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A Canvas Case Study: Higher Education

UC Davis: Building an Equitable Textbook Subscription Service With VitalSource & Canvas

Davis, CA

39,000

Started in 2016

Notice how almost all of your household media services are subscription-based? And no matter how many movies you watch or songs you listen to, the monthly fee is the same? Jason Lorgan, Executive Director of Student Affairs at UC Davis, and Ryan Petersen, Vice President of General Management at VitalSource, thought the same kind of service should be offered at colleges and universities to simplify textbook purchases and provide equitable access to course content. Learn more about how the Equitable Access program at UC Davis was created to support students in acquiring the educational content and resources they need to succeed without breaking the bank.

The Challenge

To put it simply: Textbooks are expensive and often not affordable for college students. To add another layer of difficulty, textbook prices often vary by major, leading to greater inequity on campuses across the world. 

UC Davis staff recognized this challenge on their campus when one of their very own first-generation students ended up changing his major simply because he couldn’t afford the textbooks associated with the major of his choice. The student arrived on campus with an envelope of money given to him by his mother to purchase textbooks. His mother had saved all the money she could for this very purpose. The amount? $100. The cost of one aerospace engineering textbook that her son would need to begin coursework? $300. After wandering through the bookstore, the student quickly realized that the only book he could afford was for political science majors and made the difficult decision to change his path.

This story, although sobering, is not unique. This experience is shared by many first-generation college students, who make up 42% of the student population at UC Davis.

In fact, UC Davis found in a student survey that 78% of students were choosing not to acquire at least one of their required textbooks due to the costs associated. 

With the core belief that all students deserve to receive their learning materials and textbooks by the first day of class, UC Davis created a new program, Equitable Access, to level the playing field regardless of income or major.

The Solution

Equitable Access is a flat-rate course material program that was created by UC Davis staff in partnership with VitalSource, an eTextbook provider, and Canvas, the institution’s comprehensive learning management system.

The program was created to be "the Spotify of textbooks," enabling all undergraduate students to access all the textbooks they need for one fee of $199 per quarter. Once registered, all digital textbooks are available to students in their Canvas account on the first day of class, ensuring they have the resources they need to succeed from day one. 

The concept for this program parallels that of student health insurance: It’s mandatory to have insurance if you’re a student at UC Davis, but costs can be unpredictable. To offset this, students are pooled together with the expectation that some students will require more care and others will require less care, but the cost is equal for everyone.

To create this structure, the UC Davis and VitalSource team downloaded an entire academic year of student schedules. They then cross-referenced those schedules with their textbook adoption database to calculate the cost for each student to obtain their textbooks. From there, they negotiated textbook prices with publishers to lay the foundation for a subscription plan.

The nature of the Equitable Access program seeks to address the principal-agent problem with textbooks: Although educators are choosing the books, students are expected to pay for them. Because the program is digital by default, it provides students with the option to opt-out up until the add/drop date and removes the burden of returning and acquiring physical textbooks.

“In the old model when print textbooks were acquired more frequently, students had to figure out how to return them, get a refund, and exchange it for another textbook. With digital content being embedded in Canvas, course content is automatically available to students as quickly as they can add and drop courses.”
-Jason Lorgan, Executive Director of Student Affairs

The Results

“What’s great about Equitable Access and its integration with Canvas is that it reflects both digital and physical content that has been assigned to students. As the central digital hub for learning, Canvas brings the most essential aspects of what students need for assignments and course study into one environment so everything is fully integrated.”
-Ryan Petersen, Vice President of General Management at VitalSource 

This seamless integration within Canvas has simplified the textbook acquisition process for students. This was apparent in a recent student survey:

  • 68% of students said the Equitable Access program made them feel more free to choose classes without worrying about textbook prices.
  • 70% of students reported that acquiring textbooks through the Equitable Access program was easier than shopping for textbooks on their own.

Through regular communication with the university library, the UC Davis team found 55 titles faculty had adopted as textbooks were titles to which the library already owned an unlimited number of licenses for simultaneous users. These library resources are now linked directly from the course content in Canvas and no longer have to be purchased separately by the bookstore for student access.

“Our goal is to decrease the Equitable Access subscription price over time. We currently only have one term’s worth of data, but we are on track to meeting that goal.”
-Jason Lorgan, Executive Director of Student Affairs

About UC Davis

Located between Sacramento and San Francisco, UC Davis is a rapidly-growing university committed to providing an equitable learning experience for all students so they can “outgrow the expected” throughout their learning journey and in their future careers.

About VitalSource

As one of the first integrated partners with Canvas and UC Davis, VitalSource is a leading digital course materials platform that provides greater access to the learning resources and materials students need to succeed both online and offline. 

 

Key Insights

  1. 78% of students were choosing not to acquire at least one required textbook prior to the launch of the Equitable Access program due to the costs associated with learning resources.

  2. In a recent survey, 68% of students said the Equitable Access program made them feel more free to choose classes without worrying about textbook prices.

  3. 70% of students reported that acquiring textbooks through the Equitable Access program was easier than shopping for textbooks on their own.


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