E-textbooks: lightening the load!

You’ve heard (plenty!) about what we think about e-textbooks – but what do our students think?


The financial burden for course textbooks is a lot; especially for an economics degree.  I found it hard to cope with the financial demand with 12 modules to buy textbooks for, where each textbook would cost around £50. I would then turn to the library for physical copies however the ratio of books per student within the library were very low, for example 4 textbooks for the 300 students on the course. This left me feeling frustrated and wanting an alternative. Fortunately in my second year I had been introduced to the e-book scheme which allowed me to access my course textbooks for free online. Compared to my first year where I was less inclined to buy books due to the financial burden (which affected my degree performance), I felt like this was a great opportunity  provided by the University to save money and perform better within my degree.

I initially had doubts about the practicality of e-books. This was due to the fact I had only used e-books in PDF format. However the bookshelf software is smooth and slick, I am able to access my e-books on numerous devices, including my phone and tablet, which comes in handy if I wanted to access the books on the go. I am able to also highlight important sections in the book and write comments. This was very useful during my exam period as I could go back over quickly what I had noted at the start of the semester. These practical features on bookshelf that were not available on a physical copy had made a huge difference within my learning experience. The cloud of books on my bookshelf provides another layer of practicality as I do not need to carry around heavy 500 page books to and from university anymore!

I hope to see more e-books available for my future courses; it is cheap and effective way of providing all students with access to their course textbooks!

Marwan Mohamed, University of Manchester student

photo credit: Garry Knight via flickr (license)

In conversation

conversationIn April I was asked to appear on an e-textbooks discussion panel at the 2016 Talis Insight Europe 2016.   For those of you with 45 minutes to spare you can watch the full coverage here!

The session comprised of 6 panel members with a Chair to supervise proceedings!  In addition to myself there were colleagues from other institutions heavily involved in this activity; namely the Universities of Plymouth, Middlesex and Liverpool plus two colleagues from the publishing sector; Kogan Page and Pearson

The panel focus centred on institutional models where the library or another group is licensing e-textbooks for direct provision to students.

Rather than squaring us up; universities on the one side, publishers the other; the plan was for a friendly conversation where we explored the two sides of the coin.  Fortunately, that is exactly what we got!  We did not agree on everything but we were very fortunate to hear interesting perspectives and more on the challenges faced by both publishers and libraries on this rapidly evolving activity.  In a nutshell the discussion focused on these issues:

  • what does success look like to your organisation?
  • what are the key elements to making this type of model a success?
  • what are the threats to success?
  • what would you do if you were a publisher/institution to overcome the threats/barriers?
  • what is the common ground – how can we work together to ensure the models support the needs to students and their teachers?

As is evident from the video there was a wide ranging discussion, which also included many insightful comments from the audience.  One debate strand initiated by an audience member was whether these library-led initiatives posed a significant threat to campus bookshops.  My personal view is that many libraries such as ours work on a number of areas with campus bookshops and that this new activity would just work alongside.  A far bigger issue is the ever evolving market for book retailing in general, which poses a number of threats to physical book retail outlets.   A crucial dynamic is that many of the publishers who were traditionally only suppliers to the book shops are now also competitors as they look to sell their books via a range of competing retail and distribution outlets.

There were some major take homes for me.  Firstly it was really good to be on an open forum with colleagues from the publishing sector who were willing to explain their positions and debate the issues in a collegiate and frank manner.   What struck me was that we all need to understand each other’s position and then try and move together to chart a course in this new and often unknown territory.  I remain convinced that much of the future lies with the sector (working with Jisc) to drive a wider sector led agreement that both meets the needs of libraries and customers plus offers large potential volume sales of e-textbooks to publishers.

The four libraries on the panel, while already working together, also agreed to meet up in the summer to further discuss pricing and share best practice.  More details when we have them!

Dominic Broadhurst, University of Manchester

US perceptions of the e-text landscape: part 3

In the final post of her three part series, Aimee delves deeper into the research conducted at the University of Central Florida (UCF) to better understand the digital landscape on campus. Part one looked at the trends contributing to an underwhelming use of eTextbooks in the US higher education system and part two described Aimee’s professional journey with eTextbooks at UCF.


