Digital lessons to learn

Three of the craziest words in education are “out on loan”. A student goes to the library for an assignment only to find the recommended book is gone, not to return for three weeks. It’s hard to imagine a more annoying, counter-productive and, frankly, avoidable scenario.

With the introduction of student fees continuing to put pressures on budgets, more than 50 per cent of students find it difficult to fund their course, let alone the course material. On average, only 19 per cent of university students are issued their own textbooks. This leaves more than 80 per cent scrambling to locate library editions.

The answer to solving the dilemma seems simple: offer all course material digitally. Students should be able to access every text and source material whenever they want on any device.

While a seemingly straightforward solution, in reality the transition to digital from paper is proving a hard slog.

Firstly, there is the issue of cost. Textbooks are expensive and getting costlier. In fact, according to the University of Essex, textbook costs have risen 1,041 per cent – almost four times the rate of inflation – since 1977. Today’s typical student must budget between £450 and £1,070 for books and equipment a year. Switching to digital has the promise to address this cost issue.

Then there’s the physical convenience. Anyone who’s watched a medical student attempt to lug six volumes of microbiology and anatomy to lectures will have no doubt of that. Again, this is an issue the switch to digital could address.

So, why is the transition not yet complete? “Obstacles that get quoted don’t stand up to scrutiny,” says William Chesser, vice president of business development and international markets at the world’s largest eTextbook platform, VitalSource. “Some students say they prefer paper copies and lecturers occasionally lack the vision to understand how teaching can be transformed.”

These prejudices rarely survive when electronic resources are introduced. Research by VitalSource shows when students are provided with an eTextbook by their university, 90 per cent have a positive experience. At the start of a 2014 London School of Business and Management trial, there was scepticism of the move to eBooks, with only 8 per cent of students strongly agreeing they were useful. By the end of 2015, after using eTextbooks, 80 per cent of students agreed they were useful. Only one half of 1 per cent disagreed.

The University of Manchester is in its third year of digital pilot projects. In year one, more than 4,600 texts were made available online for download, and for Apple and Android mobiles. This year they are making 11,800 copies available.

The feedback is emphatic. “The library should make an electronic copy of course material available for all students,” says one student. A study by the university showed having access made students more likely to do their reading, which should have positive effects for their grades.

The best thing about eTextbooks is that I can search within the text, highlight and bookmark

eTextbooks are easy to highlight and annotate. During the University of Manchester pilot, the textbook Criminal Law got an average of 35 highlights per student. Phil Gee, associate professor at the University of Plymouth, where they run one of the largest UK eTextbook programmes, concluded eTextbook functionality has the “potential to transform teaching”.

Another benefit of digital books is the use of data. Electronic materials can be tracked by university faculties and publishers to discover how they are being used. Lecturers can see who has clicked on source material, how many pages have been read and which students are falling behind. Publishers can identify which titles are most popular and which segments of books attract most attention.


The learning curve is accelerated through electronic books. Students can listen to podcasts on a jog or brush up on course material while on a train, for example. Lecturers can add notes and share them with students. This adds value, whether challenging concepts or pointing students to additional material, and crucially students can return to material when needed.

eTextbooks can offer a full complement of accessibility features for learners with disabilities. In fact, VitalSource Bookshelf recently received perfect rankings from the DAISY Consortium, Book Industry Study Group and the International Digital Publishing Forum for its Android and iOS apps for their accessibility options for blind learners.

Corporate training sessions can also benefit hugely from this capacity. Ed Monk, managing director of the Learning and Performance Institute, has spent years researching peak learning methods.

“The Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting shows a day after tuition, you remember a bit. A week later, less. After a month, it may all have gone. If you ask corporate trainers how much gets retained in the long run, they’ll just laugh,” says Mr Monk.

His recommendation? “When you put all the material online, it means people can return and refresh their knowledge. Add in gamification and you can really start to help people remember the material long term.”

Switching to electronic books and resources is easy. Specialists such as VitalSource offer intuitive and rich interfaces for hosting all types of material. Textbooks, podcasts, videos and all source materials can be hosted to every student in a personalised library.

“We work with more than 1,000 publishers, so it’s almost certain we have the books you need,” says Mr Chesser. “If we don’t, we will work with the publisher to obtain the material. They are always very happy to work with us.”

It’s a mature sector. VitalSource operates in 241 countries and territories in 37 languages, offering more than one million titles to twelve million users. All materials are available on all major devices. Existing modules, such as Blackboard, Moodle and Canvas, are compatible.

Student demand will fuel the transition to fully downloadable materials. A survey by the National Union of Students reveals eight out of ten students expect universities to be offering books digitally. With mobile phones and laptops, students already possess and use the electronic devices needed for digital.

Add up all the factors – availability, cost, data analytics and elevated learning performance – and it makes an irresistible argument.

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