Digital textbooks: from “quick fix” to shaping teaching and learning 

By Ellie Parker

After a longer-than-expected period of disruption and uncertainty, plans to end Covid-19 restrictions in England have been given the green light by the government, and as the country now looks to the future, so too are university leaders.  

Enhancing digital literacy

When the pandemic began, institutions had to find and implement “quick fixes” to enable the safe continuation of teaching and learning and avoid their students falling behind. For many, these temporary solutions did the trick – of course, back in 2020, no one could have envisaged that we would still be enduring the pandemic two years later. 

The sudden pivot to online learning and accelerated adoption of Ed Tech solutions like Kortext presented students and academics with a huge learning curve in terms of digital literacy. However, as a result, many have come out it of it more skilled in this area, which bodes well considering 76% of university leaders believe technological innovation will significantly influence future changes to teaching and learning 

Unexpectedly, many of the temporary solutions deployed by institutions since early 2020 have now had a chance to embed. For example, students who previously had little or no access to digital textbooks have had an extended opportunity to realise their benefits and the freedoms they afford over print books – from the anytime, anywhere access offered by Kortext, to the interactive study tools embedded in the platform that provide a richer, easier and more engaging learning experience. 

So what does this mean for HE institutions?

According to the Student Futures Commission, having seen the new possibilities available to them, 66% of students would now prefer a blend of face-to-face and online learning as opposed to the traditional on-campus experience. Naturally then, if student expectations are a key influencer of change – as revealed in the 2022 Kortext/Wonkhe university leaders survey – many of the technological solutions adopted during the pandemic will, in some guise, be here to stay. Indeed, for some institutions, these solutions have already become integral to their teaching and learning strategy. 

Shaping teaching and learning at Saïd Business School

Kortext partnered with University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School during the pandemic to further enhance the teaching and learning experience by providing a platform to deliver access to core digital textbooks as a way of mitigating the impact of students having limited access to physical libraries. With 90% of its students coming from overseas, the school required a first-class digital platform that facilitated and encouraged interaction between students and academics.  

The concern moving to online learning was, of course, that students would feel disconnected with their course and their fellow students. Kortext’s collaboration tools were built with engagement in mind, to connect academics to students and students to their peers, and facilitate research-led, cooperative learning.  

Saïd Business School already had the infrastructure in place to meet the needs of their students – the only thing missing was a platform for accessing eTextBooks. The school was already in a good position to add Kortext into their teaching framework by seamlessly integrating the platform with their VLE, Canvas. This ensured a streamlined provision of core eTextbooks to students at a time when they needed it most. 

During the school’s first full academic year with Kortext (20/21), students accessed almost 180,000 pages of their digital textbooks. When asked about his experience working in partnership with Kortext, Mark Bromwell, CIO at Saïd Business School, said:  

“Given the understandable high expectations of our students, the need to provide a quality online learning environment for our Executive MBA and MBA courses is paramount.  

“Our infrastructure was already in place with solutions such as Canvas, Microsoft (Azure, O365 and Teams) and Zoom, but we needed an integrated eBook platform. With Kortext […] implementation at pace was straightforward and now the platform has become an integral part of our teaching, learning and programme delivery.” 

Re-engaging students at the University of Wolverhampton

From Business School to an entire institution, just last year – after working alongside Jisc, Microsoft and publishers to launch the Free Student Textbook Programme (FSTP) – an initiative offering UK university students free digital access to textbooks during the lockdowns – Kortext entered into a partnership with the University of Wolverhampton for a year’s pilot of the platform.  

With a significant number of students impacted by digital exclusion, and access to resources restricted during the pandemic, the university was seeking a solution to re-engage its students with their learning content. 

Whilst still in its infancy, the pilot is already creating more opportunities for students studying at the university as well as benefiting them financially by ensuring they have digital copies of their essential reading materials, funded by the university.  

Jo-Anne Watts, Librarian at the University of Wolverhampton, said:  

“Providing essential resources, such as textbooks, to our students can cut the cost of university by up to £500 per year, removing hidden course costs and ensuring no student is disadvantaged in terms of access to essential reading.” 

Of the 6,799 students registered on the platform, 96% are actively using Kortext to access their digital textbooks and study. 

Are digital textbooks a permanent fixture?

With the majority of students and university leaders expecting technology to play a big part in the future of higher education, and students now used to the ease of access that comes with digital textbooks, we expect they’re here to stay. However, university budgets and rising publisher costs do present a challenge, and one we are actively trying to address in the industry.     

A recent study by Cambridge College Libraries Forum reported that students showed “a clear preference for eTextbooks when reading a chapter for study purposes”, but preferred print books in all other scenarios. However, one of our partner institutions – Aston University – looked at data on a granular level to compare student engagement with print and eTextbooks and saw a marked improvement to student engagement figures. Taking one book as an example that, before January 2021, was only available to students in print, the library saw 1,015 loans of the 43 copies held since the book was purchased in 2013. After introducing a digital version of the textbook, over the course of just 8 months the university saw far greater engagement, recording over 1,800 study sessions with the eTextbook, 1,723 in-text searches and 522 in-book annotations. 

Challenges aside, what we do know is that technology has the power to enhance the student experience in extraordinary ways. With 2,000 universities worldwide now successfully integrating Kortext into teaching and learning, we can say with some certainty that, while digital textbooks may have looked like a “quick fix” at the start of the pandemic, their benefits will be realised by students, academics, librarians and leaders well into the future.  

Next destination: Could empowering students be the key to success? 

 By Ellie Parker

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