v31 #3 Three Things to Consider Before You Tinker with eTexts — A Perspective from the University of Plymouth

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments

by Jason Harper  (Collections and Content Strategy Manager, University of Plymouth)  


Consider the key drivers for your institution before embarking on such an initiative.  The context in England may differ slightly from that in the wider UK, or elsewhere in the world.  In 2010, tuition fees payable by students in England controversially rose to a capped maximum of £9,000 pa (now £9,250),1 creating a competitive market for student recruitment across the Higher Education sector.  The concept of student as consumer has also coincided with a demographic dip in 18-20 year old students available for University recruitment (forecast to last until 2021),2 and the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF),3 a national audit exercise, which measures quality of teaching, and is tied to the fees which can be charged by an institution.  This places emphasis on the extent to which Universities support students throughout the transition into higher education, with weighting given to measures which address students at an educational disadvantage.

In England, the concern with improving educational inclusion and outcomes for disadvantaged students is mirrored by National Union of Students’ campaigns to highlight the poverty gap in education,4 and identify “Hidden Costs” (calling for greater transparency on how student fees are spent),5 as well as a wider recognition of the extent of debt incurred by graduates from low income backgrounds.6  U.S. eTextbook schemes tend to negotiate for cheaper copies on behalf of students with the cost being passed onto them (e.g., Florida State University,7 Brigham Young University Idaho,8 and Indiana University9) perhaps through additional course fees dubbed an “inclusive Access” model.10  However, issues of inequality also affect U.S. Universities and Colleges, with mobility measures increasingly being used in rankings and divisions in the equality of access to elite institutions.11  U.S. institutions are starting to explore and develop open access alternatives and open educational content as a response, such as Rice University’s Open Stax contribution funded initiative12 or the SUNY Open Textbooks13 scheme.

For the University of Plymouth, these were the drivers behind our eTextbooks scheme, and it was originally started in 2011 by the academic, Dr Phil Gee, to level the playing field and ensure that all students, regardless of socioeconomic background, could begin their studies with the same access to core reading as their peers, enabling lecturers to deliver inclusive teaching.14  Our service provides core eTextbooks to new University of Plymouth undergraduates at no additional cost (a point of difference to U.S. schemes).15

Do You Have Buy-in from the University Executive?

Institutions going down this route will need to be clear about what expectations they have and the return expected from piloting or implementing a digital textbooks programme.  This is particularly important if any initiative is to be scaled from a Library or Faculty based project to an ongoing or institutional service.

Important stakeholders and champions need to be identified and engaged at executive level, including those with an input into teaching and pedagogic practice and strategy.  Their drivers and expectations must be clearly understood and if necessary, managed, particularly if they see the initiative as supporting University strategic aims (such as recruitment, retention, student experience, or student outcomes).  Any performance indicators used must be clearly agreed, achievable and measurable, and evaluate the service in the light of any criteria set for it.  

Be wary of undertaking to prove that digital textbooks will improve student success and outcomes, and instead concentrate on the value of the service to its users, paying particular attention to key demographic groups — such as black, Asian and minority ethnic students (BAME), students with disabilities, or those in the lowest quartiles of social equality.  Look to any additional benefits provided (such as support for different teaching practices, inclusion of technology enhanced learning and collaborative working into the curriculum), and emphasise the value that can be achieved by providing digital texts to students in this way — for the institution and the student.16

At the University of Plymouth, the scheme is directed by a Steering Group which is academically led.  The service reports regularly into University Teaching and Learning Quality Committee against a number of defined performance indicators, and is periodically revaluated by the Executive Group as part of the University planning round.  The service is run by the Library with dedicated staff who negotiate directly with publishers on format and price, liaising with academics to rationalise title and publisher choice and promote competitive alternatives, then leveraging this alongside bulk purchasing to ensure a heavily discounted and affordable unit cost for each student copy, in the most accessible format.

Are Digital Texts What Your Students and Academic Staff Want and Need?

If digital textbooks are to be provided as part of a recruitment or inclusivity strategy, there is a temptation to assume a one size fits all model and provide them to all students.  However, not all disciplines and programmes will teach to the concept of core books. In such cases, the value and benefit of providing digital textbooks has to be questioned.

At Plymouth, we know that the cost of books for a degree is an issue for our students.  The Students Union has identified buying books as the second biggest concern behind printing costs, and ahead of equipment, travel or materials required for a course.

Nevertheless, we conduct an annual academic consultation exercise with Programme Leads on the scheme (teaching staff and texts can change).  These conversations are underpinned by data provided about the uptake, usage and deeper engagement with texts selected for teaching. This helps us understand where engagement is poor and guide selection of really “core” titles of value across all years of a course, more viable alternatives, or identify where a programme is not suitable for participation.

