Monthly Archives: March 2015

Election fever!

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With the small matter of a general election around the corner that could have a major impact on both students and staff at universities, the buzz of activity at The University of Manchester in recent weeks has centred around the annual elections to the Executive of the University of Manchester Students Union.  For anyone working in higher education, the campaign posters, election hustings and associated paraphernalia will be a familiar sight around campus.

The object of all this activity of course is to persuade students to elect candidates into various roles, with one-year salaried posts to be taken up in the following academic year. Among the range of roles – including Entertainments, Wellbeing and Campaigns – there is a vote for the post of Education Officer.

This year, most of the candidates were offering a manifesto based on improving the facilities, resources and learning opportunities available to students. Enriching the student experience is a core goal for students seeking election to this role. Of course, the student experience is one of the main priorities for the University as a whole, but students are now being far more analytical about what this means to them in practice.

In a record high turnout this year – highlighting the growing engagement of our students in the elections and the issues being debated – the winning candidate for Education Officer actively campaigned on an issue that resonated strongly with us and is one of the key drivers for the Books Right Here Right Now project:

“End additional course costs!”

University libraries are always struggling with the perennial issue of students not being provided with enough copies of their core texts and finding a viable solution to this problem is a real challenge. To some extent, the practice of lecturers advising students to acquire copies of their core texts – and students doing so –  has eased the situation in the past but in the current educational climate, with rising costs for students fuelling their increased expectations, we are seeing this model called into question.

With student dissatisfaction at meeting any additional course costs combining with institutional aspirations to enhance the student experience and ease the burden on students where possible, the outcome of this particular election has only served to increase our motivation to give the voters what they want…

photo credit: Voted yet? #elections via photopin (license)

Semester one pilots: an academic’s perspective

“Knowing the students had access, and there was no excuse to not engage with the text, gave me confidence that they would be prepared… it ensured that the assessment element of the module could be explicit to the content of the text.”

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In our January e-book pilots update we mentioned that part of our evaluation would include consultations with our academic colleagues to gain their perspective on the pilots. This has provided valuable information, not only on how we should manage any future pilots, but also in understanding what impact seamless access has had (or could potentially have) for their teaching and the overall student experience.

One pilot was for a management and leisure module within Manchester Institute of Education. As the core text is also used across a number of other modules in other schools (meaning there are large cohorts of students competing to borrow the text from the Library), the academic colleague co-ordinating the module was keen to be involved and excited at the prospect of being able to guarantee access to the text for all of his students.

He felt the pilot was a very positive experience and appreciated the support of the Library in setting up the e-book within his Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), as well as providing supporting materials and running through the key features with his students. The book was easily accessible, the download options were straightforward and he saw great potential in the highlighting and sharing functionality of the text.

During our discussion the word “confident” came up many times.  He felt confident – knowing that all students had access to the text – to set week by week reading and was able to build links at appropriate points in his VLE to the relevant chapters. He felt much more confident when planning the assessment that this could be tailored specifically around the text and that the students could rely on the text to increase their level of thinking and understanding of the subject.

Given more time, he would have planned the teaching to make better use of the additional functionality. Although appreciating the highlighting feature, he was hesitant to highlight sections of the text for his students, concerned that they would limit their reading to these areas rather than exploring the text as a whole. However, he could see real potential for this to be used in seminars, group work or exam preparation. With regards to the future, he felt that this should be the way forward, although it would have (positive) implications for teaching:

“… to introduce texts in this way would require a cultural shift for teaching and for learning. It has an impact on how you teach, how you can build your teaching more around the text and its functionality to engage the students and add value not only to your course but to the student experience.”

On a final positive note, not one student contacted him to say they could not access the text – an academic’s dream!

Janette Watson, Academic Engagement Librarian, University of Manchester

photo credit: ISC Orientation Week 2nd Meeting Spring 2012 via photopin (license)

What about Amazon?

We are always looking for solutions to the challenge of supplying core texts to our students, particularly if we can make the texts easily accessible in ways our students want. If we can find a neat technical solution and a viable financial model in the process then even better!

