Buy the book

June 1, 2007

Research by publishers and booksellers shows that students, even in the internet age, value textbooks and respond to recommendations from lecturers, writes Margaret Hewinson

In an age of Google, Wikipedia and countless other online resources, do course textbooks authored by academics who are specialists in their field continue to have a place in learning? Are they still valued by students?

A new blog, which has just been launched by Oxford Brookes University, is encouraging debate among academics on this and other related issues in teaching and learning. It should become a thought-provoking forum for ideas about the likely future of learning materials at university.

Those who are interested in it should go to www.publishinghub.net

Meanwhile, the Joint Information Systems Committee has launched an e-textbooks project with special funding to explore how textbooks can be made available electronically in UK university libraries and remain commercially viable. There is an expectation among students that online learning materials should be free. In fact, the careful work of authors and developers in producing materials that appeal to students and make learning easier requires time, financial investment and specialist skills. The majority of the resources required are exactly the same as those required for print materials.

Whether textbooks are electronic or print, some of the issues about student learning remain. In research commissioned by the Open Books Open Minds campaign (an initiative of UK textbook publishers and booksellers), lecturers highlighted a number of areas of concern about the lack of student reading. Their view was that students did not value or use textbooks. This was felt to be in part due to the consumer-like approach to university that demands more free support in the form of handouts and lecture notes.

The research carried out among students, however, painted a different picture. For the survey, 750 students were interviewed to understand their motivations and attitudes to the variety of learning materials available to them. Of those interviewed, 91 per cent said textbooks were important and were able to give specific reasons why. The reasons cited were the fact that they are a vital complement to lectures, they were authoritative and easy to understand, helped them pass exams and achieve good grades. When talking about the internet, students pointed out the dangers of it being unreliable and time-consuming.

What was clear from the research was that to encourage students to read more widely, lecturers need to be explicit about what book students need to read and about why the book fits with the course. Students acknowledge that they depend on guidance from lecturers, but the research indicated that only 40 per cent of lecturers stipulate the particular text or texts that are required. Although the price of textbooks is a concern for students, the majority said they were happy to buy a book when reassured about the fit to the course so they could be confident that the book would be well used in the short and long term.

The Open Books Open Minds campaign has recognised that, alongside the other range of learning materials that students can draw on today, the value and role of textbooks needs to be highlighted. It has set out to have direct contact with students through relevant websites and to make the purchasing of textbooks a fun experience.

At the start of the 2007-08 academic year, Open Books Open Minds will run a special campaign for students. Anyone spending £40 on textbooks will win a free "experience", encouraging students not only to buy textbooks but also to open their minds to new activities. The choice of experiences will range from bungee jumps and dance sessions to a day at a health club. The campaign, which is supported by all textbook publishers, will run in more than 400 bookshops nationwide, including all the bookshops on university campuses.

Open Books Open Minds encourages all lecturers to tell their students about this unique campaign in order that students can take advantage of the offer. For more information about the research and the campaign, visit www.openbooksopenminds.co.uk

Palgrave Macmillan is pleased to support all these initiatives. Our textbook publishing programme aims to create, to the highest standard, learning materials in both print and digital media that help lecturers educate and inspire their students to excel in their chosen fields.

Margaret Hewinson is publishing director, College Division, Palgrave Macmillan.

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