To better understand the digital landscape on campus, we distributed surveys to UCF students about eTextbooks in 2012 and 2014, and have just completed one in 2016. While the findings cannot be generalized to US higher education institutions as a whole, they do confirm some trends that have been discovered in other research studies.

eTextbook use

Over the four-year period from 2012 to 2016, eTextbook use at UCF has increased dramatically. In 2012, 42% of participating students indicated they had used an eTextbook at least once in their college studies. In 2014, the percentage increased to 60%; in 2016, up to 73%. In just four years, eTextbook use has grown over 30%. This is remarkable, considering we do not have a specific campus initiative to use eTextbooks.

Regarding devices, the vast majority of students (80%) use the computer most frequently to access their eTextbooks. This number has remained steady over four years, despite increasing tablet ownership. 37% of students owned a tablet in 2012; 57% in 2014; and 59% in 2016. However, only around 12% of students said they used tablets most frequently to access eTextbooks in 2016; the same percentage was found in 2012.

When asked what kind of eTextbook students used, PDFs or ones that offered basic reading features were selected the most. We found a slight increase in eTextbooks with more interactive elements, such as simulations and note sharing. In 2014, 28% of students said they had used at least one eTextbook with interactive elements; in 2016, that had increased to 36%.

Influential factors for adoption

Lower cost remains the top factor in influencing students to select an eTextbook rather than a print textbook. Ability to access eTextbooks anywhere is the second most popular reason. The preference for print is still alive and well. In 2016, students that had never used an eTextbook in their college studies were asked to indicate reasons for this, and 73% said they preferred print. Preferring to sell back books for money at the end of the semester was a distant second.

Preferences for features have also remained quite steady. Reading features (searching for keywords, glossary) and study features (highlighting, annotating) were highly valued, while social features (sharing notes with peers) were less so.

Instructor role

Recognizing how important the instructor is to successful eTextbook integration, we asked students in 2014 about their instructors’ involvement. About 30% of students who had used eTextbooks before said that their instructors gave them instructions on how to access the book and told them who to contact for technical help. Similarly, around 30% also said that the instructor actually modelled how to effectively read and study from an eTextbook.


While eTextbook use is increasingly common, the reasons appear logistical (lower cost and convenience) rather than for pedagogical. The pedagogical side cannot be ignored. Publishers and providers of digital content need to increase the interactivity of the content in order to go beyond simple digital facsimiles of print versions. Additionally, instructors need to select eTextbooks with high quality features, as well as model the use of the eTextbook to show how to read and study effectively from the digital resource. This points to the need for professional development, with campus stakeholders such as librarians and instructional designers playing a defined role. At UCF, we have created a self-paced online course called eTextbook Essentials, which provides UCF instructors with an overview of the landscape, including common barriers to course integration and practical guides to assist with integration.

Aimee deNoyelles, Instructional Designer, University of Central Florida

Questions and (some) answers

question mark

We recently completed a series of meetings with some of the publishers we have been working with on the Books Right Here Now Project (in supplying an individual copy of a textbook to large number of our students)

From our perspective the objectives of these meetings were:

  • to understand the environment publishers are working within
  • to inform future negotiations around e-textbook acquisition and supply
  • to develop a sustainable and mutually beneficial model for future supply

To meet our objectives we asked each of the publishers to answer a number of questions (sample examples provided below) in advance based around the following themes:

Book Production

What elements make up the cost of production in a standard text book and how does a digital book differ?

Unit Pricing

What percentage number of units would you expect to sell to a particular cohort via your retail/distribution channels?


How are authors reacting to changing model of production and in particular impact upon on author royalties?


What is your preferred model of delivery for your digital text books e.g. via an intermediary, via your own platforms?


What is your optimum pricing model? e.g. flat fee, subscription, usage based etc.?


What are your views on future issues of production and delivery of e-text books?

We were under no illusions that publishers have found some of the questions difficult to answer and indeed a number used the veil of “commercial in confidence” to hide behind on certain questions.   Understandable perhaps, but a little frustrating and only made us think further that their current margins on textbooks are still healthy and even excessive, albeit if under pressure from the increasingly volatile nature of the textbook market.

Nevertheless it was a series of very productive meetings, especially with those publishers that shared the most information!   We will divulge some of the findings in due course (without, of course, giving out any sensitive information!)  For now, here are some of the general themes that emerged:

  • The vice like grip that both print sales and the print pricing model still has on the e-textbook model. Despite falling or plateauing print sales, like a baby with a dummy, this is something many are unwilling or unable to give up…
  • All are aware of seismic changes affecting the market both now and especially in the future, but none are fully sure whether to stick or twist…
  • The belief (or fervent wish perhaps) that their own adaptive learning systems and solutions are the key to their future prosperity! From our perspective and that of our academics and students the jury is most certainly out on this issue…

Interesting times indeed – comments very welcome!

