Friday, January 13, 2012

Custom Course Materials: Smart or Dumb?

Over the next few months, leading up to, during, and following CAMEX, NACS Media Solutions (NMS) will be promoting a "Grow Custom, Grow Green" initiative in the college store industry.  This initiative will focus on building awareness and encouraging college stores to develop or adopt business practices in support of the adoption of custom course materials.

A logo for this initiative has been designed and NMS has begun to recruit partners in this promotional effort.  To date we have just under a dozen companies and organizations that have agreed to participate in the initiative -- from large publishers to small startups.  We will talk more about those partners in the weeks leading up to CAMEX.

One of our partners in this effort is the Collegiate Retail Alliance (CRA).  The CRA has been working diligently with publishers and leading college stores in this area -- such as the college store at Broward College in Florida.  The CRA is creating a toolkit for stores to assist in developing custom so that it is easier to grow their custom business.  NMS will support the CRA initiative in several ways, but in particular we hope to facilitate the wider sharing of knowledge and best practices in this area, as well as increase awareness of the value of custom course materials. 

To be clear, this initiative is not about “dumb custom” – i.e., the “custom that is not customized.”  For example, taking a book, ripping off the cover, putting in the faculty syllabus (maybe), and putting a new cover on with the school and faculty member names on it would be considered "dumb custom."  Our focus is on “smart custom” – i.e., custom aggregated content that is aligned or matched to student learning outcomes. Smart custom is created in partnership with faculty and linked to course descriptions, syllabi, and accreditation targets for student learning outcomes. It is in recognition that one of the biggest complaints of students is that the faculty member does not use large portions of the course materials required, and also considers where course materials are headed in the future with increasingly custom course material offerings.

There is ample evidence to show that by building custom (and by that I mean smart custom, not dumb custom) stores can lower the cost of course materials for students, increase the value of the course material product for students, increase faculty satisfaction, increase store and publisher revenues, and create an opportunity for competitive advantage.  It is a strong win for nearly all players.  It is a sound strategy for building market share and driving traffic.  The strategic timing for focusing on custom is now as the percentage of custom is poised to grow and many of the college store's traditional and future partners are focused on customized learning solutions.

Custom does not by default negate book buyback or the used book market.  Many custom books can be bought back.  Increasingly course materials will likely shift away from used books, particularly on the digital side (where there is no used market), but even with print (where growing rental adoption further reduces the used supply or selection).  Beyond that, there are ways to reduce the cost of custom even further (e.g., "binder ready" or "ala cart" versions) in order to make them more competitive with used options in the eyes of students.

Our interest is in growing high-value (i.e., smart) custom which is more aligned to student learning outcomes and in recognition that the old "one-size-fits-all" approach to course materials is beginning to change toward a "just-what-you-need-to-succeed model.   Publishers are moving toward models where they are pressed not not to provide just a standard textbook, but one which enhances the learning outcomes in the classroom.  Custom can also help institutions as they work to differentiate themselves and what they teach. We are trying to increase the intrinsic value of the products being supplied so that when students make a purchase from the college store they know that not only is it the correct materials for the course, but that the materials are there because the faculty member intends to use them in the classroom as a part of achieving targeted learning outcomes. In this way, college stores contribute to student success academically, while also improving the affordabilty of educaiton. 

Smart custom also recognizes that each faculty member teaches a topic a little differently, and moving toward custom is therefore in part about the traditional academic mission of most college stores, the relationship between stores and faculty, and how stores add value to a community.  It also recognizes that the top factors that most faculty consider when making a textbook selection is how the textbook fits "what they want to teach" and "how they want to teach it."  Price is often a distant next factor.  Smart custom helps stores provide faculty with materials that better fit their top two decision criteria, while at the same time reducing costs and increasing relevance/value -- which are top decision factors for students.  Traditional course materials, whether new or used, often no longer accomplish that alignment or level of value delivery. 

Growing custom also allows stores and faculty to better embrace the open source (OER) movement.  If we can develop the proper mechanisms, faculty could choose to blend the OER and commercial content which best fits their interests -- and OER content could be made more visible to faculty. Doing so has the potential to further reduce course material costs.  That makes it less of an "either-or" decision, and more of a "which pieces of content work best together to improve student learning outcomes in my classroom" type of decision.

Focusing on custom is not just about store sales.  Done right (again, smart custom, not dumb custom) focusing on custom can reduce cost and increase value for students.  Is it good for bookstore sales?  I hope so -- sales should increase if the value delivered increases.  More importantly, it is about strengthening the alignment of the store to the academic mission it was created to serve.  Custom (whether digital or print) is going to be a growing part of the course materials landscape in the years ahead and stores would be unwise to ignore the market opportunity, or the student value proposition.

So watch for more news, announcements, and information about the NMS Grow Custom initiative in 2012.  We aim to build awareness and grow the volume of custom course materials available through stores.  We will have several activities at CAMEX focused on the Grow Custom initiative and our partners.  We will be updating our website to list our partners and provide links to information on their products and services.  You can also complete an Interest in Participation Form to learn more about this or other current NMS initiatives.

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