December 22, 2016

Will a new business model accelerate the digital revolution in course materials?

By Jared and Ryan • In Media, Op-Ed

This article was originally printed in EdTech Digest on December 22, 2016. The full article, complete with footnotes, can be found here.

For nearly two decades, industry commentators have heralded the impending death of the physical textbook. The prediction is rooted in common sense assumptions. Digital materials should be both more immersive and personalized than their physical counterparts, leading to better learning outcomes. Meanwhile, supply chain efficiencies achieved by digital distribution should result in lower prices for students. With the promise of a better product at a lower price point, prognosticators suggest, the digital revolution must be right around the corner.

And yet, as we near the end of 2016, the evidence for revolution is mixed. According to the major academic publishers, digital products have secured a commanding market position. Pearson reports that digital revenues now account for more than 50% of total sales, while McGraw-Hill announced that digital unit sales overtook print unit sales in its U.S. Higher Education Group in 2015. But anonymous student purchasing data, gathered from millions of users across hundreds of campus bookstore price comparison shopping sites, tells a different story. When users were presented with new, used, rental, and digital offerings from top retailers, digital units comprised only 2.9% of all units purchased.

In order for digital to fulfill the promise of lower cost course materials and gain more widespread adoption, the economics of the textbook market must change.

There’s room for reconciliation between these figures. One culprit for the disparity is the way each data set categorizes physical textbooks that include online access to digital courseware like testing suites and homework solutions. Publishers often account for these “bundles” as digital sales, whereas the comparison shopping data categorizes them as new physical units. Moreover, many students buy used or rent textbooks that lack online access, leading them to purchase access directly from the publisher at a later date. Outside of required courseware, the evidence that students find compelling value in garden-variety digital textbooks, or e-texts, is scarce.

Of course, one critical component of value is price. While publishers have been willing to discount digital below physical new pricing, the savings are often less than students can achieve by renting, or by purchasing a used copy and reselling it at buyback. An 2015 analysis of the above price comparison data revealed that, on four out of every five titles, the online e-book rental price was higher than the comparable online physical rental.

As publishers explain it, the move to digital distribution alone has limited impact on price, as physical distribution costs pale in comparison to the overall cost of content creation. But another significant “cost” for publishers has been baked into the textbook market for nearly a century: publishers only make money when a new copy is sold or rented, while wholesalers and rental providers earn revenue from every used copy purchased or rented. Thus, e-texts are currently at a particularly awkward price point: lower than the physical new copies from which publishers derive revenue, but still too high to regain market share from competing used and rental units. All of this suggests that, in order for digital to fulfill the promise of lower cost course materials and gain more widespread adoption, the economics of the textbook market must change.

That change may now be afoot. Campus stores and technology providers have begun working more closely with publishers to advocate for and implement a new business model, which has gained traction under the name Inclusive Access. After enrolling in a participating course, students automatically receive digital access to required course materials on the first day of class, and a charge is placed directly on their student account. The auto-enrollment feature of the program secures a much larger share of the market for publishers, allowing them to offer larger discounts to students.

The appeal of Inclusive Access stems from the efficiency with which it addresses two interrelated crises: the cost of course materials continues to outpace inflation and, as prices climb, more students are bypassing required course materials. Student PIRGs reports that 65% of surveyed students forewent required materials due to cost; among those, 94% feared not having the materials would harm their performance. Driven by this two-pronged focus on affordability and learning outcomes, dozens of traditional institutions have begun piloting Inclusive Access programs, and publishers, digital distributors, and campus store leaders are working together to expand the pool.

The model remains in its infancy at traditional institutions, and early adopters have encountered challenges. For one, instructors are skeptical of the digital value proposition, with the Campus Computing Project reporting less than half of surveyed faculty agreed that “digital course materials provide significant added value content not available in print.” Elsewhere in the institution, campus IT and bookstore staff are grappling with new technical requirements, including more detailed enrollment tracking and applying new fees to student accounts. Finally, the Department of Education has issued a series of regulations around the model, requiring that students be able to opt-out of the program, and that participating course materials be priced “below competitive market rates.” These requirements, which provide admirable consumer protections under the new model, also introduce additional complexities that have given some schools pause.