This data also informs our negotiations with publishers, who are challenged about their pricing models, the real value of their product, and pushed for content to be reformatted to the accessibility standard required (EPUB), or asked to repackage content into bespoke eTextbooks.  We look at the overall cost of providing copies on a programme, and the number of copies (out of those bought) which have been activated. We also look at the extent to which students have engaged with texts, and have developed indicators such as the “cost per page read”. Just because a title has been activated, it doesn’t mean it has been utilised.  

All of this data, alongside viably alternative titles from rivals, forms the basis of negotiations with publishers.  We share it with them and have open, frank discussions about what price they wish to charge for a copy, and what price we feel represents value, or whether we even want to title at all.  In the early days we challenged their pricing model. Unit costs of eTexts were based on the recommended retail price of a hardback print copy, but in the EU, value added tax (20% in the UK) is payable on electronic books (making an eText more expensive, and raising the starting price from which we would negotiate).  The overheads on eTextbooks (marketing, printing, distribution, etc.) are far less than print format, and this was part of our negotiating tactic. Now, many publishers work with a lower “digital list price” which reflects that reality.

eTextbooks are only provided on programmes where there is evidence of engagement and impact.  This is reflected in the very positive feedback about the value of the service that we get from all participating students, which is evidenced even more strongly by our disabled students, BAME students, and students from lower socioeconomic quartiles.  To underpin this, training and guidance is provided by both the Library and the platform provider (in a joint initiative) for academic staff on how to embed eTexts into pedagogy and teaching, and the use of interactive platform features, so that they become meaningful technology to enhance course delivery and support learning objectives and collaborative learning exercises.  By utilising the platforms effectively in class, lecturers themselves become drivers of behaviour for their students.17

Consider the Wider Context in which Digital Textbooks will be Provided

If digital textbooks form part of a marketing strategy, either on their own, or as part of a wider offering (alongside printing credits, technology, equipment, etc.), then the financial and institutional commitment needs to be unequivocal.  In England, this means having assurances eighteen months in advance of the student intake, so that marketing can be targeted at prospective students throughout the recruitment cycle and clearing round. Conversely, if the service is to be discontinued, then this has to be unstitched from marketing long before the next intake, otherwise there is the risk of creating a verbal sales contract which cannot be honoured.18 

Service owners will want to identify if the budget is at risk from external influences or University planning cycles, and look at the competition for this money, e.g., what else the University would forego to fund this initiative, other “enrichment” incentives being offered at the institution, and whether these can demonstrate equal or greater benefit.

Institutions should look at whether the offer can contribute positively towards strategic benchmarking or audit outcomes (such as the TEF and National Student Survey in the UK), and if so, how this can be maximised and presented.  The rich data available from eTextbooks may also be of value as one of many engagement touchpoints with regard to predictive analytics and developing personalised learning pathways.

Libraries will need to consider how digital textbooks fit into wider collection development and reading strategies, and how they evidence and balance decision-making about when to buy digital texts.  The provision of eTextbooks to individual students is expensive, and there may be more sustainable options such as Library licensed eBooks, digital extracts, already subscribed alternatives, and open educational content.  

In the UK, Universities make heavy use of journal bundle collections licensed sector wide (such as JSTOR collections, ScienceDirect or IEEE Explore), and the Copyright Licensing Agency’s digital extract service (which supports the request of digitised and copyright fee paid extracts and articles from a volume for use with a class).  Initiatives such as Knowledge Unlatched and Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB) are growing in scope, but the selection of titles available and their nature (often monographs and secondary texts rather than core teaching titles) currently has little impact on teaching practice.  At institutional and sector level, awareness, development and promotion of open access books and eTextbooks and open educational resources is a work in progress,19 and do not yet rival the U.S. scenario with its Open Stax or SUNY Open Textbooks schemes.

Final Thoughts

Digital textbooks are still a new service in UK Higher Education, offered at scale by only a handful of English institutions with a range of models, including Coventry’s holistic “Flying Start” campaign of incentives,20 the University of East London’s eBooks bursary,21 Middlesex’s eTextbooks offer,22 and Manchester’s eTextbook Programme.23  We talk to each other, share information and benchmark, and grapple with the questions of how to make eTextbooks work best for our institutions, and how to fit them into institutional strategy and Library collection development.  As publishers seek to protect and expand book revenues for shareholders against a backdrop of decreasing sales, increased competition and threats from piracy, their “cash cow” core teaching titles become increasingly important to their strategy.  This seems to be predicated around protecting one-to-one sales (mimicking the print model) or subscription and pay per access models based on student numbers and protecting digital rights for these titles. Inclusion of this content within adaptive learning platforms offering value added engagement data and assessment exercises, also creates tie-in and does not offer interoperability with chosen digital learning environments and intermediary content platforms.  Until such time as teaching in some disciplines can be divorced from the concept of commercial core titles, Libraries need to wrestle with the issue of how to provide equitable access to required reading at a fair and sustainable cost. In the UK, the lead in this area has been assumed by JISC24 which is looking at options for sector wide negotiation on pricing and products.  


