Monday, August 18, 2014

Amazon as the new bookstore?

In 2000 or 2001, I attended a CIC CIO TechForum. I remember that a presenter spoke on the issue of "owning" the interface between student and university. Addressing the then-new trend to "outsource" development of web systems such as registration and admissions, the presenter highlighted his disapproval for outsourcing by asking, "Can you imagine what it would be like if we outsourced our bookstores to Amazon?"

He meant that question to give us pause, to consider the folly of outsourcing a critical university function such as the bookstore. But the idea struck a chord in me; I thought that would be great!

I imagined an online "Amazon-U" bookstore where students could buy their course textbooks online, and have them delivered directly to their dorm room or campus apartment. And next to each textbook, you might have a list of other, related resources. "Students who bought this text book also bought…" might show study guides, Cliffs Notes, or textbooks from related courses. For example, a physics textbook might link to a statistics textbook. Or a novel (such as for a literature class) might link to the movie adaptation on DVD.

Just like Amazon's regular online bookstore, students could rate the textbooks and leave comments. "This textbook was good, but also buy the study guide that goes with it" or similar comments could help other students make the best decisions in buying their course materials.

I still think outsourcing to Amazon or a similar private reseller would have been a good idea. But 2000 was too early for privatization; higher ed wasn't yet ready for outsourcing. But I predicted the campus bookstore will see increased privatization over the next decade.

So I was not entirely surprised to read that Purdue will offer students savings on textbooks through a special deal with Amazon. A few highlights from the announcement:
… Purdue and Amazon have launched the Purdue Student Store on Amazon, a new, co-branded experience where students can purchase lower-cost textbooks and other college essentials.

… The Purdue Student Store on Amazon, found at, launched Tuesday (Aug. 12). The first campus pickup location is expected to be open in early 2015.

… “This relationship is another step in Purdue’s efforts to make a college education more affordable for our students,” said President Mitch Daniels. “With the pressure on college campuses to reduce costs, this new way of doing business has the potential to change the book-buying landscape for students and their families.”

… Amazon will return a percentage of eligible sales through the Purdue Student Store on Amazon to the university, including sales to faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the university. Purdue will use the proceeds for its student affordability and accessibility initiatives.

… The Purdue-Amazon relationship follows a year of work by a Purdue committee looking at ways to cut the cost of textbooks, said Frank Dooley, interim vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs.
It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone working in higher ed that costs are a major concern, and have been for years. This extends even to the books that students must buy for their classes. Universities have long sought new ways to lower textbook costs. Purdue's move to partner with Amazon is an interesting step for higher ed, one that other institutions will seek to emulate—with Amazon, or with other textbook resellers.

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