Dominic Broadhurst, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: Karen Eliot via flickr (license)

Bound by the bound book

dusty book

The audience was aghast; “pay more, you say?”  The incredulous response came at a recent(ish) JIBS event, upon the suggestion that there might be some circumstances in which a library would be willing to pay more for e-book content.  Which got me thinking – what would we be (potentially) willing to pay more for?

In a mixed audience made up of librarians and e-resources staff, publishers, academics, and others, one of the main grumblings of discontent was at the frequent linking of the cost of an e-book to the cost of a physical book.  An enlightening talk from Liz Martin at IOP Publishing explained some of the processes and costs unique in producing an electronic version of a title.

But cost isn’t the only area in which the potential of e-books is being linked to that of a physical copy.  Freed from the limitations of paper, the e-book offers the possibility of connected content, of using the best available media to explain ideas, and of giving users more powerful tools than simply digital versions of post-it notes and highlighter pens.  Too often e-books are sold to libraries and other users as flat PDFs of featureless ePUBs.  This doesn’t add the value we would be willing to pay more for.

The most obvious way that this thinking is hampering the potential of the e-book is in creating a usage model which treats an e-book in the same way as one would treat a physical copy.  The limitation of ‘concurrent usage’ is to treat an e-book as though there are individual electronic ‘copies’ owned by the library.  Alternatively, a token system suggests that the e-book has been ‘used up’ after a certain point (perhaps a nod to the worn, torn and tattered pages of some of our older textbooks!)  Either system can create a barrier to usage at the point of need, unnecessarily akin to a physical copy already out on loan.  The removal of such barriers would surely add value.

The inability to move thinking away from the limitations of the physical did for the golden-age for recording artists; authors looking to protect their digital rights and ensure they are remunerated for their hard work and knowledge might consider how adding value can avoid them facing the same fate.  Downloading an illegal PDF might have the same content as an e-textbook not currently available to the user via their library.  An e-textbook with connected content and rich media, available anywhere and at any time adds value beyond what could be easily replicated.

If we can stop thinking of the e-book as a simple online facsimile of a physical copy, we can stop thinking of a product made up of ‘1s’ and ‘0s’ costing as much as one which you can hold in your hand!  We might even be willing to pay more for those ‘1s’ and ‘0s’!

Michael Stevenson, University of Manchester Library

The digital textbook as connected content, part 2

In the second of his two-part post, Talis’ Justin Leavesley talks about the contextual issues surrounding connected content and Project Lighthouse.

lighthouse 2

It is far too early to be drawing firm conclusions for what textbooks as connected content might mean. However, we think some of the important areas for connections are:

The course context

The textbook should be connected to the course context. It should know which course or module it is being used on. It should know who the enrolled students are and who is teaching the course. It should allow the cohort of students and the teachers to easily discuss and collaborate with each other around fragments of content online; perhaps highlighting a section of a diagram or section of text that is problematic or particularly important and directly attaching additional guidance or links to more resources relevant to that section.

The textbook should be recording real time engagement analytics  as each student, and the teaching academic, interact with both the content and discussions.

The teaching context

The textbook should allow someone teaching to understand exactly how the cohort as a whole and students individually are actually engaging with the content of the textbook and discussions it is generating. This should be easy to use for immediate teaching intervention or supporting flipped classroom or distance courses. It should also be designed to inform course design and review after teaching has finished by allowing a retrospective of how and when students actually engaged with which parts of a textbook.

The subject context

Textbooks are perhaps the most reused teaching resources across universities or other teaching institutions. The textbook should allow those teaching with it to connect with each other, if they wish, across institutions and potentially connect with the authors. The connected textbook should be able to inform a teacher about how widely used the resource is, if teachers are switching to other resources, or simply if new editions or corrections are available.

The learner context

The textbook should know exactly how it has been used by a student and easily allow the student to save study notes, or discussions to their personal study journal. It should allow students to discuss and collaborate with their study mates or the whole class.

It should be able to inform students about how their engagement with the textbook compares to the overall class or notify them of new teaching guidance added to the text. It should be able to suggest parts of the textbook that the class has been engaging with heavily – that they themselves have not.

