An E-textbook and Streaming Video Platform Discussion About Access Innovation for Learning Content Through the Library
Column Editor: David Parker (Publisher and Consultant; Phone: 201-673-8784)
Against the Grain Vol. 33#4
The pandemic massively accelerated online education. But hybrid and online courses have been part of the higher education landscape for several decades. In fact, in 2012, 69% of chief academic leaders indicated online education was core to their long-term strategy and 6.7 million students were enrolled in an online course in the United States.1 But something fundamentally new happened with the pandemic, and that is the place of the library and librarians in online course design. Librarians moved from peripheral to pivotal as faculty with no online course ready-to-go sought support across the university.
eBook and streaming video platforms have been a staple of library collection development and patron services for more than two decades. The surge in demand, as campuses across the globe shut down physical attendance, pushed streaming video and eBooks to the top of materials required and delivered by the library. In this month’s column I will focus on two platforms that accelerated innovation in library access models in response to the pandemic: BibliU, an etextbook platform and Kanopy, a streaming video platform.
Books and video have followed a similar evolution in terms of institutional access models in the move from physical to digital. The trajectory of access models as print moved to eBook and CD-Rom moved to streaming video has moved, if not in lock step, then predictably forward across the two content mediums so central to course design. The options across eBooks and video have both included single title sales with various user rights, evidence-based access, demand-driven access, subscription aggregation, curated subject collections, publisher collections, etc. With this shared history in mind, I put the following questions to the teams at Kanopy and BibliU after a year in which both companies introduced substantial access model innovation.
How has your experience with or observation of the Book/Video business impacted how you approach your current distribution strategy?
BibliU: Our experience has shown that the promise of digital content for the library has not been realized. Often the most disadvantaged students depend on the library to access the textbooks on their reading lists. Yet, traditional digital content providers do not provide required textbooks from key publishers. As well, traditional providers don’t take into consideration how libraries and their budgets work. In contrast, BibliU’s catalog includes millions of textbooks from more than 2,000 publishers, including major publishing companies such as Pearson, Cengage, Wiley, Sage, etc. BibliU’s solutions were designed in direct response to how the library operates, lowering the costs of content and integrating directly with library systems and automating workflows.
Kanopy: Our collective experience in the books business has been incredibly helpful and informative to our distribution strategy. The most important takeaway from prior experience that we have adopted at Kanopy is to partner with our library customers in developing and rolling out any material changes. The use of customer surveys, interviews, and advisory boards have been integrated into our internal workflows to ensure we are understanding and addressing our customers’ needs appropriately. This approach was instrumental in the revision to our distribution strategy over the last two years.
We leveraged this collaborative approach to launch new business models and pricing strategies. With respect to business/access models, our prior experience with books reinforces our commitment to providing choice to our customers and to launch Smart PDA that allows customers to give access to a customized catalog curated by Collection Workflow Consultants to support curriculum. We also introduced variable pricing and lowered the annual license price for 70% of the catalog. Going forward, we plan to launch additional access models that are designed to work in conjunction with existing models to maximize value to our customers by extending access to more films at more affordable prices.
What are the primary access models you offer and how do you help librarians pick the right mix of these models for the institution’s unique situation?
BibliU: We offer three main access models. The first is for campus-wide initiatives (not Library specific); the second and third are designed specifically to meet the needs of the library and to enable a digital textbooks reserve program. The Universal Learning solution is for campus-wide initiatives that allow colleges and universities to guarantee all students have the content they need, on the first day of class. BibliU partners with the college or university to give students their core content for a set “per student per class” price. Our analysis has found that our Universal Learning solution gives students a savings of 50% over bookstore prices and 30% over Amazon used book prices. The Learning Collections solution allows libraries to license a collection of eTextbooks at a predictable and cost-effective price to expand their digital reserves to include eTextbooks that were previously unavailable from other providers. With this solution, the library pays a set amount for a collection of digital textbooks, designed to support a population of students (for example, the library can decide to include the textbooks for a certain number of classes and a certain number of students). And the libraries have access to usage analytics so they can understand how their investment in Digital Reserves is being put to use. On-Demand Learning allows libraries to give students access to a wide catalog and only pay for content students actually use. With this solution, libraries set up a deposit with BibliU, based on a data-driven projection of expected usage, and then draw down on the deposit as students activate the eTextbooks (activate means use past a certain percent of the book, varying by publisher). Libraries have access to real-time analytics to monitor usage, and can add and remove titles as and when they need to.