To this end we were interested to see what – if anything – Amazon is doing in this area and how it might help us increase student reading of core texts and improve the student experience. Given Amazon’s propensity to reach out to potential new business areas and its ability to spot and develop client-focused solutions we hoped to find a lot of information.

While we did find that they have developed a product for the US market called Whispercast, there are as yet apparently no plans to launch this in the UK. One example of an institutional deal is in Brazil, where the Brazilian Ministry of Education – via its National Fund for Educational Development (FNDE) – selected Amazon to convert and distribute textbooks using Whispercast for up to 600,000 tablets used by teachers across the country.

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The immediate benefits to us of this kind of service are obvious. The market reach and brand recognition of Amazon mean its services are instantly familiar to students. Amazon’s simple, intuitive ordering, payment and supply models are attractive both to us (in terms of managing the project) and to students and academic colleagues (who would be the primary users). Notwithstanding any ethical issues these groups may have about Amazon, it is a fact that most will be at least familiar with the Amazon interface and many will have been customers in some capacity.

Amazon’s charging mechanism is based on a simple 1:1 transaction model, something we are committed to developing. In many ways, it appears that Amazon’s approach is not really a nuanced institutional pricing model but more of an attempt to encourage institutions to purchase books directly for students using Amazon’s technology and systems.

Further investigation on our part will continue over the next year but we are definitely interested in trying to move this forward for three main reasons:

  • Amazon’s experience of working with publishers and their ability to leverage pricing and availability is something we would be keen to tap into, perhaps with them acting in an intermediary capacity
  • Their experience of supplying both content and devices brings an understanding of the whole supply chain
  • We know that academics and students are increasingly using Kindles – for example, English Literature students are consulting poetry texts in seminars on them – and in addition to provision of core texts we also want to enhance the provision and accessibility of other library material and this could be a way to help achieve it

It’s very early days, but this is something of real interest to us in terms of our options for future core text provision.

Dominic Broadhurst, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: Kindle 3 P1 via photopin (license)

Macmillan Education: some thoughts on e-books

Finding new and innovative ways to share our content with our wider audience – both nationally and internationally – is a priority for an academic publisher. The move to digital access has always been welcomed at Macmillan Education and it’s something that we actively look to encourage and be involved in. Education is the nature of our business and we want our content to be as widely distributed, read and enjoyed as possible.

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There is a staunch, passionate and valid debate in publishing that steadfastly promotes the undoubted merits of print (and all that reading the printed word on paper represents), but as with anything there are always other avenues to explore and the e-book road is one we are excited about and ready to travel. In truth, we are already quite a long way into that journey.

The heart of any academic publisher is the quality content and resources it produces for its customers – this is what we are judged on, not the medium by which it is delivered. Macmillan Education is aware that publishing needs to take account of the fact that many customers will want electronic access to content, either through their library services or on individual devices (PCs, tablets, smartphones etc), though there is an ongoing learning curve for all involved, from the authors through to the editorial and production teams.

We are already involved in a number of schemes across the UK where our e-books are distributed to students in a variety of ways and the feedback has been very positive. It’s certainly popular with students and academics for all the reasons you might expect – ease of use, quick and easy access, cost and so on.

However, the attitude – particularly among students – that this content should be available for free is short-sighted. The same rules apply to online textbooks as films, music, images and so on. Macmillan Education, as with all academic publishers of note, produce educational content that is written by experts in their fields – it is reviewed, developed and designed extensively before reaching the customer. This process is what makes the difference between content that is freely available on the internet and something that has been specifically designed to be high quality, accurate and detailed for use on an academic course.

Pilots such as the one running at the University of Manchester are trailblazing, impressive and ambitious and at Macmillan Education that is what we strive to be too, so who knows where it will take us? Publishers aim to provide what their customers want, even if at present it seems that the technology needs to catch up with what they are demanding.

Ultimately we are all working towards the same goal – providing high quality, inspirational content to students and academics in whichever format is required, as quickly, easily and affordably as possible.

Rebecca Levene, Macmillan Education
Email: r.levene@palgrave.com