v31 #3 Understanding e-textbooks through a Student Lens

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments

by Becky Hartnup (Publishing Consultant)  

What do students think about e-textbooks?  Over the past two decades I have worked on numerous projects gathering student feedback, from focus groups and interviews as well as learning analytics, in order to answer this question.  Then in 2016 I began an online MBA. This gave me the opportunity to experience the student perspective for myself and to develop a deeper understanding of the impact of the digital transition within Higher Education.  Below I combine e-textbooks insights from my industry background with personal reflections from my time as a student.

The term e-textbooks is a loose one encompassing everything from print-under-glass to interactive, multi-media versions that are as similar to adaptive learning courseware as to traditional print (Gu et al, 25-41).  Specialist platforms with built in learning functionality have emerged as alternatives to Amazon Kindle. They are used by a growing number of institutions to provide students with a personal copy of essential e-textbooks.  This helps tackle affordability, which continues to be an issue for students (Worlock, Digital textbooks, 1-16), Shift Media, Digital Learning). Some students do purchase their own e-textbooks, but just as cost pressures led to a second hand market for print copies, they have supported the emergence of e-textbook rental models.  At my university e-textbooks were provided by the library. Links to digital copies were embedded at module level in the Virtual Learning Environment /Learning Management system. This is a common and convenient way for students to access e-textbooks. Digital reading lists and weekly module activities listed links to e-textbooks, a wide range of other digital content, articles, videos and quizzes.  However, unlike these other sources, the e-textbooks were in limited supply.

Library e-textbook licences do not offer the same access terms as online journals and reference products.  They emerged from the consumer market which shaped the commercial models for print textbooks. Even in a print dominated world, journals and reference products were primarily developed for library distribution.  Textbooks, in contrast, were developed for sale to students. High sales figures and economies of scale support their comparatively higher cost structure and longer lead times as well as the author royalty model.  In recent years sales have sharply declined (Worlock, Digital textbooks, 1-16). As the e-textbook market emerged, many publishers anticipated that unlimited library access would cannibalize student sales and undermine revenues further.  This concern shaped e-textbook models (Chad,1-11). In some cases, institutions must purchase e-textbooks on a copy per user basis. Other approaches include restrictions on the numbers of students who can concurrently read the e-textbook, and credit systems to limit total usage.

Students are neither aware of nor interested in these factors.  Netflix, Spotify and YouTube set their norms for accessing content.  The immediate, anytime access of streaming services fits well with student study patterns, particularly those of non-traditional students and distance learners.  In the world of education, the more permissive site-wide licencing terms of journals replicate this user experience, do the wealth of free platforms offering free multi-media content.  In this context, the need to purchase textbooks is becoming an anomaly for students. The concept of buying your own copy is so out of line with student experience that it is easy to ignore university recommendations.  The price of textbooks creates an additional barrier. As a result, students are increasingly reliant on institutional provision of content.

Library provision removes the costs, but due to licencing terms, it fails to provide the stress-free access that is expected.  Students on my course found it frustrating that digital copies were unavailable when they needed them. For those that were first in the queue and managed to access copies, they were surprised to find their access was for a limited time and that their digital copy needed to be ‘returned’ in order to allow another student to use it.  Despite the best efforts of library staff to explain terms and conditions, students on my course found terminology confusing and the user experience clunky. To the user, the licensing terms appear to undermine a key benefit of digital provision — any time access to multiple users. 

Students rank anytime access as one of the most important benefits of having their own copy of an e-textbook (Shift Media, Digital Learning and eTextbooks.  Shift Media, Digital Learning). Previously I interpreted this as a disappointing indication that sophisticated functionality was not being adopted, for example, promoting best practice learning behavior or social sharing.  As a student my perspective changed. When I attend support events for MBA students my tip for success is “Stay on top of your reading.” If Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is applied to learning, core course reading is at its base — an essential, like water and food.  When students fall behind on reading, they can miss out on core concepts. This limits their ability to participate in lectures and group work.  As well as holding back their learning this is frustrating for classmates and lecturers trying to make the most of limited face-time. In recent years UK universities such as Manchester, Middlesex, Plymouth and University of East London have begun purchasing e-textbooks on behalf of their students.  This recognizes that guaranteed access to content is fundamental to teaching and learning.  Inclusive access models emerging in the United States are an alternative approach to ensuring all students have access to essential materials from day one of their course.

With mental health now a serious concern in higher education it is worth noting that stress reduces students’ ability to learn (Arnett 219-222).  Students are already under pressure whether they are 18 year olds leaving home for the first time or mature learners putting careers on hold as they return to formal education.  Difficulties accessing content and the resulting gaps in understanding are an additional source of concern (Shift Media Digital Learning and eTextbooks). For students facing specific challenges, whether these relate to financial circumstances, responsibilities, or the need for accessible content, anxiety levels can be even higher.  Online courses raise their own difficulties. I observed first-hand how distance learning has the potential to isolate students and make it harder for them to seek help, even on low level issues such as gaining access to essential content. Despite their differences, all of these categories of students would benefit from flexible, reliable access to course content.   

