Home Student Support No Internet? No Device? No Problem: Making Electronic Course Materials Easily Accessible
No Internet? No Device? No Problem: Making Electronic Course Materials Easily Accessible

No Internet? No Device? No Problem: Making Electronic Course Materials Easily Accessible


By Bruce Schneider, Vice President of Business Engineering, Ambassador Education Solutions

Digital content adoption is on the rise. While electronic course materials will likely never fully replace traditional textbooks, digital resources are convenient; they afford anywhere, anytime learning; they deliver analytics and insights critical to the teaching and learning experience; and they are cost-effective.

It’s no wonder that more and more schools are considering electronic materials. Not only can they be included in inclusive access programs for day-one availability for all students, but they can also supplement certain courses that are otherwise best served by print textbooks. However, digital course materials programs hinge upon accessibility, and they can present a challenge when students don’t have a reader device and/or internet connectivity. Yet there are ways to make electronic course materials fully accessible, allowing students, teachers and schools to reap the benefits.

Why digital?

Many students today rely on technology as part of their everyday lives. They communicate online, they shop online, and they seek information online.

According to the Tech Edvocate, more students are learning to process information differently with the help of pocket-sized phones and textbook-size tablets.1

Accordingly, we are seeing more and more students crave the instant access and interactivity afforded by digital course resources.

“A multi-media interface that deepens the scope of a traditional textbook and engages the learner in investigative education”2 is appealing to today’s students. That said, electronic resources can impact results too. It has been reported that 88 percent of students feel they’d get better grades by studying with interactive tools.3

Digital resources also can save students and schools money. They tend to be more affordable for students, not to mention they reduce overhead and inventory costs for schools.

What challenges do schools face when going digital?

The decision to integrate electronic course materials into the curriculum has an impact on students and staff. From a student perspective, schools need to make sure the selected digital content platform is intuitive and consider whether the digital content requires specific device capabilities, otherwise they risk student frustration and a poor learning experience. Schools also need to assess and provide the easiest path for students to access digital materials (inclusive access, LMS, Single Sign-On, student portal, and direct to platform), increasing the likelihood that students use the resources and making the student experience as seamless as possible. Lastly, schools need to recognize that not all students will embrace digital, and therefore giving students a choice of print textbooks and/or print-on-demand options should be considered.

Faculty training is a primary pre-requisite for the success of any course materials program. The opportunities to learn how to use resources should not be a burden placed on the teacher, but rather a supportive function of the school and course materials provider. It is critical that teachers not only are comfortable with the course materials, but they also know how to effectively leverage those materials within the learning experience.

Faculty and staff also need to be well versed on extracting usage and interaction data that comes from digital course resources, as it can become a significant part of a school’s retention program.

Finally, digital programs require administrative management, mandating that institutions set policies around the digital content that is used and how it is accessed, including determining whether students have devices, internet connectivity, printing capabilities and technical support.

What about inclusive access?

A number of colleges and universities are pursuing inclusive access programs, whereby students receive all of their materials prior to the start of class. Inclusive access improves convenience for students, ensures they receive all of the materials they need to be successful, and lowers costs, plus students have the option to opt-out. Print materials can also be part of an inclusive access program, though the focus in this article is on digital resources, as well as the devices necessary for accessing this content. At Ambassador, we have helped numerous schools embrace digital content offerings supplemented by print materials, though we always recommend a clear strategic plan, a realistic timeline and well-defined goals.

How are schools embracing digital?

One of Ambassador’s longtime client institutions opted to take the slow and steady approach, expanding its digital footprint over time. Teachers who expressed interest in being early adopters were selected for pilots, and those pilots expanded as the buzz carried around the school. The transition to digital was completed over a one-and-a-half year time period. Early on during the transition, eBooks represented a little over 30 percent of the school’s total course materials. Adoptions grew steadily and by 2016 eBooks represented about 80 percent of the school’s total course materials. Traditional textbooks are still being used and continue to hover around 20 percent of total course materials usage.

Another Ambassador client secured leadership support at all levels starting with the Chief Academic Officer prior to adding digital materials in its offerings. It provided training and created tools for teachers and staff to help identify at-risk students. The tools leveraged student behavior patterns and interaction with the school’s digital platforms and LMS. This data was aggregated and analyzed daily to establish behavioral baselines of successful students for comparison. Regular interaction with identified students has led to a measurable increase in retention.

Adding digital course materials, together with print textbooks for certain programs, resonates with today’s students. However, making sure students have the necessary devices to access their electronic resources is equally important.

What devices are students using to access digital content?

College students rely on multiple devices to access digital course materials, including both standard and large sized smartphones, tablets, hybrid or “2 in 1” computers, laptops, notebooks and eReaders. According to Pearson’s Student Mobile Device Survey, 89 percent of students report using a laptop as the mobile device they are most likely to use. Roughly 86 percent regularly use a smartphone. Students using tablets on a regular basis was reported to be 51 percent, while only 10 percent own a hybrid or 2-in-1 computer.4

Why should schools consider offering devices to students?

