Focus group reveals reticence about move to digital

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A recent focus group of postgraduate students has given publishers insight into how postgraduate students use digital and print resources, writes Jenny Kedros

In spite of constant media attention around new forms of technology and especially e-books students still appear to be reticent about embracing new technologies in their studies.

Postgraduate students at a recent launch event for The London Viewing Room, a new viewing room facility in Islington, London, spent a 90-minute session discussing university and course choice and experience, and their use of digital and non-digital resources. This focus group, moderated by Jane Powell, MD of education market research company Shift Learning, was viewed through a one-way mirror from the client room by representatives from seven publishing companies. These publishers – Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Sage, Emerald Insight, Cengage Learning, Taylor & Francis and Hodder Education - had provided some questions for the focus group guide in the run up to the event.

The students in the group, who studied a range of subjects at universities in and around London, felt there was a constant push for them to move to digital but they were resisting it. Although respondents were seeing increasingly more iPads and e-readers at university and they expected more use of e-books in the future, they were unanimous in the hope that this wouldn’t come at the expense of face-to-face time and hard-copy texts.

The students in the focus group said that they used a wide range of online sources and databases (mentions included JSTOR, Project MUSE, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Athens, Emerald journals, LexisLibrary, Westlaw UK, ISI Web of Knowledge and Inspiration). They also used search resources including Google Scholar and Wikipedia. However, it was startling (and distinctly disheartening to the publishers watching the group) how little the students bought digital study resources and e-books.

No student in the group had purchased a digital-only book. Two students had purchased a textbook with a code for online access that was recommended by a tutor but students were unsure that they had ever accessed a companion site before. Added to this, when choosing books from a reading list, students admitted they opted for the shortest book, the first book they come across, or (in the case of the medical students) the one with the most images.

In spite of the lack of e-book purchases, the students did identify some benefits. They concurred that the advantages of e-books lay in their being a good alternative to heaving bulky textbooks around. They also admitted to the value of keyword searches and the ability for the author and publisher to update the text more frequently than with print editions, but this did not translate into an impact on their buying behaviour. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, neither would any student consider personal purchases of journal articles which were not available to them through the library.

Medical students had by far the greatest use of apps for their studies, but overall students in our groups used very few apps, apart from iTunesU, YouTube and some podcasts. Two of the students did not have smartphones and were in fact quite proud of this. The English student felt that mobile just wasn’t the right access medium for that subject area.

‘While our clients are increasingly looking to new technologies to deliver resources to students, the focus groups we run at Shift Learning often reveal a certain lack of buy-in from students. At the moment, there don’t seem to be many new products that have really got students excited about the possibility of digital. A market-changing product has still to emerge.’ said Jane Powell, ‘Fit to needs is vital with any new product and focus groups are a great way for publishers to test opinion on a product and discover the views of the real end-users, the students themselves, before investing in expensive new product development.’

She continued: ‘We opened the London Viewing Room because we spotted a gap in the market for publishers looking for a relaxed, professional and understated venue to hold meetings and professional focus groups for their own research projects. We were delighted with the response to the invitation to the event and we had to turn people away as the spaces filled so quickly. Hopefully those who couldn’t get a place will be able to make it to future events we plan on holding over 2012.’

The session concluded with a section based on personification, a commonly-used market research technique particularly effective for company image and branding research. During this section, students imagined Amazon and Apple as types of people they might meet at a party and this resulted in some illuminating conclusions. ‘Amazon is a great brand in this market,’ said Powell, ‘it’s approachable and knowledgeable. The responses to Apple reveal interesting things about the brand in this sector, in that the brand is seen as being elitist and uptight. To these potential customers, Apple is seen as self-regarding and concerned with outward appearances. In this sense, to these students, it’s not cool. With both brands competing now in the student textbook market, it will be interesting to see how these perceptions change.’

When asked to describe the personality of their ideal resource or content provider the students’ language revealed some interesting clues for marketers. Responses included: ‘straightforward, honest, organised, logical, friendly, unintimidating,’ ‘If he were a person he would be someone like Stephen Fry, or possibly Jeremy Paxman, although he might be a bit scary!’ and ‘the ideal textbook provider would be bubbly, colourful and a recognisable face from the subject area, like David Starkey’.

‘This probably illustrates how much textbooks are associated in students’ minds with the author rather than the publisher,’ concluded Jane Powell,’ It’s interesting also that they want textbooks to have this much personality.’

Jenny Kedros is a research executive at Shift Learning, a specialist education consultancy and market research agency