The acquisition context

A connected textbook should make actual student engagement information easily available course by course as part of acquisition decision making.

These are just some of the possibilities that thinking of textbooks as connected content make possible. Only time will tell what combination of technology and economic change will shape the future of the textbook and make a transformative difference. But it seems a safe bet that it will involve becoming more connected than ever before.

Justin Leavesley, Talis

There’s no such thing as a free pizza! Our e-book and pizza training event


As part of our ongoing efforts to maximise student usage of our e-textbook pilots, working with Vitalsource, we decided to host a lunchtime e-book and pizza training event for our students.  We hoped to entice the students in – not only to increase their awareness and use of the e-book provided – but also so they might champion the benefits to their peers, the ‘carrot’ being the free pizza (but not as a topping!)

Being billed as a training event to help students maximise the benefits of using their e-books, we decided to initially invite just those who were about to embark on their semester two modules at the beginning of February. This would involve 15 pilots, meaning the invitation could potentially reach over 2,000 students across the University, a concern as the room we had booked could only hold a maximum of 40!  There was a fine line between managing expectations, getting a good spread across disciplines and drawing in enough students to make the event worthwhile.  Eventbrite was used to manage the event and invitations were sent out to the students via their lecturers leading on the pilots.

As it turned out, we had a flurry of bookings from one School and a couple of bookings from two others, not the even spread across Schools or the numbers we had hoped for.

On the day itself, despite the logistical problems of Domino’s being able to deliver 14 large pizzas and drinks to a pedestrianised area of the University campus and having cleared the fact that we were going to be eating hot food within a no-eat zone of the Library, not as many  students turned up as has originally booked. Fortunately a couple of them brought some hungry friends from the same course which bumped up the numbers considerably!

Interestingly, we also ran a couple of focus groups with Semester one students later on the same day, but these were incentivised with £15 Amazon vouchers – the take up was much higher which perhaps says a lot about the value to students of free pizza versus hard cash!

Needless to say the pizzas were demolished pretty quickly and the students settled down to watch a demonstration of how to use all the features available via the Vitalsource Bookshelf platform.   They looked engaged and many questions were asked, especially about the ‘help’ features available.

vital source

Would we do it again? We’d have to think carefully but as one of the students said at the end, he had found the session so useful that he would be sharing what he had learnt via his cohort’s student forum.  This is exactly what we had been hoping for!

Flora Bourne, University of Manchester Library

The digital textbook as connected content

In the first of a two-part post, Talis’ Justin Leavesley talks about the transformative possibilities of connected content and Project Lighthouse.


Digital content is important, but connected content could be transformative for teaching and learning

The transition from physical to digital textbooks is important for many reasons. But alone is it transformative for teaching and learning?

If digital textbooks remain little more than an electronic facsimile of their physical counterparts then maybe, as important as this is, we should not expect an outsized impact on teaching and learning. In addition, there are aspects of studying with digital books that are just not as natural as with physical books. The user interface of a physical textbook is particularly easy to navigate and make personal study notes on for example.

Digital technologies have transformed so many parts of our lives that it seems hard to believe that in some way, at some point, the digital shift of core teaching materials won’t have a transformative effect.

It can be useful to consider how other recent technology transitions, such as mobile technology, have unfolded.

In the first phase of mobile communications, a mobile phone was not much different from a fixed line phone, except it was mobile. They were, in essence, a mobile facsimile of a fixed line phone. It was mostly a passive device, unaware of our personal context or our connections beyond a simple contacts list.

This was the first phase of telephony “going mobile”. This phase ended with the introduction of the smartphone. With the advent of smartphones, the mobile phone became not just mobile telephony, but mobile connectivity. Devices capable of really understanding our personal physical context (like our actual location for maps and navigation) and maintaining our virtual connections, like email or Facebook, wherever we went. Today, making a telephone call is only one of the things that we use mobile phones for. Having a phone that was mobile was definitely an important step forward, and a prerequisite for more, but smartphones are transformative.

We might expect to see a similar pattern for textbooks, and other teaching resources such as the lecture video. A first phase as digital facsimile, followed by a more profound evolution as the unique possibilities of digital are exploited.

If so, then the question becomes: what is beyond the facsimile phase of digital textbooks? What does the textbook as connected content look like or mean? What kinds of connections should they support?

At Talis we have been running a research project, Project Lighthouse, to build a new kind of digital content player designed to turn any kind of existing digital content into connected content.  We have been piloting this “connected content player” with academics and students to explore how connected content might enhance teaching and learning.

