I’d love to sit here and tell you that getting here today was easy. That it all fell into place without much effort. That I was able to take a backseat and watch it all happen before my eyes. It wouldn’t be the truth, though. As is the case with most instances of success, achieving it takes time and work.

You’ve seen some of the digital options available to educators. Today, there are too many to count and far too many to test, pilot, or sit through a demo of. Plus, there are many factors to consider when evaluating what’s best for you and your students, let alone your institution. So, how do you narrow down the multitude of digital solutions out there? Why does it even matter? Why would you want to go digital?

You and I both know that choosing the right technology matters, going digital matters, because our students matter. More than ever before, students are looking for cost-effective, engaging, and technology-driven educational solutions both in and outside of the classroom. That’s where we come in. But how do we answer that need?

And So It Begins

My institution has had an inclusive access e-Text model in place for three years. Prior to fall 2014, quite a few things were at play that were hindering our students’ success. For example, at one point in English (one of the departments I oversee and the subject area I teach in), there were 10 different texts adopted for ENG-111, our gateway English course. If students had to switch sections for some reason, chances here high that they’d go into a section with a different text, different assignments, and different expectations.

Approximately 20% of our students were choosing not to purchase required materials including textbooks, access codes, and other necessities—either because they couldn’t afford them or had to utilize their funds elsewhere. They were complaining about the cost of materials on the college’s social media platforms. Students were waiting in lines at the bookstore only to find out that certain titles were sold out. It all boiled down to one thing: our students were not prepared on the first day of class and were getting discouraged, frustrated, and behind. While that’s a disaster for any educational setting, it’s often worse in community colleges.

The call for digital came to me in fall 2012. Our President was interested in what going digital could mean for our students. While we tried to get a committee off the ground at that point, we failed for various reasons. I piloted e-Textbooks in three of my personal classes in spring 2013. With the fizzled attempt in the back of my mind, I had to see for myself: is this something even worth pursuing? By the end of spring 2013, I was a believer. My students were in love. In fact, those 60 students helped me form the e-Text initiative. I surveyed them at the end of the semester and found out what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what they wanted to see in the future. My students provided me with my template—the criteria I’d use moving forward.

Survey Says

Students liked:

  1. The cost effectiveness
  2. That they could access on any device able to connect to the internet and load our LMS
  3. That their book bags were lighter
  4. That they could highlight, notate, and see what I found important in the e-Text (I could share notes/highlights/hints with them)
  5. That they could listen to their text through ReadSpeaker

Students didn’t like:

  1. The use of access codes (they would throw them away, enter them in the wrong place, or be issued an expired or used code)
  2. That they had to completely disable pop-up blockers on their device to access (leaving their devices vulnerable)
  3. They had no way of knowing if the platform was down/having issues or if it was just on their end (unless they reached out to me)
  4. The original reader was not as engaging as they hoped; they had heard about digital and were expecting “big things”

Students’ Wish List:

  1. No access codes!
  2. The ability to launch content in a new window, without having to disable all security settings/pop-up blockers
  3. Engaging activities, assignments, and checkpoints allowing students to experience their e-Text, not just read it
  4. Single sign-on access to all their digital materials
  5. A free app to access and read their digital materials
  6. A digital product that felt customized to them—adaptive, responsive, personalized

We piloted more courses and surveyed hundreds of students in the summer and fall of 2013. By spring 2014, we had an e-Text initiative committee formed. We planned all spring and most of the summer, and then in July 2014, our committee (comprised of representatives from across the College) met “to break it.” Just weeks before fall term began, we sat in a circle for hours discussing all the potential issues the initiative could surface. By the time we adjourned, we had a few potential solutions for each concern. We were ready. In fact, fall 2014 went beautifully. We could not have asked for a better roll-out.

Mission Accomplished

Going digital instantly solved two problems: 1) we could lower the cost of required materials and 2) 100% of our participating students had their correct materials from day one. Just weeks into our first semester, we realized we had achieved those first two goals in all 11 Liberal Arts courses that were part of the roll-out. It was time to set new goals and focus them more on the technology and the student experience. I deferred to my students’ wish list.

We started training faculty, staff, and students. We grew with Cengage as the initiative progressed. We launched with custom, basic readers where our students were easily able to access their e-Text without access codes (think, PDFs—yep, that simple!).

Once students were comfortable with where and how to access their digital materials, it was time to step up to the technological plate. We needed to wow our students and make an impression—one that would stick and carry through the multitude of courses that used e-Texts. With only one semester of the initiative behind us, we opted for more changes. In spring 2015, we chose to move from basic readers to fully customizable, digital platforms. Since then, we have fully digitized over 60 courses across the college. Our students access their digital materials in one place, their LMS, through a single sign-on—not with an access code. The initiative has spread far beyond the Liberal Arts division, with new courses joining the initiative each term. Rowan-Cabarrus did digital, and so can you.

Take My Advice

If you’re interested in doing something similar at your institution, let me give you three of my best success “hint-hints” (as I say to my students):

  • Form a committee early on and include representatives from every area of the institution: student services, instruction, distance education, administration, the business office, student government association, etc. It’s imperative that all voices are at the table throughout the process. It’s also important that you approach this together, as a collective front and support system.
  • Get faculty involved early on because they will be the ones to drive this initiative. They have to believe in it and see the positive results digital can yield. If they don’t believe in it, if it feels more like a top-down decision without faculty support, the initiative will be that much harder to make successful.
  • Keep your students as the focal point in every decision you make. Survey them. Find out how you can best serve them now—and address those items first. If students feel heard, important, and as if they’re the reason you’re making improvements, they’ll be more likely to adapt to the changes and more willing to learn the new solutions.

If I could do this over again, I would’ve started earlier. I would’ve trusted my gut and piloted in 2012, rather than waiting six months. That’s really the only change I’d make to this journey. I knew I had to learn and thus teach myself first; to see my students interact with the technology and hear directly from them on whether or not this was a good idea. I know it was best to take calculated risks, to keep surveying our students to ensure we were headed in the right direction, and to make data-driven decisions as we went along. It was smart to take baby steps: we rolled out access but with minimal technology just to get our students used to the idea. Then, we rolled out the more sophisticated digital experiences our students were requesting.

I’m also glad I collaborated early on with the bookstore and the publisher (Cengage) so we could have open communication throughout the process, be honest about next steps and expectations, and support each other. We formed a team and without that, I don’t think I would’ve moved forward. My name was attached to this initiative; it was faculty-led after all, so I had to trust in others to make this work—much like what I’m asking you to do here. Trust in digital. And if you can’t trust in digital yet, you can trust in me.

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Read the full infographic of Jenny’s Journey through Digital Evaluation here.