If students have a low awareness of the need to purchase e-textbooks, they are equally ill equipped to make the purchasing decision.  My university’s ‘Where to buy’ list linked to publisher websites, print ecommerce sites, specialist digital learning providers such as VitalSource and, of course, Amazon.  This appears to support student choice, but it ignores asymmetries of information.  Students are not experts in learning or in digital tools and they are unaware of their knowledge gap.  They treat textbook purchase as a low involvement decision that requires little thought. Due to their inexperience in evaluating source material, there is a temptation for students to use free content from Google instead.  The default behaviour of students on my course who did choose to buy, was to buy cheaply via Amazon. Some students have a strong print preference and would choose this route even if they were fully informed. However, most students I spoke to were interested to find out more about eBooks that had been designed with learning in mind and with functionality that went beyond standard PDF or Amazon Kindle.  Overall, the student purchase model results in an uninformed choice for those who can afford it at the expense of universal digital access.

Based on my experience of e-textbooks, I chose a specialist digital supplier and took full advantage of the digital aspects.  I downloaded my e-textbooks onto my laptop and phone, for reading on the train. This provided offline access and saved me the inconvenience of navigating through web pages and signing in.  Like many non-traditional students combining study with a career, reading on my commute saved me from falling behind. I used the digital notes and highlights, selecting different colors to distinguish passages I needed to re-read from those that were useful for assignments.  The interface was easy to use. I could mark up the text without breaking the flow of my reading. In a context of information overload this prevents important information from getting lost in the noise. The immediate benefit was that I could easily retrieve key points when I needed them.  This saved me time and hassle, particularly with citations. At a deeper level, these activities can contribute to the learning process. Identifying the key points to highlight, summarizing and critically commenting on content require greater engagement than passive reading. I found the functionality beneficial and straightforward to use.  However, students without a background in learning might need more information and guidance from their university to convince them of the value of these strategies and to ensure they are used effectively. (Miyatsu et al, 390-407. Van Horne et al, 407-433). 

Often study skills and digital literacy skills are handled through optional, online modules intended to allow students to personalize their learning and fill specific gaps.  This approach frees teaching staff to focus on valuable subject content, rather than basic learning skills. However, I recommend making study skills mandatory. Overloaded students do not prioritize optional activities.  If study skills and digital literacy are wrapped into the curriculum and key skills are covered in alignment with assignments, they can feel relevant and supportive. Study skills training material also needs to evolve to recognize emerging opportunities and challenges.  Specialist platforms allow students to share notes with one another which can benefit group-work and peer support. However, it also creates social risk for students (Hartnup et al) who are reluctant to make themselves vulnerable and to reduce their status by revealing their knowledge gaps.  Students on my course were also concerned about risks of plagiarism if they openly shared their ideas in this way. The need for study skills is not new, but it is vital that provision continues to adapt in line with the dynamic nature of digital learning.

My university had a strong, well-funded ed-tech lab and the course was designed with a good understanding of digital pedagogy.  The format was varied and interactive. In contrast, the e-textbook experience felt disconnected and old fashioned. Textbooks are highly structured and comprehensive, but perhaps due to the theoretical content and use across multiple courses, the content can lack direct relevance.  The learning process is also more passive. As a result, long periods of reading can feel isolating. A textbook chapter can require an hour of concentration on an unfamiliar subject. If the content is too basic this is boring. If it is too difficult, attention wanders. I soon learned to avoid reading textbooks in the evening when I was tired, instead skipping on to assignments that were shorter, more active or more social.  These were better at holding my attention. Specialist e-textbook platforms include built in functionality so teaching staff can highlight key sections of text, post questions or use notes to encourage students to engage actively with content. These approaches can overcome barriers to reading by providing focus, adding relevance, and creating a human connection. However, there is a learning curve for time-poor lecturers. Additional research into the pedagogical impact of this kind of intervention and its relationship to higher level learning (Dennis, 221-235) would help support its uptake. 

I supplemented my reading assignments with free video content sourced via Google and through recommendations from classmates.  Many students find videos are helpful to text (Worlock 1-30), and research has shown some learning benefits (Zhan et al 2005, Buch et al 2014).  E-textbooks offer the potential for publishers to expand beyond print and enrich their content with expert interviews, immersive video and animated diagrams to more effectively communicate complex ideas.  It is disappointing that the vast majority of e-textbooks have not progressed beyond the restrictions of print. This situation may reflect the strategic tension that publishers face between investing in e-textbooks and in courseware.  Courseware offers publishers the opportunity to develop sophisticated, adaptive learning solutions to support active learning and to build loyalty for their own platforms. Unsurprisingly courseware is more expensive than e-textbooks and beyond the budget of UK higher education libraries. 

My experience as a student has fundamentally altered the way in which I approach e-textbooks.  Current discussions are dominated by the potential for big data and learning analytics to transform education.  This is exciting and raises questions and hypotheses about the relationship between behaviors and outcomes, but my experience has made me cautious of relying solely on quantitative measures.  For example, analytics showing long session lengths in an e-textbook are not evidence that students are learning. It may mean the content is complex, poorly written or even that the student is asleep.  External behavior is not necessarily evidence of an engaged mind. Looking back on my MBA two modules strike me as particularly useful in understanding student use of e-textbooks: Consumer Behavior and Design Management.  Both courses focused on the need to understand the inner and outer world of the consumer in order to better anticipate and meet their needs. 

What do students think about e-textbooks?  Unless they encounter a problem, they don’t think about them at all.  To be transformative, we need to stop asking students the same questions about e-textbooks and instead we need to understand their world, identify their problems and start prototyping solutions.


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