Device programs ensure that students have the necessary tools to support them throughout the learning process, not to mention these programs reinforce the school’s commitment to its students. We are seeing a significant number of device programs starting in high schools, and oftentimes students are coming to college expecting the same. Offering devices to incoming students can attract students’ attention and serve as a great compliment to a school’s recruitment strategy.

Regardless of digital content offerings, many institutions also provide devices to students as a means to boost retention and learning outcomes.

Oftentimes schools supply laptops to new undergraduate and graduate students, which is typically a function of the marketing department. Laptops and Chromebooks tend to be the most common and provide the most widespread usability, while schools look to tablets or eReaders when cost is a primary factor.

How does a device program work?

There are a variety of ways to approach a device program, but typically, schools will preselect the device(s) for students, taking into consideration the device functionality requirements. For example, schools need to consider ePub3 compatibility and potential printing capabilities.

Students commonly order their devices through the school’s online bookstore, or schools can set up an automatic fulfillment process. Devices are delivered to students typically after the add/drop period of any semester or term. Schools can decide if they want devices delivered either to the school or to the student’s home address.

Schools also need to ensure internet connectivity for students to use their devices. Some schools will survey students to see who has internet access. If a student does not have internet access, the school can set up a Wi-Fi hotspot through a mobile phone company network. The hotspot works directly with the device to serve as a gateway for the student to connect to the internet from home, from school, or from wherever they choose. Some schools offer Wi-Fi hotspots to all students, not just those who do not have access, though this can be a costly endeavor.

Print-on-demand capabilities are beneficial for students who may have limited internet connectivity and even those who prefer a printed copy instead of or in addition to an eBook. Print-on-demand options allow students to purchase a printed version of the assigned eBook. Offering the ability for students to download an eBook on up to two devices for reading and studying offline is an added benefit. Once connected to the internet, the download copy of the eBook syncs up any new notes or highlights with the student’s online copy of the eBook.

Some schools will absorb the cost of the device (including fees associated with Wi-Fi access), while other schools pass along these fees to the student (either directly or indirectly). Payment can be handled through financial aid or bundled into tuition as a resource fee. Alternatively, in some cases, schools give students a choice to buy the device and pay directly via credit card.

Where do you go from here?

Digital resources deliver a convenient and cost-effective approach to course materials. That said, going digital requires careful consideration, from digital implementation to digital fulfillment to digital administrative management. Schools should consider all of their options to make digital course materials as effective and accessible as possible, including offering Wi-Fi hotspot devices, incorporating digital with print textbooks where appropriate, delivering print-on-demand options, and allowing for downloadable digital content, not to mention additional device program considerations, such as returns and technical support.

The goal is to ensure students have anytime, anywhere access in a way that makes sense for their unique needs.

At Ambassador, we have worked with numerous schools to implement a comprehensive course materials solution, including print, digital and device programs that provide a broad range of functionality and pricing. Different schools require different service models, and we’ve worked to put strategies and policies into place so that only those identified students receive all course materials from one source.

We recommend developing a comprehensive strategy that ensures your learners have the course materials they need and the means to access them. A strategy that aligns with your school’s goals, supports your learners and evolves as your needs and objectives change can make content integration and adoption not only a reality but also a forward thinking and successful undertaking.


  1. The Tech Edvocate, What are the Advantages of Digital Textbooks, August 2017, https://www.thetechedvocate.org/benefits-digital-textbooks/
  2. Inc., Why Digital Publishing is the Future of Education, February 2017, https://www.inc.com/drew-hendricks/why-digital-publishing-is-the-future-of-education.html
  3. Vital Source, Digital Textbooks, https://get.vitalsource.com/digital-textbooks
  4. Pearson, Student Mobile Device Survey, 2015, https://www.pearsoned.com/wp-content/uploads/2015-Pearson-Student-Mobile-Device-Survey-College.pdf

Bruce Schneider

MR. SCHNEIDER, Vice President of Business Engineering at Ambassador, has more than 25 years of experience developing, delivering and managing business technology solutions. He has worked with institutions and organizations to integrate solutions that allow them to operate more effectively and efficiently. He is an integral part of the team that leads the development of Ambassador’s integrated bookstore service solutions and helps customer institutions improve the quality of the student experience at all levels of the course material supply chain. He is a graduate of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a sought-after speaker, presenting at HLC, Campus Insight, CECU, ABHES, LCTCS, ACCET and CAPPS.

Contact Information: Bruce Schneider // Vice President of Business Engineering // Ambassador Education Solutions // 631-770-1010 // bschneider@ambassadored.com // www.ambassadored.com // Twitter: @ambassador_ed


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