The shift to emergency online learning threw outdated assumptions about learning resources and student engagement into sharp relief. Libby Hormer, Ramy Badrie, and Michelle Morgan sketch out a collaborative and sustainable future.
Following the Covid-19 lockdown and online pivot of March 2020, demand for electronic learning resources has shot through the roof. Electronic resources have often been the only available way to make learning accessible to learners studying remotely.
Many students have appreciated enhanced access to learning materials and the greater autonomy in accessing resources that digital platforms permit. The shift has also opened up exciting opportunities for integrating learning resources into existing platforms to enhance the overall learning experience.
In a post-Covid blended learning environment we’d naturally expect more widespread use of digital learning resources, as well as continued enhancement to our collective understanding of how best to use digital resources to improve accessibility and student engagement in learning.
But the pace and scale of the move has thrown existing tensions in the digital and e-resource market into sharp relief. And as learning and teaching practice evolves to adapt to the new post-Covid learning landscape, it’s vital that developments are informed by insight about how students can best be supported to engage in learning.
As commissioners, we have been tasked with considering the evidence presented, and offering our reflections on what might be done to map a way forward for the future of learning resources.
At the simplest level, the costs of licensing some e-textbooks can be prohibitive for libraries whose budgets are geared around procurement of a limited number of mostly hard copy books, given the prevailing “student pays” pre-pandemic model. In the digital environment, because of the nature of digital artefacts, libraries are expected to provide a copy for everyone – a significant change in approach.
Publishers are rapidly updating their offer in light of the new circumstances, and digitising resources that were previously not available digitally. But this has resulted in a bewildering variety of publisher and platform packages available, which can stand in the way of acquisitions librarians actually buying the books that they need to buy outside of defined “bundles”.
Pure market logic dictates that some courses and subjects are well-served with electronic resources, while others have much lower availability. And there is always pressure to select the most up to date resources, diversify the curriculum, and meet the range of student needs and expectations.
The value of digital resources for students is that they can be accessed remotely and, normally, at no cost to the student. Digital resources have allowed learning to continue during Covid-19. The experience of ready access to digital resources is likely to inform student expectations of what resources they will be able to access in future.
Yet we should not assume that digital resources meet the learning needs of all students or will predominate in the post-Covid landscape. Some students will continue to prefer hard copy, especially where they are working from a core textbook throughout a module, and especially where access to hardware and connectivity are limiting factors. A rush to digital risks leaving some students behind.
We believe these issues will begin to be addressed through effective collaboration and coordination at every level and across the range of stakeholders, with the learner journey at the centre of the conversation.
We also believe that addressing the increased complexity of the learning resource landscape requires a level of internal strategic oversight – bringing together libraries with leaders of learning and teaching, and student representatives, to agree policies and best practice, and how to resource the strategy, as well as what data will be gathered to assess effectiveness and value for money.
In general, we believe that libraries should have oversight of learning resource procurement across the whole university. This is much less about where budgets “sit” than about strategic utilisation of expertise and adopting a coordinated approach that allows for efficiencies and the best possible value for money for institutions.
At the national level, we believe that universities and the HE sector could collectively coordinate more effectively to articulate our needs and expectations to the publishing and aggregation industries – and this work is already under way, with the National Acquisitions Group, SCONUL, CILIP, and the Jisc eTextbooks group.
Learning and learning journeys
At the micro-commission event, we explored the process of creating what are rather anachronistically called “reading lists” for modules and courses, and found that in general, conversations are now starting earlier. Subject librarians have an eye on the practicalities of procurement as they advise academics; faculties are developing new information offers that go beyond the traditional “one module, one textbook” approach.
Many providers are looking in detail at producing learning materials internally, examining the possibility of self-sufficiency that reallocates book budgets to resource development from current staff. Librarians should be involved in these conversations from the beginning, to avoid the problem of procurement difficulties arising too late to adapt plans. There is also opportunity for better internal coordination to allow some resources to track across modules or courses, and make the best use of limited resources.
But there is also room for improvement grounded in the student experience and learner journey. In the compilation of resource lists, it should not be assumed that students entering university understand how to engage and interact with any kind of learning resource, but particularly digital resources. We should also not assume that the idea of a “reading list” is fully understood, or that all modules use that concept in the same way. Schools and colleges’ digital practice is not consistent, and students will need signposting and help to transition to effective use of digital resources, including consideration of managing digital fatigue.
Though digital resources offer the opportunity to gather extensive data about students’ engagement with learning resources, we should be tentative about the conclusions it is meaningful to draw from this data, and be sure to triangulate with student feedback about how, in practice, they are drawing on the range of learning resources available.
Academics could help students make the best use of the limited time they have to engage with learning resources. If, for example, students are signposted to “core” reading to support scheduled contact time, they are unlikely to engage with the wider “optional” resources. If exploring a range of resources and making unexpected connections is imagined to be part of the learning experience, it will probably need to be built into scheduled contact time and assessment.
And – it should go without saying – when it comes to learning resources that are required reading, students should be clear from the outset what they will be able to access at no cost and what, if anything, they will need to pay for.
Libraries and publishers
For publishers and aggregator platforms, this is existential stuff. And they get it – although their approach to the market may on occasion suggest otherwise. In an immature, post-digital publishing environment there is a huge prize on offer for whoever squares this particular circle. None of the current publisher experiments hit the mark – from the grass roots to the representative bodies librarians are clear on that. The lessons from North America – we recently saw a $100m Californian state initiative to fund the development of open educational resources at community colleges – are clear.
The fragmentation of the marketplace doesn’t just affect procurement. Each proprietary system spits out analytics onto a pretty dashboard that can be next-to-impossible to link to existing library and provider systems. Quantitative usage analytics do have a place in collections development, especially if librarians and academics can use them to compare resources and approaches.
Without undermining the market for particular resources and subject areas, and risking putting the wind up the Competition and Markets Authority, we believe there is space for the higher education sector to demand a higher bar from publishers and aggregators in consistency of general practice, data management, and interoperability and accessibility.
We suggest the creation of a voluntary code of practice for publishers and platforms that would include a guarantee that individual books would be available for purchase outside of bundles and subscriptions, that pricing for libraries would be consistent and transparent, and that usage rights should include the ability for students to make meaningful use of copy and paste and search functionality.
We recommend that Jisc, or a similar national body, should lead work on interoperability and standards compliance regarding resource usage data. Data should be provided to libraries in a consistent open format with common metadata.
We would also like to see parallel work on a design pattern library, setting out consistent functionality and layout for student facing interfaces. Publishers and platforms should be able to advertise compliance to a common standard that would ease the student burden in moving between platforms and apps.
We certainly don’t claim that implementing these recommendations would immediately fix all the issues – in any situation of rapid and large scale change, it is going to take a while for the status quo in practice to catch up to the realities. But we do think that we won’t move forward without involving the full range of stakeholders: students, academics, librarians, and the publishing industry – in creating solutions we can all live with.
This article is published in association with Wonkhe. Team Wonkhe would like to thank the three commissioners who gave their time and energy to attend the event and think through the issues raised.
By Libby Homer – Director of Student and Library Services at Anglia Ruskin University