Online learning is flawed without e-books for everyone

The pandemic has exposed the limits that commercial models impose on libraries’ ability to facilitate access, says Gauthier Van Malderen

March 20, 2021
A padlocked book
Source: iStock

The negative effects of the pandemic on the student experience have frequently been remarked upon. However, discussion has generally centred around the loss of social opportunities and practical classes as campuses have been shuttered. Much less discussed has been students’ lack of access to what is arguably the most emblematic student experience of all: walking into the library.

Students themselves, though, have felt the loss keenly. In one newspaper survey, published in February, just one in four UK school and university students felt supported by their institution, with many citing difficulties in accessing the resources they need to complete their studies.

Caught unprepared, many universities and libraries scrambled to ensure that digital resources could be made available. However, they were thwarted by the commercial model that publishers have relied on for decades. Only a handful of firms were prepared for a digital approach to learning.

Because of copyright laws, university libraries cannot simply buy an e-book in the way an individual can. They are required to buy a version licensed specifically for university use. And rather than exploring other access models, some publishers have angered librarians by increasing the prices they must pay for e-books, with the result that some now cost universities upwards of £500 more than the print version of the same book.

The access issue is made even more difficult by the fact that only 10 per cent of academic materials are available in electronic format at all – and it is illegal for institutions to scan whole books they own in print.

Academics know this but many have turned to pirating material anyway. We spoke to a number of lecturers last autumn and more than four in five admitted to sharing PDFs and photocopied content with their students to help them complete their studies – because more than half believed that their students’ grades were being negatively impacted by the lack of material available to them.

A third-year English literature student at the University of Warwick told us that the pre-exam period last year was “a really stressful time, the make or break of my degree grade. With only so much being available to access online, I found myself endlessly searching the internet for content to support my essays.” As a result of such challenges, some students have resorted to downloading illegal content themselves.

Publishers have been deeply impacted by the rise in piracy. Pearson, for instance, saw a 3.5 per cent drop in profits in 2019, (a further decrease from 2018). Access to legal content is therefore crucial, not only to support students, but to recognise the important work of the publishers and authors.

Not every university has faced these access challenges, but the many that have cast into a different light the sector’s general tendency to pat itself on the back over its ability to suddenly transition to fully remote learning.

As campuses begin to open up again, we may or may not be at the beginning of the end of the pandemic. However, many observers are predicting that online learning is here to stay. Universities need to focus on opening up legal, affordable access to whatever content their students need, wherever in the world they find themselves.

The Department for Education also needs to help universities and publishers adopt alternative licensing arrangements that get beyond the current, anachronistic logjam. For instance, another flaw of the current model is that it forces students to buy a whole book when they only need two pages. This just perpetuates the issues of piracy and secondary sales and makes no sense in a digital era.

Moving away from the traditional ownership system offers publishers other advantages, too. Digital approaches will allow them to better track and understand how their books are being used. This will help them with their future commissioning and also help inform a fairer pricing structure and better curated content for the future.

In short, a thorough rethink of library procurement will be good for everyone. Publishers want to produce books that will be read and talked about. Universities don’t want to waste their finite budgets on titles that get ignored. And students want access to the materials that will allow them to get the most from their higher education.

If access to lecturers can be revolutionised overnight, it must be possible to do something similar for books.

Gauthier Van Malderen is CEO and co-founder of Perlego.

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