Kanopy: We offer academic libraries a variety of acquisition models that work best together for the greatest return on investment. Many libraries use PDA as their base collection —including standard, capped and our new Smart PDA, where our team works with librarians to develop a custom program based on their budget requirements and curricula — then leverage one-or three-year Firm Orders for titles and curated packages in high-use subject areas. A growing number of libraries are also choosing our Perpetual Access model for “must-have” titles that they purchase and own in perpetuity.
What did you offer libraries in response to the pandemic in terms of either free or reduced-cost access? And what pricing and access models did you introduce thereafter to assist with access and affordability?
BibliU: We were just entering the U.S. market shortly before COVID-19 hit. The packages detailed above were created based on our learnings over the last 18 months. In the UK, where over 40% of universities use our solutions today, we partnered with JISC, an organization that promotes and enables digital education in UK higher ed, to provide cost-effective solutions that would be quickly rolled out.
Kanopy: The pandemic presented enormous challenges, not just for Kanopy’s customers, but for its content suppliers as well. Thankfully, Kanopy’s content suppliers stepped forward to get creative and help libraries deal with the massive increase in resource requirements needed to navigate this truly unprecedented situation. In partnership with those suppliers, Kanopy was able to offer academic library customers a 33% discount on licenses for the entire catalog for three months, during the peak of pandemic usage. Kanopy also partnered with The Teaching Company to offer Kanopy’s entire collection of The Great Courses free of charge during that time. Additionally, we launched a Variable Pricing structure which tiers the cost of our videos based on usage, applicability to the curriculum, and other key factors including length and supplier. Variable pricing reduced the pricing of 75% of our catalog.
Do you recommend models differently that are aimed specifically at course assigned/required content versus course-reserve or reference only?
BibliU: We don’t differentiate between course assigned/required content and course-reserve or reference content. Libraries want to ensure students have access to the core content they need to be successful in a class, not just reference materials. Our Learning Collections and On Demand Learning solutions are focused on enabling this. Libraries can choose the approach that best meets their needs. Increasingly, we are hearing from Library Directors about their vision where they get other stakeholders on board, and transition their campus from a model where students have to scramble to buy their content (at the bookstore, Amazon, etc), to a model where all students pay the same fixed amount (and achieve considerable savings) for their required content — and all get access to it on the first day of class. This vision aligns with our Universal Learning solution.
Kanopy: Yes. For the best ROI, customers mix and match Kanopy’s flexible acquisition models. Most use PDA as their foundation, then supplement with Firm Orders for titles in high-use subjects. Many choose perpetual access for the essential titles that they purchase and own.
Does your company work directly with campus instructional designers, technology centers and/or faculty on course design and content integration?
BibliU: We integrate directly with library systems, so students have a seamless experience. BibliU’s catalog of eTextbooks is housed in a relational database with an access point that enables library users (typically students) to search the entire catalog and select content to read. Librarians can manage content acquisitions through BibliU’s purchasing portal, as well as gain insights into content usage and student study habits through analytics offered by BibliU. Any acquisitions made through BibliU are deployed into the library’s cataloging solution through MARC records and WAYFless URLs.
Kanopy: No. At this time, we do not directly work with campus instructional designers, technology centers, or faculty on course design and content integration. We work directly with the library who work with these parties.
Are there features and functionality of your reader/player unique to content used for course delivery as compared to readers/players designed for use and consumption of research content?
BibliU: We’ve been obsessively focused on the student experience, delivering what they would expect from a consumer app. Features include highlighting, adding notes and bookmarks, instantly syncing when online; single click access; ability to search across every book at once, even inside images; text to speech; and changing settings like background color.
Kanopy: Our user interface comes equipped with features specifically designed for students and professors interacting in their coursework. Students are able to browse by curricular subjects and even see recommended titles that help peripheral exploration after assigned viewing is completed. For professors, we offer tools that help in curriculum design and instruction like the ability to create custom playlists. This tool allows professors to add clips of multiple titles to help in their instruction and assigned viewing. There will be more features that will help professors, students and faculty alike coming soon!
Authors, filmmakers and content creators push publishers and distributors for more usage and more royalty return. How do you resolve this requirement with the institutions/library’s need to manage a budget always under pressure?
BibliU: As mentioned above, library budget management has been top of mind as to how we have designed our solutions. This isn’t in conflict with the needs of our publishers — we offer publishers a reliable and growing digital market for their content.
Kanopy: The goal for most content creators and suppliers isn’t actually maximization of revenues at the expense of all else. Rather, it’s consistency and longevity. Other markets and windows, including theatrical and premium Video on Demand (VOD), are designed to provide the most meaningful returns in the fastest possible period, which establishes a film’s ultimate value in the marketplace, and the remainder of its distribution lifecycle. Library distribution, when done effectively, offers content suppliers the longtail longevity that previous windows do not. A strong film can provide consistent returns in the library market for years, even decades. And if that requires pricing or windowing adjustments that benefit libraries and their budget management, it’s well worth the give and take.