Justin Leavesley, Talis

We’ll be hearing more from Justin, on the context of connected content, in the near future.


And now for something completely different… well slightly

Balancing the e-books

Why did we do it?

Our previous e-book pilots have been conducted using the VitalSource platform; plenty of features, an e-book for the student to keep and good analytics for staff – but with cost implications to match.

This year we ran a small number of pilots using Wiley texts, securing institutional access to the titles via Proquest (EBL) rather than VitalSource, in order to investigate an alternative method of providing access at a lower unit cost.


Price; it is much cheaper paying for institutional access based on student numbers rather than paying on the basis of 1-2-1 model, providing a copy of the text for each student. Crucially, you know the price up front, so it’s easier to budget.

Institutional access; meant we were providing access for all our users rather than just to those on a particular unit/module, thereby adding to our collection.

Platform familiarity; the EBL platform may currently be more familiar to our students as it is similar to those of other aggregator platforms (although this could also prove a drawback if previous experiences have been poor!)

Administration; the work involved for the Library during set-up was reduced, with no complex user statistics to unpick, payments to be made on a scheduled basis, less need for training and support.

Alternative model; we needed to test an alternative model (not based on usage and via VitalSource)

VLE integration; can be added to Blackboard as hyperlink, but not fully embedded as with VitalSource


Download and printing restrictions.

Limited collaborative functionality.

Limited usage analytics; this was a definite downside, limiting the comparable data we can use to assess the relative take-up of the Wiley textbooks, and useable information we could provide our academic staff with.

VLE integration; doesn’t fully embed within the VLE.

No access in perpetuity to individual; not providing students with their own copy to keep in perpetuity.

What do we want to find out?

We want to look at what effect the difference in platform has on usage/uptake, and on the user experience.  Do the bells and whistles and the provision of a ‘copy of your own to keep’ actually matter to the students (as we are paying more for this!)?

Will the restrictions on what you can do with the text from a tutor’s perspective(less emphasis on the collaborative element or embedding sections within the VLE) affect their experience, and the impact it has on their teaching?

We are increasingly finding that teaching staff are particularly interested in the more granular usage data provided on how their students are reading , which is a key to the work we are doing with VitalSource on their beta statistics dashboard. So we will need to assess whether the limited usage statistics provided on this alternative platform for our Wiley titles significantly limits the benefits for our teaching staff.

Olivia Walsby, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: DorkyMum via flickr (license)

Different service, same broken model

broken model

Part of the problem with the digitisation of book chapters and journal articles is that there are lots of restrictions on the amount that can be copied digitally. Under the terms of the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) licence, universities can digitise one whole chapter of a book, or 5%, whichever is the greater.  As part of the negotiations for the new licence that will come into effect in 2016 the CLA are considering extending the amount to 10%.  The other alternative is to use the relatively new service that the CLA have set up for universities to purchase a second chapter from a work, when one chapter has already been digitised for a specific module.

The new service began in summer 2015 and is formally entitled the ‘Second Extract Permissions Service’.  Here at The University of Manchester Library we are regularly asked for additional chapters of the same work to be digitised – and up until now compliance with the licence meant we had to refuse.  So far, so good!

The difference is that for each second chapter, there is a charge based on a ‘per page, per student’ pricing model.  The ‘per page’ price is set by the publisher and can vary.

Although a nominal sum had been set aside to allow for a limited amount of second extract digitisation, a desktop exercise was carried out to assess how much the use of this service might actually cost.  Using 80 authentic requests for second chapters, a member of the Library’s taught-course digitisation team used the permissions service website to calculate the actual costs.  The result was quite a surprise – if we had gone ahead, the 80 requests would have cost a cool £91,000.  The most expensive single chapter was over £4000, based on a large student head-count (400), high page price (20p) and high number of pages (50+).  From a work published by Ashgate…  Page prices varied, from 10p per page to 60p per page.

During the negotiations to develop the second extract service, the CLA were pressed to accept a flat-fee approach, which would probably have achieved a greater uptake of the service.  As with e-book suppliers, a 1-1 pricing model was insisted upon.  They could have accepted that not every student on a course would have read the chapter that been digitised – would 50% have been more appropriate?

As a result, we’ll be looking long and hard at the price before we go down the route of digitising second chapters!

Martin Snelling, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: Josh Miller via flickr (license)