Without wanting to sound nihilistic, we feel that a publisher pricing model in which we pay for e-book access for every single student on a module has no long-term future.
Pricing is based on the idea that there will be 100% take-up of a recommended text on a reading list. Even when discounts are offered, the quote for a module with 500 registered students, with a typical discounted unit price of £25.99 (instead of £39.99), would still amount to £12,995 for a single year’s access to the text.
This raises some concerns for libraries.
The assumption that all students on a module access the core texts is not a true reflection of reality. We are paying an over-inflated price for our e-book subscriptions and while we do our best (as all librarians do) to ensure that every student has access to the resources they may need, the take-up of any given text ranges from 40% up to 75%, with variations across disciplines.
It is rare to see 100% attendance at lectures and we know from our print book loan records that far less students access the recommended texts than there are on a module, so to apply a one-to-one pricing model for e-books is unrealistic.
The longer term aim of publishers seems to be to make this pricing model the standard for all e-book provision, which will lead to library budgets being massively stretched while paying for resources that will never be used. We have already observed this on modules where all students are given a personal, printed copy of a core text, only to see copies being sold on within 24 hours.
We need to find a way of reaching a more realistic, sustainable pricing model for both libraries and publishers. There is a lot of work to be done but we are taking some first steps by starting this discussion with publishers and hope to see much greater progress in the future.
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A common complaint from university students everywhere is that there are never enough copies of course texts to go around. The rise of the e-book has the potential to change this and Manchester Business School’s e-book pilot project was initiated with the aim of improving core text access and enhancing the student experience.
What we did
In Semester Two of 2013/14, the Library ran a pilot project with Karen Niven, Lecturer in Organisational Psychology and e-Learning co-ordinator for Manchester Business School, working with Pearson Books and the VitalSource e-textbook service. 400 students on the undergraduate ‘Introduction to Work Psychology’ course were offered access to their core text as an e-book, available on any device for the whole semester, with annotations made by the lecturer to guide the students’ reading.
To help us assess the impact of the project, students were asked to provide feedback during and at the end of the course unit. We were also able to obtain data from VitalSource’s e-book analytics.
The lecturer also collected student feedback at the end of the course unit while there was a formal question in the course unit survey on core text provision.
What we found
The amount of student feedback was low but we did get the following positive comments on the pilot:
- “The online textbook was a great idea”
- “Having access to the e-book with the teacher’s comments was a great opportunity, we should have that in all modules!!”
- “The book being online and not having to spend £60 just to purchase it. And we could also access Karen’s notes which was great”
Anecdotal evidence from the lecturer, supported by data from VitalSource, confirmed that usage of the ebook stayed low throughout the semester – including the exam period when increased usage might have been expected.
The lecturer felt that the pilot was a “good experience”, that being able to annotate core reading was beneficial to the learning experience of the students and that e-book provision would have merit even if the specific module being used for the pilot did not provide much data on this occasion.
One of the main elements of our core text strategy project is to investigate alternative ways of providing e-book texts to our students.
The established models of electronic core text provision do not meet the needs of our students and teaching colleagues or the ambitions of the library service. We need to find new ways of acquiring e-books and making them available to our users.
To explore new ways of delivering core texts we have instigated a number of pilot projects for the academic year 2014-15 with the following guiding principles:
- Every student must have an individual copy of the e-book for the duration of their module, with no restrictions on usage during this period
- These titles must be seamlessly accessible via Blackboard (our virtual learning environment platform)
- Acquisition of and payment for these titles must be based on actual usage, not notional student numbers
- Titles must be available for download onto personal devices
We also intend to fulfil the following ambitions:
- To involve a wide range of disciplines in the pilot projects (moving beyond the traditional business and health science subjects)
- To collect meaningful quantitative and qualitative data and user feedback that will allow us to draw firm conclusions about usage and value for money
Getting to this stage has taken a lot of time and effort in negotiating with publishers, technical intermediaries and academic and e-learning colleagues across the University.
We now have twelve pilot projects either running or set to run in Semester Two and we have already learned a lot – our experiences and findings from these pilots will appear on this blog in due course so watch this space!
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