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ICON Direct: Iowa’s Recipe for Saving Students $1 Million

Leading up to the Unizin Summit 2019, we will feature a monthly Summit-centric blog post and webcast.  First up in the series is a Q&A with Annette Beck, Director of Enterprise Instructional Technology in the Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology at the University of Iowa, in which Annette will provide insight into Iowa’s inclusive access program.  Then join us on February 28th at 1pm ET for a panel webinar with experts from the University of Iowa, Unizin, and the Ohio State University.

Annette, can you tell us about your role at Unizin?

Sure! I am the Director of Enterprise Instructional Technology in the Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology at the University of Iowa. My team handles all the large-scale, campus-wide teaching and learning tools such as the learning management system, student response systems, digital media solutions, and web conferencing. Currently, we handle about 20 services and are always looking for more innovative, yet scaled services to help in the teaching and learning environment.

I have been involved with Unizin since Iowa became one of the founding members. I am the current co-chair of the Learning Tools Strategies and Operations group, which is all about the scaled technologies. I am also a member of the Teaching & Learning group, which is comprised of leaders in teaching and learning and is a strategic group helping to drive the vision of how members work together to build out plans for Unizin. I am involved in most of the subgroups for Unizin including faculty development, accessibility, learning analytics, and others.

I see Unizin as an opportunity to share content and data, and to collaborate with vendors, as a consortium which has over 900,000 students. Through Unizin, we have a strategic vision and bring perspectives from many different campuses to benefit the Consortium as a whole.

Several motivations might lead an institution to adopt a digital content program. What is motivating Iowa to pursue this program?

At Iowa, it is important to offer affordable alternatives for our students and, at the same time, give students the opportunity to use resources that best help them learn. This may include affordable content through Unizin’s membership, open educational resources through University Libraries, or faculty-created content directly in the LMS or other teaching tools. Unizin and its members work to provide high-quality, affordable learning materials and promote low-cost alternatives to printed texts.

Seeking out sound pedagogical teaching tools is important as well. Unizin offers both and that is why Iowa is one of the founding members. We want to help inform and influence vendors as a consortium to help our students. Cost savings is important, but so are the pedagogical benefits from using online course materials and other teaching tools. If students have easy access to course materials the first day of class, they are more likely to be successful.

We are building our learning ecosystem using Unizin tools as well as benefiting from some of the contracts with vendors. It is critical for our instructors and students to have consistency in their learning environment.

Does the Iowa affordable content program utilize eText, digital courseware, or both?

ICON Direct is just one of Iowa’s affordable content opportunities for students through the learning management system, ICON/Canvas. It provides students with a way to save money on textbooks while still providing them with all of the materials they need for class. Digital content, particularly eTexts, is becoming more popular across the country, and not just because of the cost savings. Students can search, annotate, and mark digital course materials, pose questions to their instructors within the text, and instructors can see which passages students highlight or content that may need more review. It opens up many new possibilities.

We have seen the most growth in online homework solutions in our first year. This means instructors who are already using these systems from publishers such as Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill do not necessarily have to change the way they teach, but students are able to attain course materials at a reduced cost. This has saved much faculty time in working directly with publishers, no longer having to figure out email, codes, payment, etc. as it works seamlessly through Unizin’s LTI platform in Canvas.

Unizin’s Engage eText platform allows students to use an online textbook, which allows them extra tools for searching, annotating, and marking digital course materials to review later. We have seen slower growth in this area, but momentum is starting to build. Instructors are starting to communicate more widely through this tool instead of saying the same thing in email after email to students who have the same questions.

Is OER available in your digital content program?

Other affordable content initiatives at Iowa are highlighted on the Office of the Provost website. University Libraries is leading our OER program on campus. Our hope is that we will be able to use Unizin’s Engage platform to eventually include OER, library resources, etc. so instructors have a “one-stop shop” for finding teaching materials.

Are there any early successes you can share?

After a two-semester pilot beginning fall 2017, Iowa has seen a large increase in participation for ICON Direct. In its first year, students have saved over $1 million on their course materials. ICON Direct is about finding new and creative ways to help students save money on course materials but also about providing materials at the right time.

These types of initiatives do not work in a vacuum, meaning there are important partners across campus who helped make this successful. My team has worked with application developers, the university bookstore, the financial aid office, and others to help offer this opportunity to our students.

Another important partner is our University of Iowa Student Government (UISG). This group is highly involved on our campus and their partnership, communication to students, and general support has been critical to the success. In fall 2017, they wrote a resolution stating that UISG supported ICON Direct. Students make a difference and having them publicly support this initiative helped jump-start the growth.

What are some unexpected roadblocks you have encountered along the way?

As with any new project or service, there are roadblocks along the way. I like to call them “challenges with opportunities.” Change is hard. I always try to anticipate what is going to cause pain with change.

Communicating to campus about the program and its benefits really helped. We tried not to do too much too soon. In other words, tackle one thing at a time. We wanted to concentrate on the pedagogical benefits, but all the momentum was about saving money for students so we started with that in mind and are now concentrating on the other benefits more.

We really had to consider how students pay for their course materials and figuring that all out, along with which students were going to most likely opt-out of the program, was a bit challenging. For example, we have special programs for high school students taking classes at Iowa, the GI bill, etc. That is something my team does not usually need to think about, but found ourselves knee-deep in learning about other areas of student activity. Having established relationships with the Registrar and Financial Aid Office early on was important to learning about and solving this quickly.

Students do not necessarily read email from IT departments, so we had to think of different ways to reach them. To accomplish this, we created talking points, pre-made modules in the LMS, etc. to make it easier and timely for instructors to explain to students how they could use and benefit from ICON Direct. The University Hawk Shop bookstore was also an early partner so they were able to talk with students who went to purchase books, but really needed to do it through ICON Direct.

We learned that that same thing goes for instructors. Give instructors the right amount of information, as they need it. Just in time. One thing we do now is send a quick email to instructors reminding them to input their orders in Unizin’s Order Tool. We also send them a quick email with easy to follow links to the ICON Direct program, sample verbiage for their syllabus, and when we will send reminders to students about opting out.

I would not consider these “roadblocks” per se, but things we did not anticipate.

What advice do you have for an institution that is interested in running a digital content program on their campus?

Plan, communicate, review, plan again, communicate again, and review again. You can sense a theme there, but also bringing the right stakeholders in at the beginning is crucial. No matter what project I work on, I try to think of all the possibilities of who might need to be involved. I would rather do that up front instead of in the middle of the project.

Build relationships with campus key stakeholders before you have to. Information technology, libraries, finance, bookstores, students, etc. are all important people. This is my “mantra” for everything. Do not just ask for help when you need it, but build those relationships so when you “need one another” you have already established those communication lines.

More importantly, it signals that you understand the value and importance of providing data to institutions in a way that is useful, interoperable, and immediate. As the Caliper standard is quite early in its adoption, you are also positioned as a thought leader in learning analytics: one who buys into a data-informed learning ecosystem vision and is willing to put the time and energy into realizing it.