Textbooks are changing – the way we buy them needs to change too

For Kortext's James Gray and Tim O'Shea, changes to the way we use textbooks mean we need to think more about the way we buy them.

James is the founder and CEO of Kortext


Tim O'Shea is an Academic Advisor at Kortext, and is the former Principal of the University of Edinburgh.

The higher education sector stands at a point of inflexion.

A full on campus experience is currently not possible, and fully online models cater for certain niches well but have not yet become popular with mainstream undergraduates. Blended learning, done well offers the best of both. Many universities are re-engineering their approaches for a blended future – the experiences the sector has faced during the pandemic have accelerated this existing trend.

It now seems clear that, whatever the aftermath of the pandemic brings, the convenience and quality of digital textbooks will play a part in the future of learning and teaching. More students experienced this kind of resource in 2020 and 2021 – everything we’ve seen suggests that they liked what they saw.

The new breed of textbooks are dynamic, and interactive, and are able to respond to the needs of different learners and situations. They can also feedback detailed usage data to academics and librarians – so we know when individual students are struggling or when a particular part of the resource isn’t working in a given context.

Making it happen

If you’re coming at this problem cold you might think that e-textbooks should be cheaper than their printed counterparts. After all, there are huge savings in printing, inventory, and logistics costs, and the cost of producing an additional copy is almost zero. This has not been the case. Partially this can be explained by the development costs of multimedia, and interactive features – but it does still come as a surprise to many.

The trouble is – some of these books and resources become very expensive when every student needs their own copy . Historically, academic course leadership teams have not needed to give the cost of resources too much consideration. What they need is generally what they get, with libraries and student budgets adapting to compensate for this. When this approach applies to a resource that requires a copy for every registered student, we have a problem.

Of course, we do offer free, open, textbooks on Kortext. These don’t have all the bells and whistles of other offerings, and neither do they cover all subject areas, but they are a great product and are used effectively by many providers. In the US and Canada open textbooks are a huge deal, and it surprises us that the UK hasn’t been as quick to adopt these.

The best book for the situation

We’re involved with Kortext because we think textbooks are a great way to support learning. We think they should be easy and consistent for students to access, and easy for academics to link to from course pages on VLEs. And we think that it should be easy to understand how materials are being used by students – to inform library purchasing decisions and course design. And we think that rather than having to make sense of many differing publisher platforms, a full range should be available in a simple and easy to use collection.

Sometimes, a course or a module might choose an expensive book as the best option for their students – which leaves libraries with a problem. Covering the costs if this pattern is repeated puts a lot of pressure on the library budget. And we think that this needs to change.

It is no longer enough to expect the library budget to cover the financial implications of these choices. Just as changes to scholarly publications have moved some spending from libraries (for ongoing journal subscriptions) to academic departments or research funders (for article processing charges) we think that the cost of these premium textbooks may end up coming from the budget of the originating departments or a central teaching and learning budget.

Neither can we continue to expect students to cover the costs. Students are already running up debt for tuition and accommodation, and have become more savvy about what they should expect in return for this outlay. Increasingly, the materials needed to complete a course are expected as a part of the course – not at a further cost. Many providers already offer this, and we expect more will follow.

Paying for it

That’s not to take anything away from the library staff who work with course teams to select and recommend materials. The work they do is a hugely important part of how the sector delivers learning – as the experts in learning materials they should continue to play this essential role.

But textbooks are no longer just text and images. They are assessment tools, electronic teaching aids, multimedia, and simulations. Used well, they can hugely benefit student learning. For us, they can be seen as fundamental to the teaching of some courses and modules – perhaps it is time for other parts of the university to take a responsibility for these costs.

This article is published in association with Kortext. Join us to debate the future of learning resources at a Wonkhe @ Home event on 28 April.

15 responses to “Textbooks are changing – the way we buy them needs to change too

  1. I find the last sentence rather galling. Publishers business model relies on cheap academic labour, where the creative intellectual costs are largely borne by the university/tax payer, so that publishers can profit.
    I agree it seems odd that we should force students to pay for textbooks on top of their course fees.
    The obvious solution is for universities and academics to move as much possible to open access resources, and where these don’t exist, universities should support the creation of them. I hope articles like this and the price gouging seen by publishers in the pandemic will help accelerate this trend.

  2. I don’t understand what you mean by “inflexion” (neither does Google, which seems to think you mean “inflection”). Am I being picky, or is this a prime example of “academic-speak”?

  3. I write as an academic who has published 3 text books, each with different publishers, and firstly in support of UK academic. Publishers (and on-line sellers) of text books profit on the good will / career needs of academics, and so are indirectly subsidised by student fees and UK taxes.
    The closest two of my books have got to being available as ebooks is as Kindle downloads, which our library cannot share. Consequently, during this latest lockdown, pages of the books have had to be manually scanned by our library staff and emailed to students without a physical copy.
    What I want for my next project is an affordable interactive platform where I can share content – including “traditional” writing, images and diagrams, but also interviews with practitioners, and interactive diagrams that a reader can work with and get feedback from, and functions such as quizzes and Q&A forums, as well as collecting usage stats to inform how the platform develops. Any thoughts very welcome.

