e-textbooks and the future of learning, teaching and assessment

Libby Homer
Gavin Phillips

The challenges of accessing e-textbooks are well known with cost continuing to be at the top of the list.

A student read an e-textbook on their laptop.

Pricing models are expensive, outdated and inaccessible for many institutions, thereby failing to provide equitable access to the student populations across higher education.

Licensing restrictions and rights management issues also remain pinch points for many higher education institutes (HEIs) and users, and the lack of variety in e-textbooks is not supporting the more diverse curriculum for which many institutions strive.

Open access is becoming a reality for some, but it is still a pipe dream for many institutions that are having to balance numerous calls on workloads and resources. Open access, despite numerous attempts, just never gets to the top of the priority list.

With choice thwarted by these challenges, changing teaching, learning and assessment has been hindered. An academic colleague cannot recommend certain textbooks because they aren’t accessible electronically or have a price tag that is inaccessible.

We can choose a simple way of doing things at the moment, a path of least resistance, but what then is distinctive about our courses?

We can choose a simple way of doing things at the moment, a path of least resistance, but what then is distinctive about our courses? What makes an assessment inclusive and enabling all to succeed?

A game changer or the long game

Artificial intelligence could radically change this game: it could personalise the learning journey, harvesting all content (IP permitting) while delivering a service that students expect and deserve. As we tailor communications to individuals, content should also be considered - a pick and mix where you take the best, most relevant pieces and offer them in a way that provides distinctive features and individuality.

What AI picks up to deliver to students and staff presents a challenge, as does the aggregation of this material, but allowing users choice and an escape from the traditional concept and confines of the textbook could help us address the challenges that more traditional models present currently.

Indeed, offering a more personalised content journey could improve our understanding of student engagement. Richer and deeper analytics, finding out about those worm holes our students investigate, enrich the student experience and allow more sophisticated support mechanisms, which we have long aspired to but have had difficulty in achieving.

The question therefore is whether we should put our efforts into making the models cheaper, more permissive and more equitable. Or should we be thinking about technology that would revolutionise teaching, learning and assessment, which may take time to deliver but ultimately seems a more realistic notion than a never-ending negotiation cycle? It may be the “long game”, but it certainly seems an appealing prospect.

Setting out priorities for licensed solutions

In a statement published on behalf of the Learning Content Expert Group and Content Negotiation Strategy Group, a number of priorities were set out for licensed solutions that will address the strategic challenges and opportunities faced by institutions both now and in the future.

Solutions offering simulated and experiential learning, employability and skills, and personalised learning

This includes, for example, solutions offering simulated and experiential learning, employability and skills, and personalised learning. While this approach is endorsed by the groups, it means that Jisc will not seek to negotiate e-textbook agreements although there remains a commitment to collaborate with sector partners, including SUPC and APUC.

In recent years, sector partners such as SUPC, APUC, SCONUL, RLUK and Jisc have convened action in response to publishers’ activities that have brought significant challenges to HEIs with little or no consultation and no time to prepare for the disruption to teachers and students.

In December 2021, a joint letter was presented to Pearson, asking them to take urgent action to reverse price increases of e-textbooks titles. In October 2022, a joint statement was made in response to Wiley’s decision to remove 1,350 e-book titles from ProQuest’s Academic Complete Platform. In response, Wiley has since moved to keep the current collection of titles available in ProQuest Academic Complete until at least December 2026. Jisc has also supported the sector in exploring and piloting new models, such as institutions developing their own e-textbooks.

SUPC and APUC, together with partners that form UKUPC, continue to offer e-textbook and e-book frameworks that have been developed to improve value for money, provide compliant routes to purchasing e-textbooks and e-books in addition to print options, ongoing supplier management and flexibility for purchasing at a local level.

Transparency and accountability

Looking forward, Jisc, in collaboration with SUPC, looks to establish additional mechanisms that could be put in place via the existing frameworks and their future iterations to ensure libraries are consulted and not subject to overnight price or functionality changes. The aim is to ensure that there is more transparency and accountability by suppliers and that the requirements of the sector are considered through existing contractual arrangements.

Jisc is encouraging suppliers, vendors and organisations to support this work across learning, teaching & assessment. The Learning Content Expert Group and Jisc look forward to working with universities and colleges to support the digital transformation of learning, teaching and assessment across eBooks and all learning content.

About the authors

Libby Homer
Director of student and library services, Anglia Ruskin University
Gavin Phillips
Category manager, Academic Services, SUPC