E-books and student reading habits


As mentioned in an earlier post, several student library ambassadors at The University of Manchester attended an e-book conference during which they sat on a question panel to discuss the subject of e-books and core text provision in higher education. From the accounts submitted after the event, several central themes regarding student e-book usage have emerged.

Students recognise that e-books offer convenience, portability and accessibility. All the students involved mentioned the benefits of not having to carry unwieldy printed books around campus and the reassurance of knowing that their core texts were available to them wherever and whenever they needed them.

Free access to the electronic texts via institutional subscriptions was also highly valued. Even with (relatively) cheap second-hand copies of textbooks available via bookshops and Amazon, purchasing copies of every recommended text would be prohibitively expensive.

Despite these advantages, the use of e-books across courses remains uneven, with students on some courses reporting that they rarely use them at present. This is in part due to entrenched practices in some subjects (where purchasing the print version of a core text is expected), but also because of low levels of awareness about what is available. Many students on courses where e-books were made available through the Library pilots had not been aware of the need to download the text to get permanent access and utilise the full range of functionality available. Others reported frustration more generally with the complexity of accessing e-books across multiple platforms. There was a clear message that students would like better support and guidance in this area.

Finally, several students noted that despite living in a “digital age” in which online access to information is the norm, one particular aspect of reading the hard copy of a book for study endures – it appears that many students still like scribbling notes in margins, sticking post-its into pages and marking sections of text with highlighter pens (hopefully only in their personal copies!) and some are hesitant to move these activities online. Better promotion of the highlighting and annotation features available in e-books may well shift the balance over time. In the meantime, all the students recognised that having electronic access to a text is far preferable to not getting hold of it at all!

photo credit: Things lying about via photopin (license)

2 thoughts on “E-books and student reading habits

  1. Interesting post. I guess the uneven use all depends on the nature of the course. I can add a little to this from the perspective of some academics colleagues.

    For example, I’ve heard academics in SALC discussing the fundamental shift between the reader and the text that occurs when reading literature electronically. A hard copy of a novel, they argue, forces the reader to stick with the text during difficult passages as there’s ‘nowhere else to go’, or at least nowhere else to go so quickly. The ability to persevere and ‘stay with it ‘ is viewed as integral to the overall reading experience and learning programme.

    Reading electronically, on the other hand, fundamentally alters this relationship for various reasons; namely that the object in hand is a lot more than a book and therefore the ability and temptation to quickly access other information sources is ever present. This, of course, may not be just down to a student being easily distracted and looking to escape from a difficult passage. It may be the case that the reader is seeking additional information on characters or historical episodes referred to in the book. This, however, academics argue, still fundamentally alters the overall reading experience and how a reader actually engages with a novel etc.

    This may go some way to explaining why academics in certain disciplines still prefer print over all other formats.


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