In 2015 I took up a brand new post as eTextbook Service Manager at the University of Plymouth and since then I’ve both witnessed and participated in the fast paced evolution of the eTextbook world.
Initially the idea was simple; to level the playing field and provide our first year undergraduate students with their core reading in eTextbook format and alleviate one of the hidden costs of university life.
However, the reality of expanding and delivering a new service was a far more complex and strange experience of development, evolution, education and reinvention than we had all anticipated. From selection to delivery, over the last three years every facet has been subject to a continuous review process and constant refinement to reflect the changing needs and demands of a fledgling learning tool.
In 2017 we relaunched our service with Kortext, as the focus of the project shifted to the need to measure the impact that using digital material has on pedagogy and student success. The benefits of analytics are clear to see, but I feel we are only at the beginning of our relationship between digital content and learning data. Defining the key criteria of what is good student engagement and how does that impact the way in which an eTextbook programme might run is still in its infancy.
The University of Plymouth is one of a few programmes in the UK to purchase their content directly from the publisher. A steep learning curve that has prompted many important and valuable conversations challenging current publishing pricing conventions and content formats. Students need publishers to revolutionize the way that content is packaged to reflect the upcoming generation of active and engaged learners. Integral learning analytics will shape the future of content delivery including the format of the next generation of eTextbooks to service an upcoming generation of learners who expect engagement from their content.
Learning analytics has become a key part of measuring not only the impact of a title selection on student success but also if a title represents good ‘value for money’ for an institution. Two short years ago the number of titles downloaded was the key to measuring the success of a title; the way in which eTextbooks are being used by our students and staff is now of far more elevated importance in the last 12 months. We realised that it is not enough to purchase the right content at the right price.
As part of our selection process we work closely with academics to show them how their title selections are performing in terms of student engagement, using learning analytics to build a picture of where our budget is being well used and identifying subject areas that may need extra support and training. The key to success is the support of your academic staff. Noticeably the Arts and Humanities struggle the most to find content; the narrative behind low engagement doesn’t always mean unengaged students, it can mean unsuitable content. For instance we’ve identified a subject area with historically low usage rates and after discovering that the course couldn’t be serviced by just one title have started to develop a portfolio style bespoke book with the academic and the publisher.
That simple idea that we started with at the University of Plymouth has turned out to be something far more ambitious and meaningful. Since I began my journey in this field, an eTextbook has evolved from flat replica of a standard print book into something that means many more things to an institution and the students that use them. As a sector, we have a great window of opportunity to really influence and engage with how learning and content provision might look in the future and increasingly we have the tools at our disposal to start working out what that future might look like. eTextbooks are now part of a wider conversation about the evolution of libraries and the personalised student learning experience.
By Tifane Dickinson