This article is more than 6 years old

Opening textbooks

How are textbooks used by academics and students - and how much do they cost? David Kernohan and Vivien Rolfe introduce the UK Open Textbook project.
This article is more than 6 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Vivien Rolfe is Head of Herbal Research for Pukka Herbs. She writes here in a personal capacity.

Of all of the aspects of the student experience currently under scrutiny, you’d maybe think that academic textbooks were uncontroversial and their efficacy clearly understood. You’d think that the academic benefits of textbooks would be incontestable, and that both students and staff were clear on how textbooks are used to support learning. You’d be wrong.

A North American story

Our interest in this topic was spiked by a spate of stories in the US mainstream press around the cost of textbooks. Unlike the UK system, each course (module) taken by a student generally has a specific textbook which shapes their pedagogic journey and is – effectively – a required purchase.

The Student PIRGs report “Covering the cost” – the source of many of these stories – reported that US students had seen an astonishing 73% increase in textbook costs in the 10 years prior to 2016. This has led to numerous campaigns around the use of open textbooks – teaching materials licensed in a similar way to open access research. Open textbooks are significantly cheaper for students to purchase, with physical books available at a very low cost and digital versions available for free. The terms of the licence offer academic staff and others the opportunity to reuse and repurpose textbook materials in new ways – imagine being able to tweak diagrams you feel could be clearer, add new material based on local case studies, or remove and update irrelevant or outdated material.

Open textbooks have seen substantial growth in North America, with a growing body of research suggesting – at worst – that these books are as good at supporting student learning as commercial alternatives. More students are able to buy and use the books, more students have unimpeded access to their own copy for revision. Charitable foundations such as Hewlett and Saylor have supported the development of a growing number of textbooks, which are used widely. At Tidewater College, for example, courses are promoted as “Zero Degrees”, where all textbooks are provided at zero cost.

In the UK

We’ve not seen the same alarming headlines here in the UK, though concern about student debt is rarely out of the press. In many ways this is down to an absence of data – the Student PIRG report drew on government statistics, which are now avidly discussed each year in the same way as LEO or the NSS are here.

Government statistics do exist, but we have been waiting for the publication of detailed information from the National Student Income and Expenditure Survey for the 2014/15 cohort since the summer. This survey was last conducted in England for the 2011-12 cohort, when it was suggested students spend, on average, £459 on books, computers and equipment in their final year (up from £430 for 2004/5) . A comparable survey for 2014/15 in Wales suggested that this figure had risen to around £519 – this latter separated out books spending as £104 in that final year of study.

Other figures are available, with a five year time series offered by student advocacy site “Save the Student”. It reports that in 2017 a final year student would, in the average month, spend more than £380 on books, compared to a figure of a little over £260 reported via the same survey instrument in 2013. Even given the likelihood that students are reporting yearly rather than monthly spend, this would represent a 69% increase over 5 years, a period that has seen very little inflation.

There’s been some work by Jisc on the issue of institutions publishing their own textbooks as another means of addressing this issue, and some universities (for example Plymouth with Kortext and Middlesex with JS Group) have entered into high-level partnerships with digital publishers to transfer textbook costs from students to institutions. Bibliotech has entered into a national partnership with Jisc.

Students tend to encounter textbooks via academic recommendation on a reading list. There is significant variation in the ways staff and students understand the nature of these recommendations, from what is expected of a textbook to which a student should purchase. Students are often confused by these differences – and are surprised to spend money on textbooks that are never referred to in teaching. And there are, of course, huge differences by subject area. Law, subjects allied to healthcare and social sciences tend to rely far more on textbooks than the arts and humanities.

What is the industry doing?

The Publishers Association provides analysis of each market segment to its members via its Publishing Year Book. In 2016, it reported that:

“The textbook market in UK higher education, which includes a small market for professional textbooks used outside of mainstream HE, was estimated to have been around £180m in 2014 – and has contracted slightly in recent years. […] There is not (yet) the emphasis on digital supporting materials that characterises the US market, though digital textbooks (as ebooks) are an expanding component of the market”

This can be set against huge changes to the way students (and staff) engage with learning materials – for instance the strength of Amazon in supporting backlist publications has led to the slow decline of the academic bookshop, and student expectations of online materials have led academics to expect to share substantial materials linked to modules via their virtual learning environment. Libraries, too, have seen a drop in funding available for textbook purchases, due to other pressures.

The PA comments on digital supporting materials refer to the dominant textbook offer in North  America – rather than just being used as reference reading and for revision, a US academic would increasingly expect to see a textbook include online formative assessment and linked video or animated materials. As yet, this model has not become established in Britain – indeed the close adoption of a textbook by a module was once a common criticism levelled at the “mass” US system by UK academics.

Globally, major textbook publishers are seeing declining profits – Pearson, Cengage, Wiley and other major players have seen significant falls in profitability over recent years. A part of this can be ascribed to changes in the US market, not least the growth of open textbooks as a widely used option. Pearson has attempted to address this slump by doubling down on its “efficacy” programme to provide research evidence for the positive benefits of their products (both textbooks and edtech) on learning. We expect to see these reports in March 2018.

The UK Open Textbook project

The project we are involved in is in partnership with the Open University, the University of the West of England, the Open Textbook Library and open publishers OpenStax – it is funded by the Hewlett foundation to investigate whether there would be a role for open textbooks in the UK. We’ve been leading on preparing background material and a small literature review – there is surprisingly little literature on the role of textbooks in UK higher education. We’ll be publishing what we’ve found – under an open licence – in due course.

Initial research suggests that the rise of textbook costs is a growing issue, and that open textbooks may have a role to play in addressing it. We’re currently running a survey for academic staff on textbook use, and we’d be grateful for five minutes of your time to complete it.

With the Open University team and our US partners, we have been leading workshops in a number of universities around the UK. That part of the research aims to test, and raise, awareness of the issue amongst librarians and academic staff. If you would like to attend a workshop, details will be on the project pages.

David Kernohan and Vivien Rolfe will be presenting more on this work at this year’s SRHE conference on Friday 8th December.

4 responses to “Opening textbooks

  1. This is a really important topic especially for students who are struggling financially. Cutting back on resources can impact significantly on performance. The UK Open Textbook Project is offering some useful insights into ways of addressing this issue.

  2. Thanks for the University of Plymouth name check! Just to clarify that Plymouth are enjoying a very successful partnership with Kortext (and not VitalSource).

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