The e-textbook debate: live now

Libraries of the Future LogoAs part of the National E-books Observatory Project and the first in a series of events for JISC’s Libraries of the Future programme, the JISC National E-textbook Debate provides a unique opportunity to quiz a panel of experts and to openly debate the future role of the library in the provision of electronic textbooks. Gathered here in Birmingham on the panel are:

Tom Davy, CEO of Cengage
Dominic Knight, MD of Palgrave
Sue McKnight, Director of Libraries and Knowledge Resources at Nottingham Trent University
Mandy Phillips, Information Resources Manager at Edge Hill University
Chair: Malcolm Read

Read on to follow the debate as it happens…

What are the key benefits of e-textbooks?

Dominic: we already have the stats from the States where many are available and students are using them – there are obvious points to do with functionality and accessibility etc and so much that e-format gives that print doesn’t but, looking round this audience, I’m not going to teach grandmother to suck eggs. But what problems are NOT solved by e-textbooks is interesting when so much of the debates to date have been about functionality and so little about the economics and how you pay for it. I will come back to this later but for me it is a core issue as it is a different economic model to journals and monographs. Textbooks are about thousands of students spending their own money and if we think that library provision is going to solve the problem then we’re dodging the issue.

Sue: the benefit is that every student should have access to it if it is acquired by the university.

Mandy: it’s about the access and not having to go to a physical place to get it so part time and distance learners can get hold of what they need when they need it and have a choice about how they access it.

Tom: functionality and accessibility of course but need to look beyond the concept of the traditional e-textbook, Students as customers should be able to expect the basics of the course online but few do provide that kind of key courseware online

MR: so it’s economics and funding, it’s improved funding and it’s contextualisation and added value… Throwing it to the floor, which of these themes would you like to be picked up?

Rob Heath: Emerald Group Publishing: regarding the cost to the student body, it seems to me that one problem with the model is that the cost of print is transferred to the student rather than the publishing group as in the old hard copy model. How is the industry going to overcome the problem of this?

Dominic: firstly, we in the UK assume that the student body is strapped for cash but they spend 10% on books compared with entertainment. In the US it is taken for granted that you spend money on books for the sake of your education. But, if we assume that students  are indeed poor, at the moment they spend $200m on text books, whether hard or e. I would like to see a way of enhancing that distributed form and in a way that doesn’t overburden library budgets.

Sue: textbook model is changing and we will see the demise of the book on the shelf and the idea of buying the textbook is probably in the past. But buying e-stuff for your online learning will come in and may be an institutional cost.

MR: Tom, who will pay for the added value?

Tom: what are universities for? One purpose is to teach and get students along a path of learning and if you look at it as a service to students they fall short in many ways. One of the best ways to attract students is to provide a key set of value added learning resources.

Graham Taylor: The Publishers Association: Isn’t funding the critical issue, so how are senior university management to be involved?

Mandy: senior management at Edge Hill is keen to progress. My role is to advise on value for money and show that what we’ve got is being well-used.

Sue: would agree but studies have shown that students who use certain e-resources are staying in universities longer and more are passing their exams so there are clear retention and progression benefits and so it becomes a question of equity. We sometimes buy things that are not used so better to buy stuff which does show a real benefit. We can spend the money we have more wisely.

Dom: worried about changes to the market that we’re discussing – even if increase what spent on textbooks by 100% there is a real gap between what is spent and the costs involved.

Tom: will come down to the market for educational services and that will determine what works. If vice-chancellors find that by improving the e-learning environment, retention rates increase and their university attracts more students who stay the course then they will be encouraged to invest.

MR: do you see closer working between traditional and e-learning industries?

Tom: the traditional industry is becoming an e-learning industry, like in the newspaper industry.

Question: what’s the difference between an e-textbook and e-learning?

Tom: e-learning is an all-encompassing term while an e-textbook is a subset of that (a structured body of knowledge which fits a particular course)

Dom: it’s analogous to print in that different subjects work in different ways. In some subject students need a firm hand to lead them and that’s where textbooks come in.

Sue: always difficult to determine between your academics what’s a textbook as opposed to background reading etc. Don’t think academic community has determined what works best for each student in terms of pedagogy and e-learning. Textbooks may disappear – more and more students want to create their own learning material, use their own resources and contextualise them.