  1. Department for Business Innovation and Skills.  Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance [Browne Report].  BIS/10/1208. London, 2010. 3rd January 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-browne-report-higher-education-funding-and-student-finance.  The student fees cap is currently under review and may be significantly lowered, see “Review of Post-18 Education and Funding: Terms of Reference.”  20th February 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-post-18-education-and-funding-terms-of-reference.
  2. Universities UK.  Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education 2017.  London, 2017. 3rd January 2019, https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/facts-and-stats/data-and-analysis/Documents/patterns-and-trends-2017.pdf.
  3. Office for Students.  The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework: National Contextual Statements.  OfS 2018.45. 2018. 3rd January 2019, https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/4013afd5-0943-4350-8d77-ee46a59af38b/ofs2018_45a.pdf.
  4. National Union of Students.  “Poverty Commission.” 2017. NUS Website. 3rd January 2019, https://www.nus.org.uk/en/take-action/education/poverty-commission/.
  5. National Union of Students. “NUS Launch Campaign to Expose Hidden Costs.”  2012. NUS Website.  3rd January 2019, https://www.nus.org.uk/en/news/nus-launch-campaign-to-expose-hidden-costs/.
  6. Belfield, C. et al.  Higher Education Funding in England: Past, Present and Options for the Future.  BN211. London, 2017. 3rd January 2019, https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/BN211.pdf.
  7. Student Business Services. “Included Textbook Program.” 2019. Florida State University. 20th February 2019, https://studentbusiness.fsu.edu/how-pay/included-textbook-program.
  8. Brigham Young University Idaho. “BYU Idaho Textbooks.” 20th February 2019, https://byui.uloop.com/textbooks/.
  9. Lewis, David W.  “How the IU Etext Program Works.”  Etexts 101: A Practical Guide. Indiana University, 2019. 20th February 2019, https://iu.pressbooks.pub/iuetexts101/chapter/how-the-iu-etext-program-works/.
  10. Strumshel, C.  “Is Inclusive Access the Future for Publishers?”  Inside HigherED 2017. 21st February 2019, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/01/31/textbook-publishers-contemplate-inclusive-access-business-model-future.
  11. Chetty, R. et al.  Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility.  No.  23618 (revised version). 2017. 18th February 2019, https://opportunityinsights.org/paper/mobilityreportcards/.
  12. Rice University. “Free Books No Catch.” 2019.  Open Stax.  20th February 2019, https://openstax.org/.
  13. State University of New York.  “SUNY Open Textbooks.” 2019. 21st February 2019, https://textbooks.opensuny.org/.
  14. Tickle, L.  “Teaching Excellence Winner: University of Plymouth.”  Guardian Professional 28th February 2013.  3rd January 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2013/feb/26/teaching-excellence-winner-university-plymouth.
  15. “Etextbooks with University of Plymouth “ 2019. 4th January 2019, https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/student-life/etextbooks.
  16. Broadhurst, D. “The Direct Library Supply of Individual Textbooks to Students: Examining the Value Proposition.”  Information and Learning Science 118.11-12 (2017): 629-41. 18th February 2019, https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-07-2017-0072.
  17. “Etextbooks | Senior Tutor Miles Opie.”  Dir. Read, A. Short Video, 2018. 7th January 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDNQ2IiqSNk&index=3&list=PLvxCkx9MnYUJ52tmuNufSApTopfh-UgSh&t=0.
  18. “Consumer Rights Act 2015.”  London: The Stationery Office, 2015.  4th January 2019, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/15/contents/enacted.
  19. JISC. “Institution as E-Textbook Publisher Toolkit.” 2018. 21st February 2019, https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/institution-as-e-textbook-publisher-toolkit.
  20. Coventry University. “Flying Start — Course Essentials at No Extra Cost.”  2018. 4th January 2019, https://www.coventry.ac.uk/study-at-coventry/student-support/flying-start/.
  21. University of East London.  “Ebooks Bursary 2018.” 2018.  7th January 2019, https://www.uel.ac.uk/undergraduate/fees-and-funding/uk-eu-2018-entry/scholarships-and-bursaries/ebooks-bursary-2018.
  22. Middlesex University.  “Etextbooks.” 2018. 7th January 2019, https://unihub.mdx.ac.uk/study/etextbooks.
  23. University of Manchester.  “Etextbook Programme.” 2018. 7th January 2019, https://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/using-the-library/staff/teaching/support/etextbook-programme/.
  24. JISC Collections. “Jisc Collections E-Textbook Publisher Strategy Group.” 7th January 2019, https://www.jisc-collections.ac.uk/About-JISC-Collections/JCCSG/Jisc-Collections-E-book-Publisher-Strategy-Group/.


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