Tag Archives: purchasing

US perceptions of the e-text landscape: part 2


My exploration into digital textbooks began at the University of Central Florida in 2012, when the Vice President of the Center for Distributed Learning called for members of the Instructional Design team to summarize the trends, identify key players, understand what options were available, and grasp how instructors and students could potentially benefit from their use. The timing of this call was not surprising, as textbook affordability was a growing concern among universities in the United States. In 2012, college students were spending an average of $1100 per year on books; three years later the cost has increased to $1200.

As lead of the eTextbook sub-team, I realized that we had little understanding of the digital landscape on our own campus. This forced us to begin a grass-roots movement whose efforts can be categorized as: forming relationships with stakeholders on campus; building a baseline in order to track trends; and sharing what we’re learning with the university community.

Identifying stakeholders on campus

We met with the most obvious first: the textbook managers at the campus bookstore, where only 1% of book sales were in digital form. We received a demonstration of the digital platform and are now doing informal testing. This led to the creation of a Digital Course Materials page, to share the university’s materials ordering policy, information about the digital platform, and textbook alternatives. We’ve joined their Bookstore Innovation Group which represents students, faculty, and administrators, with the goal of sharing insights and ideas. We also formed an eTextbook special interest group in order to share best practices, foster research opportunities, and support classroom integration. Several products have come out of this group, including a Flipboard magazine, a blog about eTextbook research, and an article about the creation and processes of the group. One of the highlights was support for a faculty member who incorporated Flipboard into his course, allowing students to create a digital magazine. The research results were reported in the Flipboard blog, presented at an international conference in 2015, with an article to be published in Tech Trends in the near future.

Collecting data about student use on campus

In 2012 we deployed a university-wide survey to faculty and students. We found that 42% of students reported using an eTextbook at least once in their college studies, but were mixed about the learning effectiveness, engagement and sense of community. One of our recommendations is to establish a faculty focus group, recruited from the faculty members who participated in the survey. The idea is to address and clarify issues emerging from the survey in order to drive future research, and investigate how faculty are currently using eTextbooks in the classroom. We conducted a follow-up survey in 2014 to see how the trends had evolved and are currently preparing to run the survey again in 2016. This helps us understand and share trends.

Disseminating the information to faculty

A page about eTextbook ordering was created to explain the various options for procuring eTextbooks. We created an open online course for UCF instructors. Called eTextbook Essentials, it covers topics such as the overview of eTextbooks, device usage and formats, common barriers to integration, and examples to help people learn to integrate eTextbooks into their courses. It also details university-specific policies, resources, and access.

Our current and future work includes partnering with librarians who are interested in offering resources beyond textbooks, and a document analysis of the contracts for the public system in Florida universities, to see how digital materials are referenced.

Aimee deNoyelles, Instructional Designer, University of Central Florida

photo credit Day 83 via Flickr (license)

E-books: a perspective from a PhD student

I have been a student for the last 15 years (gasp!) and I have also had to work and study at the same time to make ends meet financially. I can appreciate how frustrating and socially exclusive it can be when there are books that you really need but you just can’t afford to buy them. Although the books I needed for my PhD were not part of any core reading lists, when I heard about the Books Right Here Right Now project it made me think about how much easier the research process might have been if I had been able to access the texts I needed electronically.

During my studies I submitted a paper to the UK Kant Society conference, based around a chapter of my thesis. Submitting the paper required me to read a new book that cost £65 to buy. This is a fairly standard price for philosophy texts (though during the course of my thesis I referred to over 200 titles, many of which cost a lot more!). As this book was new and focused on a niche area, the Library did not have a copy and it was not available as an e-book at the time. I did manage to order it as an interlibrary loan, making notes and photocopying relevant pages, but this was a slow and time-consuming process and the book had to be returned within a few weeks.


My conference paper and thesis included some criticisms of the book’s findings but it was while preparing my conference paper that I realised that the author of the text was going to be attending. Due to the limited access I’d had to the full book, I suddenly felt very nervous about the content of my paper. Although the paper was well received – and I spoke to the author and we had an interesting discussion about our differing interpretations – the whole experience would have been much less stressful if I’d been able to refer back to the original text in full as and when I needed it.  

The Library offers a ‘Books on Demand’ service to postgraduates, enabling them to order books that are essential for their research either in print or online. The availability of e-books to all members of the academic community, through this and the work of Books Right Here Right Now, will make a real difference to the quality of academic study and research.

Dr Nicola Grayson, University of Manchester Library

US perceptions of the e-text landscape


In American higher education, the textbook remains a foundational source of academic material, but their rising cost has been a hot topic in recent years. Prices have increased 82 percent from 2002 to 2012, now costing students an average of $1200 per year. The amount that students spend on course materials has recently declined, but only because the inflated expense drives students to sometimes avoid purchasing textbooks altogether. Recent governmental steps have been taken to increase the affordability of materials, such as the House of Representatives call for a program to utilize digital textbooks.

Over half of American college students have used an eTextbook in their studies, but only around 3% of textbook sales in the United States are digital. Institutional adoption of eTextbooks is low in the United States, as only 5% are broadly deploying them. Adoption in the United States is typically limited to pilots or individual faculty.

