far and wide to obtain. As digital forms of these materials have been created, bookstores have turned them into physical products, in the form of access cards and the like, fitting them into the brick-and-mortar business model rather than adapting to the speed and flexibility of electronic retail.

But recent distribution innovations made possible by the Internet have inverted this dynamic, fitting physical texts into the high-speed, high-choice landscape of e-retail. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chegg, and a host of smaller e-retailers offer many of the staples of the campus bookstore at lower prices and even by rental—putting serious pressure on the retail margins of campus bookstores. And as more products move into digital format, the old business models that kept campus bookstores in the distribution game are being replaced by direct sales, which cut the store profit but provide a better price for students and greater convenience for professor and student alike.

The same forces that brought the once-mighty Borders to bankruptcy in 2011 are arrayed against the campus bookstore. In its place will be a direct distribution model for learning materials, one that streamlines the adoption and distribution of digital solutions. This will no doubt cause short-term disruption as the old model unravels, but the end result will be a much wider choice of learning materials and more fluid distribution.”
The author closes by saying:
“Beyond Textbooks, Beyond Bookstores, Beyond Learning Management Systems, Beyond School—the changes introduced by technology have already begun. The digital shift is upon us. If other industries and other fields are any guide, once the dominos begin to fall, progress will be swift and irreversible.”
In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter wrote:
The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. (p. 83)
College stores that are willing to adapt and change will get through the transformation and find new opportunities that require new business models and practices. Call it Beyond the Possibilities, but the tools that are making this transformation happen will also be the tools that will propel the college store into the digital world and beyond. College stores can and are transforming themselves into e-retailers, and provide values beyond just the middleman aspects that Sannier describes. The college IT community is increasingly talking around the college store without understanding the business and some of the true value the college store provides. To be fair, college stores have, for the most part, been terrible at "telling their story" as to the full range of value they provide to many institutions.

In 2007 college stores, IT departments and librarians met for a summit on the future of information delivery in higher education.  There is value and some functional overlap between our areas, but at the same time we all have some unique strengths and value-adds.  Now that five years have passed and the landscape has shifted significantly perhaps it is time for these groups to engage in conversation again.

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