Mandy: e-learning is just learning electronically, and the e-textbook is a minor part of that. I think trying to separate them is difficult – the range of courses and online learning is so varied it is difficult to answer that.

Sue: interesting question around standards – you want things to work on your own platforms and I’m not sure publishers have got the hang of standards and interoperability.

Dom: it’s a very difficult environment still and in the longer-standing things like journals there is a lot of work on standards. This is a younger field and people are slugging it out and it’s a tough time until it settles.

MR: who will pay to sustain the e-textbook market and what blend of expenditure from institutions and from students?

Tom: cannot expect libraries to immediately take up the slack but do expect to gradually see more institutional take-up in order to attract students. For the same profits you get from current system where only about half of the students buy the key textbook on their reading list for their course could put together a fine e-learning environment which could be personalised and customised and offer a better experience for the student

Mandy: for me it’s about choice. I can see the e-market growing. Won’t be a choice of one or the other, though. The e-copy will support what we have in print.

Sue: this is a question that the JISC Observatory project will help to answer. We will find out how e-textbooks are used and the impact on publishers. We can look at the results and see what it really means. I suspect that e-sales might even drive up print sales budgets

Dom: realistically, print and e-books will co-exist for a long time. In the States we find that students who can elect to purchase e only rarely do. Business models need to recognise that – it’s not going to be an e-only world for a long time.

Simon Day: OCLC: Should academia move towards open access (OA) publishing for textbooks?

Sue: philosophically, of course. I’m all for scholarly material being made OA. MIT challenged the official version of the worth of content by making it all available. If that’s really true then, yes, make it all OA.

Dom: I would start by saying that I absolutely love OA but only if it’s sustainable so we have to find a way of funding all the activity that goes behind it. Also have to reassure US academic establishment that when their authors provide material used in the UK then their requirements are met.

Tom: There’s a place for faculty-created content and I think publishers in the future will integrate that material with their own and structure it well and provide tools for students to use it. The OA model is more appropriate for sharing the results of research than providing a teaching service. In the MIT version you could theoretically go to their website and do an entire degree course from the material there but I think that’s unlikely to happen.

Mandy: it needs to have the credibility that’s in the current system. people don’t necessarily want to repurpose work, they want to make their own from scratch.

From the floor: with more bespoke material isn’t there a danger that students will be able to pass the course their on but will miss out on the wider breadth of learning?

Mandy: I think you’re right. The focus on the e-textbook is something we should be careful about and not lose out on the wider experience of the library and browsing around the area you’re looking at.

Sue: there was a study done at a university in Australia where the students were given a pack of everything they needed to read and study to pass the exam. But what it found as that if you made it easy for them to have the things they needed, then they did read far more widely around their subject. Students are more clever than we give them credit for. If we create learning environments that challenge them…it’s for us to make that environment stimulating – e-books just a tiny part of the learning environment.

Tom: It’s all to do with how inspiring the teachers are.

Dom: the thought that unless you do the core well you don’t inspire the student to do the rest at all is something we should learn from. We’ve moved from 5% of the population going to university to 40% and we need to look at different models of learning. E-textbooks will make it more likely as the core learning path for the student will be improved the link to other materials will be easier.

Alex Reid: Uni of Western Australia: familiar with the kind of study Sue refers to but more recent data shows that students just want to do the minimum they need to do to pass. Larger cohorts, economic rationalism… Will e-textbooks help these economic rationalists to pass and is that a good thing? I think it will help them and not encourage breadth and depth.

Tom: it will help them pass.

Sue: so few e-textbooks that not many students will benefit from them anyway.

Mandy: yes, they will be able to get to the information much more quickly and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tom: a textbook is supposed to help them to pass… if it doesn’t it’s not a very good textbook!

Rob Heath, Emerald Group: really like the idea of tailor-made resources but who will produce them? Academics publish for the sake of kudos, and I don’t think they are very interested in providing this kind of resource.

Mandy: some academics are looking for research publishing kudos but many others are interested in undergraduate teaching excellence. But it’s the libraries job to package the materials the students need for each course.

