Robotic bookshelves, digital “consumables”, and course material curation: a visit to Follett HQ
One of the most important outcomes of the work of the Textbook Costs and Digital Learning Resources (TCDLR) Committee is what is now referred to as the VCCS Collaborative Bookstore contract. In investigating rising textbook costs, the Committee discovered extreme variations in commission rates and contract requirements among the 18 VCCS colleges that used proprietary bookstores (5 colleges ran their own bookstore). The Committee also discovered that at least 10 of these contracts were either expiring or up for renewal in the next 2-3 years. Virginia Western lead the way by issuing a systemwide RFP and eventually a contract, awarded to Follett, now used by 17 of 23 VCCS colleges. There is a good chance that additional colleges will join in coming years.
This contract has the potential to save VCCS students a significant amount of scratch, absent any additional textbook affordability efforts. It is a matter of simple economics: volume. However, to maximize this volume and increase cost savings to students, participating VCCS colleges need to establish clear and sensible textbook adoption policies. Most VCCS colleges already have some kind of policy, but the requirements vary. Many policies are fairly comprehensive, requiring consideration of cost, minimum adoption periods, etc., while others have only scant requirements. Nine VCCS colleges have no textbook adoption policy at all.
Again, the savings are in volume. When faculty adopt textbooks for longer periods of time (say a minimum of two years) and departments adopt the same text for all sections of a particular course, Follett can drive down the overall costs by purchasing in volume. The increased number of books and the use of these books for longer periods also helps build additional inventory for aftermarket sales i.e. rental and used books, where the most dramatic textbook savings can usually be found.
The world of publishing, and textbook distribution, is changing rapidly, with the growth of web-based content, digital publishing formats, and Amazon.com, and in this upside-down world Follett sees its future as a curator of this diverse academic marketplace, finding the best content at the best prices. In this marketplace digital books are “consumables” (sold new with no life in the used book aftermarket) and print books are “non-consumables” (sold new once, and then resold or rented at reduced cost as many times as possible). According to Follett, publishers love digital because it eliminates the used and used rental markets for print books.
Signing the contract with Follett was just the first step in realizing potential cost savings for our students. This is why members of the VCCS Collaborative Bookstore Committee, which included folks from Virginia Western Community College, Southside Community College, and the System Office, flew to Follett Headquarters outside of Chicago to discuss how to Follett and the VCCS can work together to successfully rollout the bookstore to all 17 colleges.
Ultimately, the meeting was extremely beneficial, although for a quick one-day meeting it included what I thought was quite a bit of “filler”: a tour of the Oak Brook distribution center to see the graceful ballet of Kiva, Follett’s robotic bookshelves, gliding shelves of textbooks back and forth across the massive warehouse floor; a tour of the new aspen-grove-themed, open plan offices in Aurora, IL; introductions to all levels of Follett staff, including CEO Mary Lee Schneider; finally, at the tail-end of the day, a vibrant discussion around a meeting table to focus on the needs of the VCCS, VCCS students, and textbook affordability, with an emphasis on 3 critical issues:
- Follett support for open educational resources,
- Introduction, training, and use of Faculty Discover, the Follett’s textbook discovery and adoption platform, and
- Piloting IncludEd, the flat fee textbook rental program.
The VCC team departed Follett HQ with a number of commitments and action items, including developing a rollout timeline for Follett colleges, communicating the contract details with acronym-heavy VCCS stakeholder groups such as the Council of Deans and Directors (CODD), the Chancellor’s Faculty Advisory Council (CFAC), Peer Groups, and the Academic and Student Affairs Council (ASAC), presenting Faculty Discover to faculty at New Horizons and Peer Group meetings, and launching a pilot of IncludEd with 5-6 interested colleges. It is clear that this initiative will need committed and sustained support from the System Office, the Bookstore Committee, and participating colleges to be successful. After this meeting, I think we have the needed committment, and I am excited to see the eventual results of this novel and landmark bookstore agreement.