  4. Is this a paid advertisement? I am not suggesting that interactive digital textbooks cannot be of value to some students, but this feels very much like a way of funneling more public money through the sector into the profits of private enterprises

  5. Not sure what the last sentence means – a university is made up of several parts, and (at least) one of them has to pay for resources out of students’ fees. Spreading the pain around the HEI doesn’t save costs, and with UK UG fees not having risen for nearly a decade, there has been large real terms cost inflation which has impacted resource decisions widely.

    1. Actually, undergraduate fees were raised to £9000 pa in 2012 and again to £9250 in 2017. “The inflation-linked rise represents a 2.8% increase and if that continued would mean fees rising above £10,000 in the next few years.” (BBC) So student fees have been affected by inflation equally.

      1. Since 2012, UK UG fees have only gone up by £250, so 2.8% in 9 years. Cost inflation is significantly more than this over the same period. Cost inflation has hugely eroded tuition fee income.

  6. “new breed of textbooks are dynamic, and interactive… They can also feedback detailed usage data to academics and librarians – so we know when individual students are struggling or when a particular part of the resource isn’t working in a given context.” So high prices are charged for single user access that in reality is not disability friendly, but Kortext also sell the data they harvest back to publishers to negotiate deals. seems pretty immoral. Also Students DO NOT like them. Let’s stop pretending they do.

    1. Excellent point re the data. Lots of ethical complexities to be considered there.

      I’d love to see one of these lesser-spotted whizzy magical ebooks, because as others have pointed out, ebooks are currently mainly pdf scans of the original
      They want money from us for something that doesn’t exist

  7. I am not buying the claim of development costs of multimedia, and interactive features. I remember attending UCL Ebook conferences from nearly a decade ago where publishers promised greater interactivity and multimedia which hasn’t happened for the majority of ebooks never mind textbooks. The multimedia aspect is overplayed, with the majority of academic ebook titles in standard PDF/HTML/EPub versions of the print book. Students just want access to the content recommended to them by academics and that is the textual content. As UK Academic notes above, more use of open access resources and support in developing open access resources would help significantly here.

  8. Re ‘‘You might think that e-textbooks should be cheaper than their printed counterparts”. It is hard to see the marginal cost of an ebook being higher than that for a physical book, particularly when it is just a straight pdf copy. And demand for the information contained within has not increased, it is just that Covid has shifted the current preference for the delivery mechanism for that information from physical to digital. Astronomical ebook pricing to libraries does look very like an exercise in market power.

  9. Have a think about how academic teachers use textbooks. Very few build their whole module closely around one book. They plan and design the teaching they want to do and the learning they want their students to do, and pick and choose from a variety of sources. The Open University licensed their materials very cheaply for whole-class use, and despite being some of the best constructed material around, hardly any university took out those licenses. Adding the bells and whistles of interactivity is more advanced than the dreary set of ten questions at the end of each chapter, but even those activities are cherry-picked by module designers. Text-books, even lively ones, are a dead-end. What we need is well-designed learning, preferably with the students involved in its creation.

  10. I remain perplexed by the claims that e-textbooks contain all of these new, interactive, multimedia features which force the costs up. I am the team leader of our academic liaison librarians so I get an overview of what is going on across the subject areas, not just in the ones I support myself. I have never seen any kind of e-book which is more than a downloadable PDF (with perhaps a basic note-making feature in the “read online” version which doesn’t add anything to anywhere near justify the costs!). Can you provide us with specific examples of what these features are and how they will help our students?

    Additionally, as others have pointed out, you HAVE to consider accessibility. A fancy interactive thing is of no use at all to students who use assistive technology such as screenreaders to do their reading, or to students with limited data and download capability (we are currently dealing with an issue with an e-book from one of the very well-known publishers who have made claims that they provide extra value in their e-books – certain parts of the book cannot be read in an individual chapter PDF and can only be found in a 264MB download file).

    “we think textbooks are a great way to support learning. We think they should be easy and consistent for students to access, and easy for academics to link to from course pages on VLEs.” And we librarians agree! But bundling titles into packages and charging yearly licensing fees by student numbers is just not going to achieve this. It will create a divide between universities who can afford this and those which can’t (you suggest that “perhaps it is time for other parts of the university to take a responsibility for these costs” – I’m not sure where you think [the majority of] universities are holding big reserves of funds?). It creates confusion and irritation for staff and students who see the title available on Amazon Kindle for a reasonable price and can’t understand why the university can’t supply it. This model is not sustainable and university libraries are already looking elsewhere, towards Open Access for example. I am yet to see any convincing argument as to why university libraries cannot be supplied with e-books in the same way as they are with print books; at a reasonable price, in a clear and easy purchasing model, made available in the simplest way possible to students (which is something which OA options are giving us).

    I very much appreciate the opportunity to share the librarian perspective on Wonkhe yesterday: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/theres-a-big-problem-with-the-market-for-academic-e-books/

    But I (and a lot of other HE staff) am concerned about the amount of advertising by Kortext that I am seeing on here lately – also about the fact that they appear to be sponsoring the forthcoming “micro-commission on the future of learning resources” event – I and other librarians knew nothing about this and I really hope that there will be some library representation. I urge anyone who is interested to hear more of the perspective of librarians and academics to take a look at the #ebooksos hashtag on Twitter. We are the ones on the e-book frontline and we have to be heard.

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