Still, the momentum behind the new model is palpable, and solutions to help institutions streamline Inclusive Access are already emerging. Moreover, campus stores have entered the scene to provide much needed course materials expertise, working with publishers to ensure pricing represents significant savings to students and facilitating the Department of Education’s opt-out provisions. With a the right combination of market incentives and strategic partnerships in place, Inclusive Access looks to have a promising future.

It’s a well worn observation that popular demand for digital music and news media precipitated new business models. The course materials market may soon reverse the polarity, with a new business model finally facilitating the digital revolution.

October 12, 2016

New in Verba Collect: Find Inclusive Access Friendly Faculty

By Jared • In Products

Dozens of Verbavores are implementing Inclusive Access on campus, and we keep hearing the same challenge: it’s hard to know which instructors are open to the new model. Verba to the rescue!

Clients who use Collect for adoptions and Connect for Inclusive Access management can now gauge faculty interest at the point of adoption. Here’s how the new prompt looks:

Capture Inclusive Access interest at the point of adoption with Verba Collect.

Of course, the design incorporates your store’s custom colors, and you can easily substitute any alternative program name you use for Inclusive Access (like “Instant Access” at Cornell).

Acting on the Info: Store-Facing Tools

On the store-facing side of Collect, clients who activate the new feature will find an “Inclusive Access Interest” filter on the Courses page. Use it to queue up a list of sections with faculty to contact about their Inclusive Access interest.

Once you hop into the Course Management page, Collect makes it easy to initiate contact. Head to the Messages tab to find the interested Inclusive Access instructor and contact them right from the interface:

Message faculty who are interested in Inclusive Access directly from the Collect interface.

You might kick off the conversation by linking them to a shareable Inclusive Access pricing analysis from Verba Connect. Click here to see an example!

This is just the first of many planned improvements to the Verba Collect and Connect products this Fall. We’re running on all cylinders, and we’d love to show you our latest and greatest.

Reach out to us at sales-team@verbasoftware.com to schedule a training for Collect or get a demo of Verba Connect, the industry’s first Inclusive Access management application.

September 22, 2016

Verba Connect Launches Revolutionary Textbook Program with Eight Institutions

By Jared • In News

Reaching over 20,000 students at launch, Verba Connect enables significant cost savings and first-day access to course materials.

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 21, 2016 – Verba, an affordable textbook solution provider, whose price comparison application is used by millions of students, today announced the successful launch of Verba Connect, the latest platform addition to its full suite of textbook affordability tools. Verba Connect powers large-scale Inclusive Access programs that provide every student with digital access to the most affordable course materials on the first day of class and bills them directly via the student account.

“Verba has revolutionized the textbook industry with its unmatched suite of affordability-focused applications,” said David Kent, Director of The Vol Shop at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Their latest innovation, Verba Connect, has single-handedly empowered us to build a large-scale Inclusive Access program, featuring low-cost digital course materials that improve learning, increase accessibility and meet the needs of today’s students.”

Under the traditional textbook model, sky-high prices leave students ill-equipped from day one to succeed in class. Many students wait until several weeks into the term before purchasing required materials. Another 25% of first-year students completely forego at least one required material, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement.

Verba Connect has rectified these deficiencies in the traditional model, bringing ease-of-use to school administrators, as well as cost savings and first-day course materials access to over 20,000 students. It is the only platform that delivers true price transparency to ensure students find critical course materials at the lowest-cost. While Verba Connect offers students the ability to opt-out of the program, 95% of eligible students choose its Inclusive Access platform to take advantage of the unprecedented savings.

“The old way of getting books from publishers into the hands of students is incredibly flawed and out of date. No one would design the textbook model as it is today given a better alternative. Our Inclusive Access platform solves the fundamental shortcomings of the current model,” said Ryan Petersen, CEO and co-founder of Verba. “We built Verba Connect to drastically reduce the price of books for students, at higher sell-through to publishers, ensuring every student starts day one on the same page.”

The University of Arizona is one pioneer working with Verba to adopt Inclusive Access, at an enormous scale. Nearly 1,691 students in its Management Information Systems program saved a minimum of $65 off of the lowest-priced comparable materials from the leading online retailer. In total, students saved over $100,000 in a single Inclusive Access course.

“Inclusive Access reduces the cost of course material prices significantly compared to the introduction of the used book,” said Debby Shively, Executive Director of the University of Arizona Bookstores. “With the help of Verba Connect, we’ve found a solution that not only eliminates management pain points for our staff, but more importantly, ensures no student will fall behind because of course material costs.”

