The greatest barrier to digital course material is accessibility. Not the ability to use the technology — that comes naturally to most students — but the ability to afford it.
In 1996, as the Internet was rapidly taking over our lives, Acadia University introduced a laptop program. Every student was given a laptop and expected to care for it during their time at school.
The idea was to give students the opportunity to take part in everything that modern technology had to offer. It worked, after ten years the program was still alive and expanded.
Now universities are gearing up for another big technological push. As universities across Canada try to deal with a fee increase from Access Copyright, some are pushing away from traditional paper course packs and textbooks and toward electronic course materials. In short, ebooks are taking over the world.
But while course packs are more expensive than ebooks, the cost of participation for ebooks is far higher. And students will bear that price.
To buy a course pack, you need to spent $50-100 at the bookstore and know how to read. To buy an ebook, you also need a reader like an iPad, Kindle or Kobo. These are expensive pieces of equipment.
When Acadia launched its laptop program in 1996, its tuition rose considerably to reflect the increased costs of participation, becoming the highest in the country and forcing the university to reconsider the validity of its position, especially in the face of widespread laptop adoption among its students as time passed.
History is now repeating itself.
Michael Geist, a Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law, wrote in the Ottawa Citizen that there will be short-term pain for long-term gain:
“Yet the longer term benefits are enormous since publishers and authors will continue to be compensated through mechanisms such as CKRN, and Canadian higher education will be able to leverage their massive investments in technology to provide students with better, more engaging and interactive learning experiences.”
What schools, like the University of British Columbia, need to do is subsidize students’ technology upgrades to help ease them into the new academic consumption norm. Once the norm is more widespread, which seems inevitable, these subsidies can end.
If students are expected to shoulder short-term pain for their long-term gain, universities can reasonably be expected to do the same by helping their students through the transition.