Why do these underwhelming trends exist? First, research on the user experience reveals mixed findings. Students appreciate the cost and portability but often experience issues with usability, device choice, and distractibility. In addition, reading digitally demands a different set of skills than printed texts, such as negotiating the text in a non-linear fashion and skillfully annotating. Instructors are not usually trained to support students in this way, and may assume that students already have these skills. On a technical level, there is no universal access eTextbooks and they come in all varieties: PDF and interactive; free and with cost; tablets and computers; available at the college bookstore and online. This fragmented landscape is often confusing for instructors when selecting resources. For these reasons and others, the preference for print remains in the United States.

Some exceptions are emerging to illuminate the digital landscape in the United States. Indiana University has an eTexts initiative program that partners with many publishers with the objective of driving down material costs, giving faculty access to high quality materials, developing new tools for teaching and learning, and shaping the terms of eTexts models. Boise State University offers an eTextbook Authoring Bootcamp, encouraging instructors to create their own digital books and share them freely with students. At our university, newly formed degree programs such as Integrated Business are interested in forgoing textbooks altogether and instead focusing on dynamic collections of online materials. To accomplish this, instructional designers and librarians are collaborating with instructors to create these repositories of various multimedia resources. The University of Maryland University College plans to eliminate textbooks and instead opt for open educational resources.

Several measures need to be addressed in order for this landscape to broaden in the United States. First, universities often enter legal agreements with external bookstores (such as Barnes and Noble). These contracts are often ironclad, with the bookstore being regarded as the “exclusive seller of digital materials.” These materials are often marked up 30%, higher than new or used print books. It is important that universities have the freedom to pursue and offer any educational materials that will benefit their teachers and learners. In addition, the role of the instructor is crucial. Instructors need training in supporting students to read digitally, and they need to learn how to model best practices as well. Support staff like librarians and instructional designers are helpful in this endeavor. Finally, research on the effectiveness of digital texts must be conducted and shared in order to gain support from university and instructors.

Aimee deNoyelles, Instructional Designer, University of Central Florida

photo credit: textbook-cycle via photopin (license)

E-books and academic libraries: an American perspective


A student approached the Reference Desk last week asking about an e-book that she had found via our library’s catalog.  “Can I download it?” she asked, and gestured to her flash drive.  She wanted to download the e-book as a PDF so that she could read it later from home or on the subway, much the same way she does other documents, such as journal articles from the Library’s databases and course readings from Blackboard. Because this particular e-book was available via ebrary, however, this was not an option.

The Brooklyn College Library, like many other academic libraries across the United States, employs multiple e-book models.  But like most libraries at public institutions of higher education faced with increasing student enrollment and shrinking budgets, the majority of our e-books come from large subscription packages (ebrary, EBSCO) because they provide the biggest bang for the buck.  The content itself is unstable, however (think of the Netflix model in which movies appear and disappear), and digital rights management (or digital restrictions management, as it is also known) imposed by the vendors limit the options for how students access and download these e-books.

E-book collections created by publishers such as Springer and Palgrave are an improvement in that they allow students to easily download the entire book as a PDF, but we still have to purchase large collections with the understanding that only a few of these titles might be used by our students.

Patron driven acquisition (PDA) allows our students to choose which e-book titles they want, but access is limited to one student at a time.

Individual purchasing of e-books ensures that we only buy what we think our students will need, but the process is expensive, onerous, and again access is – in most cases – limited to one user at a time.

Given that academic libraries are rightly at the forefront of the movement to provide low-cost or free course materials to our students, how can we promote the use of our e-book collections when entire books might disappear at any given moment, the options to access and download the e-book are restricted, and certain e-books can only be used by one student at a time?

It is thus with great interest that we look to new e-book pilots such as those being conducted at the University of Manchester Library.  I believe the best way forward is for libraries to leverage their purchasing power and work directly with vendors and publishers.  Given the large sums of money academic libraries spend each year on e-book content, shouldn’t we – on behalf of our students – have a say in how that content is delivered?

Helen Georgas, Assistant Professor, Library, Brooklyn College

photo credit: Manhattan view 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.


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)

Libraries and e-book provision: the purchasing paradigm

As is probably the case with most academic libraries, the University of Manchester Library acquires e-books in three main ways:

  1. Buying individual e-book titles through intermediaries
  2. Purchasing bundled e-book packages from publishers
  3. Patron driven acquisition, in which our library users place direct orders for the e-books they need

We are finding that none of these models are entirely satisfactory for a variety of reasons.


Buying individual titles through intermediaries may sometimes be our only option but the process tends to be cumbersome and the pricing models are confusingly opaque. Even more frustrating is that publishers occasionally withdraw titles from their e-book portfolio so our users are again left without access to the books they need.

Purchasing large ‘bundles’ of e-books from publishers for a set fee or an annual subscription tends to mean that we are paying for a high quantity of titles that our students don’t want or need and which will rarely – if ever – be used. Of course, some of these titles will be of value to our researchers but too often we are paying for content in the manner of contestants on Baggage Battles, relying on luck and intuition when placing bids for unseen material.

Patron driven acquisition (PDA) is an approach many libraries are now using and the attraction is obvious – rather than trying to guess what our readers will want to access, we give them direct control by allowing them to choose and order items themselves and get instant access to the text. This works well when the books they require are available electronically, but having used PDA for a while we know that this is often not the case.

As librarians, we need to take on board what our users are telling us about core text provision. As customers, we need to be much better at challenging the status quo in the e-book market and be much more explicit about what we are willing to pay for.

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