Verba Connect is currently available for campus stores serving large, medium and small public universities as well as a multi-campus community college, including the VolShop at The University of Tennessee Knoxville, University of Arizona Bookstores, the UCLA Store, North Dakota State University Bookstore, Wildcat Shop at Central Washington University, The College Store at SUNY Oswego, The University of Mary Washington Bookstore and Tulsa Community College Bookstores.

Institutions interested in implementing Inclusive Access on their campus can learn more at www.verbasoftware.com/connect. Annual licensing fees are tiered based on enrollment, plus a 5% commission on Inclusive Access items – http://www.verbasoftware.com/pricing. You can also view an introductory video below:

 

About Verba

Founded in 2008, Verba is a San Francisco-based company that works with colleges and universities to reduce the cost of course materials by elevating transparency and access. Verba offers web-based tools for faculty to select course materials, bookstores to acquire low-cost textbooks and for students to easily compare prices and gain on-time access. Verba’s Inclusive Access management tools, including Verba Connect, leverage Verba’s proprietary pricing analysis model to alleviate administrative manual processes and ensure every student has digital access to course materials at a low price on the first day of classes. Verba works with over 350 campuses of varying sizes to reach over six million students.

July 18, 2016

Introducing The Efficiency Update to Verba Collect

By Jared • In Products

After months of development, our largest-ever update to Verba Collect is ready for prime time! We tackled the little things that slow you down, translating into huge time savings for your adoptions process. And we wrapped it all up in our most beautiful user experience to date.

To help you and your campus prepare for the update, we’ve created a shareable instructional video for Reviewers and Approvers. Click on the image below to watch the video, and feel free to share the link with Reviewers and other Approvers on campus!

http://www.verbasoftware.com/course_management

The Efficiency Update is packed with new features, but here are a few of our favorites:

Playlists

Use Quick or Advanced Filters to queue up your desired list of courses, then click once to move seamlessly from course to course. No more hopping in and out of the main Courses page to get where you need to go.

All New Course Management Page

Collect’s most frequently used page has been rebuilt for speed from the ground up. Beneath the modernized design, we’ve implemented over a dozen client requests, including more robust section merging (for Tony at GVSU), smarter messaging (for Rico at CSULB), and more detailed activity logs (for Hannah at USU).

Alternatives

Building on last year’s Affordability Update, Collect now points out when newer and more affordable versions of a title are available. We provide the data, you decide if the alternative is a better fit than the original.

Recommendations

If you like an alternative, use Collect’s new recommendation engine to message relevant parties directly from the interface. The email they’ll receive includes one-click links to accept (or reject) the recommendation.

As with every new release, we can’t wait to get the Efficiency Update into your hands! We hope you’re as excited as we are.

March 22, 2016

Inclusive Access: The Next Big Thing?

By Jared • In Uncategorized

Like used and rental before it, Inclusive Access has the potential to massively disrupt the course materials market. On March 17, Verba co-founders Ryan Petersen and Jared Pearlman led a long and substantive exploration of the new model in a Research Action Webinar, underwritten by the NACS Foundation. Check out the whole video below!

 

February 17, 2016

Introducing Verba Connect

By Jared • In Products

A new course materials model is gaining momentum. It goes by a few different names – the course fee model, direct access digital – but we call it Inclusive Access. The goal is simple: to provide students with the right course materials on the first day of class at an affordable price.

Under Inclusive Access, publishers deliver digital materials to all enrolled students when classes start, and the institution charges enrolled student accounts for those materials after the add/drop deadline. Publishers and stores get higher sell-through; students get lower prices.

As trailblazing stores have begun implementing Inclusive Access, they’ve come to us for help with some of the challenges presented by the new model.

So we built Verba Connect, the industry’s first Inclusive Access management application. Connect serves as the hub for all data needed to power Inclusive Access on your campus, and provides tools for your store to manage Inclusive Access from start to finish.

Learn more about it by checking out the release video below! And, if you’re interested in even more detail, we’d love to chat. Just reach out to sales-team@verbasoftware.com.

 

November 19, 2015

Introducing the All-New Verba Compete Dashboard

By Jared • In Dashboard, News, Products

Since we launched in 2011, Verba Compete has expanded from its Dynamic Pricing roots to include powerful tools around online sourcing, buyback pricing, and store-managed rental. As we’ve added these tools, one of your most frequently-asked questions has been, “What should I do and when?” So we’ve reimagined the Dashboard as your intelligent advisor, pointing out the most important things to do within Compete on any given day.

