Cheaper by the virtual dozen as students net a real deal

Lecturer's agreement with publisher gives first-years core psychology texts for free. Matthew Reisz writes

February 16, 2012

"Lectures are for enthusing and directing students more than just transmitting information," said Phil Gee, associate professor in psychology at Plymouth University.

"In the past, some of my students couldn't afford to buy textbooks and some didn't bother - although I often felt that the ones who didn't buy them needed them most. I want to give a lecture knowing that all the students have the textbooks."

It is this that led Dr Gee to set up an innovative deal with publishing firm Cengage Learning, which means that all first-year undergraduates studying psychology at Plymouth receive free digital copies of 12 core texts for the whole of their university careers.

The students' digital texts are automatically updated whenever a new edition of the book is published. All can be downloaded to laptops, iPads and iPhones, and the saving to students amounts to over £500.

For academics, such a system has a number of advantages.

"It forced me to read the textbook myself," explained Dr Gee, "and flag up where I disagree, point out which sections won't be tested in the exam, and elaborate on points that are obscure. That also teaches the students that textbooks are not gospel truth."

One of his colleagues hopes that the provision of digital texts will free students from the need to take notes of the raw facts during lectures and allow them to focus instead on their own responses and interpretations.

Moreover, it is expected that the university's library will have resources freed up for purchasing more specialist second- and third-year texts.

Students surveyed reported that their friends at other universities were jealous. They were delighted by the money saved, and some said that they planned to spend it on material relating to topics they hoped to study in more detail in subsequent years.

One student appreciated the chance to "read during the commute to university and even while I'm queuing to pay for my groceries", and another expressed satisfaction at being spared "the effort of searching the internet to find [a textbook] at a decent price, only to find you've ordered the wrong edition."

Having all the books to hand also meant a greater choice of possible essay topics.

There remained certain issues of compatibility and students who would have preferred hard-copy texts or e-books on a Kindle, but the existing royalty arrangements made this impractical.

An open-book exam, which had been introduced to encourage students to buy a statistics text, meant that they still had a strong incentive to purchase copies of that book.

Nonetheless, it was generally agreed that the playing field had been levelled for all students, regardless of their finances, levels of motivation and learning ability.

In the past, noted Dr Gee, academics could "only make suggestions to students, which they might or might not take up".

Now they could steer their learning by emailing them two or three days before a lecture, telling them what it would be useful for them to read in advance.

It might also be possible to forge a more proactive relationship with academic publishers, he said.

At the beginning of this academic year, because the deal with Cengage had not yet been finalised, it had not been possible to refer to the bundle of free textbooks in Plymouth's marketing strategy, although Dr Gee had advised incoming psychology students that they probably would not need to buy books.

Now, said deputy vice-chancellor Bill Rammell, the university is "actively exploring how we might extend this initiative to as many of our students as possible".

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