To save its campus bookstore, this university put it online

We know that student tastes for digital services have the power to grab the attention of businesses. A recent example is publishing giant Pearson’s plunge into the world of textbook subscriptions in the hope of making itself more appealing to students looking for the best deal.

But what about campus bookstores, which are often more closely linked to colleges? How do they compete in an age when students are blissfully happy ordering what they need online?

At the University of Alaska Anchorage, the answer was to embrace the changing times. Now her bookstore space is a favorite place for hoodies, snacks, and teachers to get tech support. But there is a notable absence of one thing: textbooks.

The university switched two years ago to a fully virtual bookstore, where professors can post their required readings and students can place their orders (or continue shopping). It’s a change that David Weaver, executive director of campus services at the university, said has eased financial woes caused by the struggling bookstore, while keeping affordable textbook options open for its students.

“Historically, we had a nice, nice brick and mortar bookstore,” says Weaver, with a place for community conferences and a small Apple store. “The sense of belonging was great for people my age, and it was part of my undergraduate and graduate experience. Over time, the bookstore got closer and closer to breaking even. “

The new model, served by the online bookstore platform Akademos, allows students to view the cost of a textbook before registering for a course. The service may distribute open educational resources, or OER, textbooks that are available free of charge to faculty and students. It is also integrated with the university’s payment system, allowing users to charge books to their student account.

“While we’re not the cheapest option for this student, affordability outweighs our ability to generate income through the sale of textbooks,” says Weaver. “If I have a choice of three sections of a course, and one has OER and the other has a $ 200 or $ 300 textbook, I want to know because it’s a factor in my choice. “

Akademos CEO Niraj Kaji predicts that more universities will follow the lead of Weaver and his institution. Campus bookstores are feeling what he calls the “Tower Records effect”, where e-commerce has rendered a physical storefront inefficient. Just as streaming and digital sales have led to a decline in the number of stores selling CDs, digital course material has had an impact on bookstores.

“About five to ten years ago, students started voting with their wallets and deciding that they were going to buy their books online,” says Kaji, which led to a drop in bookstore sales.

Kaji says that five years ago about 8% of course materials were digital. Now that number has grown to 40 percent, and he only sees it increasing from there.

The Alaska Campus Online Bookstore relieved the university from the complicated exercise of guessing how many physical copies of each book it had to store. Getting pallets of books shipped to Alaska is no easy task, and Weaver says the university has struggled to keep up with textbook rentals offered by companies like Chegg as they are expanding their grip on the market. The campus bookstore had millions of deficits in 2019, he adds, and was looking for a solution.

At the same time, Weaver said university officials were thinking about the burden of textbook costs on students. Take for example, he says, a student who borrows $ 1,000 a year in loans to cover course materials. Then multiply that by the four or five years it will take to earn an undergraduate degree.

“If she comes from a lower working class or a poor household, like many students at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, by the time she pays off her student loans, $ 4,000 to $ 5,000 in textbooks could have become $ 10,000, “Weaver said. “Affordability and transparency, these things trump all the rest. This is what our students want.

University data confirms this. A survey of students this fall shows that 89% of those surveyed said they were moderately or very satisfied with the platform. This semester, 40% of students purchased their books through the online store, with the remaining 60% stating that they purchased elsewhere, received OER material, or did not have a mandatory textbook. As for the bookstore, it now serves as the campus general store, and its smaller footprint has made room for a student registration center.

Beyond affordability, Kaji says the shift to digital course materials can help universities step in and support their students in ways traditional textbooks can’t. What if digital textbooks could alert a professor or counselor that a student hasn’t opened their textbook yet, or even identify where they are struggling?

“If someone hasn’t accessed the content for seven days, it may be a yellow flag indicator to ask, ‘Are you okay? ”, Says Kaji. “It has to be done very carefully when it comes to privacy, but as we think about the whole area of ​​course content, we see these trends. There is room to improve data entry to help the university.

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