The new Dashboard combines best practices from the Verba client base with key dates on your academic calendar to create a custom schedule of tasks for your store. It also includes shareable stats about your last six-months of activity in Compete. Taken together, the new Dashboard gives your store a better view of what you’ve done, what to do now, and what’s coming up.

For a sneak peek at the new interface, click the video preview image below:

 

This has been a big project, and there are lots of little improvements beneath the headlines. We can’t wait to get your feedback on it, so don’t be shy in reaching out.

September 22, 2015

The Affordability Update to Verba Collect

By Jared • In Dashboard, News, News Feed, Products

As higher education costs rise, textbook affordability has become the core issue in course materials. Because textbook affordability starts with the adoption, we looked at our own adoptions tool and asked what we could build to empower the affordability movement on campus. We call the result the Affordability Update to Verba Collect (video below).


A NEW METRIC: THE AFFORDABILITY SCORE
The course materials market is complex, so measuring affordability across millions of titles is no easy task. We analyzed the terabytes of data Verba captures every year to craft a single metric for the industry.

We combined publisher list price, store used and rental availability, and online used offer data to assign an Affordability Score to every book. From there, we built out new functionality in Collect to put the scores to use.

AFFORDABILITY TOOLS FOR ADOPTIONS MANAGERS
The Affordability Update gives adoptions managers unprecedented insight into affordability on campus.

Verba Collect managers will find a new Affordability page in Collect. View high-level affordability analytics, like average score within a catalog. And, a chart showing the number of titles within each score range.

The new Affordability page is even more powerful when it comes to individual books. Click into a book to see its score composition, and use the interface to communicate with instructors about lower-cost alternatives.

With our new reporting in hand, adoptions managers are now positioned to drive affordability conversations with key stakeholders across campus.

A NEW EXPERIENCE FOR INSTRUCTORS
The Affordability Update also includes a streamlined experience for instructors. Their course list is now embedded in the page they’re working on, and we’ve reduced the number of steps to completion by 40%.

One of the goals in the redesign was to make identifying information more visible to instructors. You’ll notice more legible text and bigger cover images. And, if enabled, the new interface also shows instructors the affordability score for almost every ISBN.

Last, but certainly not least, we’ve also developed an entirely new search infrastructure with vastly improved results. The new search takes into account both popularity and affordability to surface the right results for every query.

To see the new interface in action, check out the updated instructor walkthrough video:



WRAPPING UP
The Affordability Update is the culmination of months of work on Verba Collect, so you’ll notice dozens of other small improvements as well. We’re very excited to roll this out to the entire Collect client base and empower everyone involved to make a difference on campus!

We can’t wait to hear what you think, so please reach out to us at support@verbasoftware.com or (415) 738-2374.

July 6, 2015

Introducing the All-New Verba Compare

By Jared • In Dashboard, News, News Feed, Products

Each term, millions of students use Verba Compare through campus stores to choose their course materials. When we began working with UC Davis in 2010, less than 2% of visits came from phones and tablets. As of last rush, nearly 20% of Compare site visits were mobile.

Today, after months of testing and development, we’re rolling out an all-new Verba Compare to the Verba client base! The updated Compare retains your store’s custom banners and colors, but also sports a fresh new design that works great on phones and tablets, along with dozens of accessibility and user experience improvements.

We’re excited to see the brand new Compare in the wild, bringing a better experience to millions of students this Fall. To see the new Compare in action, check out our demo site, or view the updated student walk-through video for the full rundown:

May 28, 2015

160% More Inventory Now Available through Full-Service Sourcing

By Jared • In Dashboard, News, News Feed, Products

Last Fall, we got two big requests for Full-Service Sourcing: better billing, and more inventory. In April we rolled out invoicing on shipment, so your store can receive books from the marketplace before paying for them. Now we’re following through on your second big ask.

As of today, we’re adding 160% more inventory to Full-Service Sourcing. With more inventory comes A LOT more savings: 1.7x the savings across the Verba client base at launch.

NEW WALKTHROUGH VIDEO
Now is the best time to find great deals in the online marketplace! If you need a sourcing refresher, we’ve put together a 10-minute walkthrough video on Full-Service Sourcing. Just click play below!