Sue: Publishers have their pet textbook authors and they have got the money and they will make some fabulous stuff and now we just need to get a critical mass so that it’s cheap enough for everyone to have access to it.

Tom: most academics don’t wholeheartedly recommend anything – they need to engage with the idea that students need some help and direction and need to engage with the material or they won’t pass the course. I’ve been going to conferences like this since the 80s and I feel we are approaching a tipping point where the tech is there, the will is there, the students are there – they are tech natives – and we need the faculty to embrace the digital world and yet they are rather slow to do it.

MR: do we need to catch up with the US?

Dom: we are part of a global activity. all the work that goes into producing great materials happens globally. The US is probably a year or two ahead of the UK. In the US there are many e-textbooks being used already and we need to look at that.

Sue: difference between e-stuff and an e-textbook. Libraries can put together a collection of e-stuff but the trick with the e-books is more about the interactivity that can be gained, with customised learning pathways.

Sal Cooke: JISC Techdis service: As part of the National e-Textbooks debate I would like to know from the panel of experts what practices, in their opinion, need to significantly change in order to promote the potential for increased accessibility and personalisation of materials in digital formats, to ensure that the next generation of libraries are not as inaccessible to large numbers of people as the last?

Tom: Vice-chancellors need to get with the programme and recognise that students are comfortable in an e-learning environment and invest in that kind of environment and content. Has to start with a vision from the senior management of the university.

Mandy: yes, if you’re talking about the Russell group but for many other institutions it’s very different. Its about 35-year-old teaching assistants and nursery teachers who may not be digital natives.

Sue: it comes down to standards and we have to insist that resources are made available and accessible to all, including those with disabilities.

Dom: digital form is the raw material which unlocks a lot of this for people with reading impairments. No simple answer and it is costly but we’re making great strides.

Sue: if you have the standards in mind when you start, from the beginning, it’s much more economic to make it accessible.

Alastair Dunning: JISC: is this the end of the university bookshop?

Tom: it will have to evolve and it could move into the aggregator space or it could become a general purpose campus store selling groceries etc.

Sue: it has to evolve and offer not just print but also the online bookshop at a competitive price with excellent service.

Dom: for bookshops with imagination there’s a fine future. Acting as an intermediary and consolidator for universities – talking to publishers, libraries may find they have a good local ally in their campus bookshop.

MR: we have reached a surprising amount of consensus here. Seems to be a good deal more consensus that e-textbooks are a good thing if we can find the right business model and find the right balance between open and published resources and if we can build up a critical mass.

MR: What should the JISC do next?

Tom: JISC has an important role as a driver of this – research information from the JISC Observatory project, raising the level of debate, engaging with a wide range of voices from the community.

Mandy: the outcome of the Observatory project will give us guidance for the future

Sue: would like to see a similar licencing model to that for journals and would encourage JISC from e being electronic to e being enhanced. The technology is just a tool – get over it.

Dom: I would like the e to be not simply electronic but also economics. I think JISC should do some profound economic business modelling

MR: Thanks all round!

5 thoughts on “The e-textbook debate: live now

  1. Jacco Versteeg

    I’m surprised to see that the whole focus of e-books seems to be at the learning environment. Having worked in the public sector, I have attempted (at the request of staff) to introduce e-books into the library service. At the time however, money constraints and lack of suitable offers from publishers (e.g. offering packages of which only a few titles were useful, and not offering the opportunity to create packages) prevented me from actually buying e-books. But if we’re looking at funding e-books, doesn’t it make more sense to look at the public and private sector libraries, where there is generally more money available?

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  4. Caren Milloy

    Interesting point to make about the role of the public libraries…in the UK the public libraries do not have lots of money available for the funding of e-books, indeed they seem to be as cash strapped as the institutional libraries. In addition, I am not sure it is the role of the public library to offer e-textbooks to students when they have the needs of the whole community to serve. The debate was very much focused on the role of those e-books that are central to the learning of students in higher education, essentially e-textbooks. There still exists the issues regarding the availability of e-textbooks that you identified and we need to do a lot more work on business modeling, but I believe that the institutional library has to provide the e-books for learning that the students demand rather than the public libraries and that is why the debate was so centered on the importance of e-books to learning.

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