An Interview with Niraj Kaji, CEO of Akademos
Against the Grain v34#5
This month marks nine years since I launched my column in Against the Grain. The focus of my inquiry has always been the role of the university library in supporting teaching and learning as a distinct function from its major focus on supporting research. Too often, in my view, the role of the library in supporting research and the role of the library in supporting teaching and learning are conflated or made indistinguishable. Of course, the university center for teaching and learning exists apart from the library and has as its central mission the support of faculty in teaching and learning, but it does not engage with content acquisition and collection in a significant way. I believe the content and the tools that are deployed specifically in support of course delivery, via the library and center for teaching and learning, merit special focus.
In 2019 in this column, I featured an interview with Temple Associate University Librarian Steven Bell in which we discussed the spectrum of affordability and the place of the library in addressing affordability.1 Many discussions about the rise of Open Educational Resources (OER) focus on affordability but also student success, with the aim of representing OERs as a net positive contributor to improved student outcomes in classes built on OER.2 Libraries and librarians are, in the main, supporters of OER and are deeply committed to supporting student success. Where then should the emphasis be placed amongst librarians? How is faculty choice preserved in the drive to affordability? What outcomes are most critical?
Niraj Kaji, CEO of Akademos, an online bookstore platform provider focused on universities, has always taken a broad perspective on the role of faculty, bookstores, centers for teaching and learning, and libraries in driving toward student success and, yes, saving students money. What follows is an interview with Raj that takes as its emphasis the Akademos focus on student success.
What does student success mean to you? And should this work in practice across the many points on campus that support students?
On a fundamental basis, I believe that every organization should have a mission that serves as a north star for all its employees. Having been a higher education administrator for over 15 years, and now serving over 160 institutions as the CEO of Akademos, I have had a chance to review dozens of university mission statements and for most, “helping students succeed” is a clear through line. For us at Akademos, success means helping each student stay in school and graduate. Student success can have different meanings across institutions which is why it’s my belief that every person on campus should have tangible, quantitative metrics that directly link their day-to-day activities with the university’s definition of what success is.
How do you see the role of libraries and librarians in the context of student success?
There are both direct and indirect ways libraries can support student success. On a direct basis, the work that is going into low cost/no cost materials is tangible. Though I don’t think it’s sufficient for anyone to discuss affordability of course materials without defining specific goals and measures. For example, if the average cost of a book on campus is currently $65, is the goal $60? $55? Librarians can help advocate for and increase dialogue as to the right course materials strategy, realizing that the goals and objectives can vary by institution. Indirectly, librarians have long supported faculty in terms of research endeavors and other means, so they have a unique position to encourage faculty to define and address student success.
What do we lose when we focus exclusively on affordability?
It’s actually the wrong question. Affordability has come to the forefront because the cost of materials is a known impediment to student success. Universities should think about how to organize their course materials strategy wholly around student success. Affordability will naturally become an element of that strategy but is not the sole factor that should be considered. Research by Dr. Michael Moore from the University of New Hampshire indicates that students who have materials day one experience course completion rates approximately four percent higher than those who do not have materials day one.3 This has implications for student success departments, academic advising, finance and the provost’s office. There is a tremendous opportunity to evolve the conversation from affordability to driving student success, as measured by course completion and graduation rates.
What is the “Akademos view” on the content faculty select to design their course? Put another way, how does Akademos support a faculty member who selects OER or a conventional textbook for course assignment?
We are agnostic as to the content selected, so long as it supports student success. Our platform allows faculty members to select OER materials, conventional textbooks, digital materials and more. Importantly, for all materials faculty can see the cost prior to adoption and make their own determination of value versus effectiveness. We want to help students succeed regardless of what materials are chosen.
Are there other related services and/or centers on campus, beyond bookstores and libraries, that are trying to solve common issues related to student success?
Yes. If the issue that bookstores and libraries are trying to solve is helping students succeed by ensuring access to all necessary materials, the chief information officer’s office is also a stakeholder; they are oftentimes spending hundreds of thousands (or in the case of one Akademos partner, millions) of dollars buying licenses for software that are required for academic studies. Over time, all three constituencies (bookstores, libraries and the CIO’s office) need to be brought together to comprehensively think through what students need to succeed — and how to get it to them as easily as possible.
How does Akademos work today with libraries at the institutions it supports?
At this time, it’s a very light relationship. A few Akademos clients help to ensure that their library staff is working with their faculty or centralized instructional design teams to review adopted content to see if there are alternatives out there that are better (either demonstrating greater efficacy or carrying lower cost). We are eager to work with libraries to tighten this relationship and provide additional value and have chatted with several librarians on ways to better support the institution.
What is your view on the many direct-to-student student study solutions like Course Hero and Chegg?
In my conversations with individuals across the learning content landscape, I understand these services are frequently used to simply find answers to common textbook problems and therefore don’t force student engagement with the content. I believe learning best takes place when students are engaging with problems and usage of such tools may provide expedient answers but ultimately reduce the student’s skill in learning the content.
What is your view on subscription packages direct-to-students from publishers like Pearson and Cengage and aggregators like Perlego?
From our end, we thought deeply about subscription models and asked how we can help students succeed through these packages. As a technology led company, we created a set of algorithms that calculates on the fly if a student is better off purchasing the bundle or the disaggregated titles underneath. It’s clear that substantial change is coming to the bookstore world; we aim to be the thought leader in driving student success regardless of these evolutions. If we stay true to our mission, we are confident of future success.