“Pick a text, any text”: understanding what students are asked to read

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A fundamental part of getting the e-book project here at Manchester off the ground has been establishing effective ways to work with faculties and schools in the efficient identification and mapping of recommended texts. This might sound easy but was actually very complex!

After getting buy-in to the principles of the project as a whole, the Academic Engagement team carried out a consultation process across campus, with discussions focused on the coordinated collation of the key texts being recommended for each module.

Our interest lay not only in finding out how we might improve the ways we get hold of this information but also in the degree of flexibility regarding the texts being recommended. If an e-book version of a key text is not available, would a lecturer consider recommending an alternative? Are issues of access enough of a reason to change a recommendation, or are certain textbooks absolutely fundamental to the teaching of a particular unit?

Initial responses to the principles of the project were very positive:

“It’s a no-brainer. I suggest that if publishers do not agree to negotiate, lecturers would consider changing core texts to put pressure on them.”

“This is clearly a timely and much-needed innovation by the library’”

Our discussions also helped us identify and understand a number of issues or potential barriers we will need to take account of during the project:

Discipline specific issues

  • Some lecturers do not use even one ‘core text’ in their teaching
  • Some lecturers are resistant to working with e-books, often based on their own and their students’ previous experiences – “…they keep crashing, take a long time to load and it’s difficult to concentrate for a long period of time on screen”
  • There are concerns about dictating to students which of the texts on their reading lists should be considered essential (with the implication that others can be ignored)
  • Programmes with smaller cohorts have far fewer problems with the availability of core recommended texts

School specific

  • Some schools have complex internal structures and organisational models, making school-level coordination of processes difficult – “It’s a good idea in theory but difficult in practice for a multidiscipline school to keep up to date”
  • Ideally, schools would identify an individual to take on the responsibility of coordination for the entire school and ensure that all staff were sending in details of their chosen texts, but this is easier said than done

University-wide 

  • There are concerns about time constraints and placing additional administrative burdens on staff
  • Some staff cited the difficulty of choosing one key text from a list of books that were all considered ‘core reading’
  • Submitting changes each year well in advance of the teaching timetable is a problem as decisions on which text will be used are not always made that early (though the implementation of a university policy regarding inclusive teaching will push this issue to the fore over the coming year)

So, what is the upshot of all this work?

We know that we will need to take into account all the different ways that schools and academics work but also that we need to introduce much simpler ways of obtaining this information – and working with it!

Olivia Walsby, Academic Engagement Librarian, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: Science Online Book Display via photopin (license)

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