By educating suppliers further around how to maximize this opportunity, a platform like Kanopy is able to work with customers to unlock value across the entire catalog. That, in turn, supports ongoing, consistent, dependable revenue for creators. That revenue can be earmarked to help independent filmmakers get their next project up on its feet and provide distributors with the ability to manage operating expenses, provide minimum guarantee spending for new acquisitions, and even secure additional funding.
Additionally, the library system provides an expansive audience, so it’s a net win for the creators. If the film proves it holds value for a particular audience, filmmakers and distributors want to see that play out in actual usage by that community. That’s eminently achievable in the library market, regardless of budget pressures.
Do you watch the consumer platforms and business models for inspiration? If so, which and why?
BibliU: Absolutely. We have taken inspiration and learned lessons from companies like Spotify, Netflix, Apple, etc. In the same way that Spotify helped shift the music industry from physical to digital, we are looking to disrupt the physical textbook market by turning educational content digital, making it more accessible and affordable for students, and more profitable for publishers.
Kanopy: We follow the typical UI/UX patterns those users have become accustomed to over the last few years from consumer streaming platforms. This helps students and faculty easily and quickly navigate and interact with our content. In terms of models, while we do not currently offer a subscription model, we do have plans to offer one in the future. We are currently not pursuing advertising-based models which are common among general public streaming platforms.
How is open publishing (open access, open educational resources) and freely available streaming video content playing into your platform strategy?
BibliU: This is one of our differentiators. We bring together millions of digital content assets from publishers, as well as OER sources — on a single unified platform that works on any device.
Kanopy: It doesn’t at this time.
Where will online learning be in the next 10 years? Feel free to answer differently for different regions of the world.
BibliU: Universal Learning will be a reality at all universities and colleges, and the library will play a key role in its success. Universal Learning focuses on providing equitable access to content for students from all backgrounds, and removing the costs and constraints that too often accompany course materials. Core to Universal Learning is the idea that textbooks, journals, and other course materials are vital infrastructure to student learning — an idea that aligns with the vision of many libraries. With Universal Learning, course materials, for the most part, are digitally distributed through learning management systems. Students enrolling in a course automatically gain access to the digital materials on day one of the course. Universal Learning solves a problem that has uniquely plagued higher ed: colleges and universities have largely equalized the costs of virtually every service they provide — except course materials. While colleges and universities charge different tuition rates from each other, they have for decades made an implicit judgment about costs within their walls: tuition is the same regardless of major. Universal Learning helps institutions ensure that textbook costs do not also impose differentiated burdens on students based on their chosen field of study. At the same time, Universal Learning lowers the cost of content for students.
Kanopy: Geographically, so much of the expansion in online learning depends on reliable access to high-speed broadband. And that challenge isn’t exclusive to developing nations. Here in the United States, many smaller communities in rural areas struggle with internet speeds, or even simple access, thereby dramatically limiting their ability to take advantage of online learning resources.
If you set bandwidth aside and assume that breakthroughs in technology and further investment in satellite deployment will slowly but surely resolve these issues, the future of online learning likely rests with resource bundling and integration. Both the entertainment and library technology industries are in the middle of a significant overhaul through consolidation. The players are coming together, and working to merge their technologies and content offerings into one, with varying degrees of success.
The previous period of technological development was about diversity of choice. In entertainment and learning spheres, that became a myriad of options, an ocean of apps and online tools that strived to do one thing very well. This next phase is about bringing those apps into an interconnected web of tools. It’s not enough to be able to present a film in a classroom setting. As learning becomes even more global and distributed, educators need to be able to show a film, integrate materials, tie it into curriculum, embed links to online resources, show it in a group setting, and empower real time communication. Essentially, recreating the full, in person classroom experience for the virtual world.
The best companies will figure out how to integrate all of these needs into a suite of tools, or best yet, a single offering, that empowers everything educators need to impact the next generation of learners. And the largest tech firms, warts and all, have proven that by bundling resources and services together, they can provide pricing that is accessible on a global scale.
For online learning to continue to grow, educational programs will need to rapidly adjust their strategies to embrace this digital world, and unite around a set of mutual needs that can help guide the tech community towards the best solutions as rapidly as possible.
1. Kentnor, Hope E., Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue Volume 17, Numbers 1 & 2, 2015, pp. 21–000. Copyright 2015 by Information Age Publishing.