Is there a systemic problem with ebooks?

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James Gray

James Gray assesses the situation and how it can be addressed

For more than three centuries the UK academic publishing industry has successfully worked alongside centres of learning. This symbiotic relationship has been pivotal for our nation’s world-class education reputation. It’s a cultural legacy that we should all be proud of.

Along that journey, there have been many technological developments, but perhaps few as profound as the recent swing towards digital learning content.

Aside from obvious sustainability benefits, the potential for educational improvements through digital content is highly exciting for anyone who values wider access and equality, with better – and fairer – outcomes for students.

For example, with paper books educators cannot track off-campus learning. Now, analytics from our digital learning platform show how students are engaging with their digital learning content  in real time. This allows educators to identify and support struggling students quickly, and improve student retention and academic performance.

Likewise, the ability to access learning materials remotely has levelled the playing field for students with non-traditional lifestyles and mobility and financial challenges. We see this in a recent Kortext study, which showed more than one quarter of students (26 per cent) have caring responsibilities, and nearly a fifth (19 per cent) have mobility issues, and the ‘anywhere, anytime’ nature of ebooks has made it easier for both groups to study. However, industries disrupted by tech often experience growing pains with how to cost up the new future, and publishers and universities are finding themselves at a pricing impasse.

Kortext is a bridge between these two worlds, and so I have been fortunate enough to have met many hundreds of librarians and publishers in my three decades in this field.

The main concern librarians share with me is that buying a set number of eTextbook licenses, restricted to a single person, that expire after a year, is a lot more expensive than buying paper copies that can be re-used on a bookshelf. Similarly, students don’t always understand some of the restrictions on digital content, considering digital, by its very nature, as synonymous with quick and easy access. Students expect seamless online access to their course content that is both fair and affordable – and, ideally, free. 

Meanwhile, the primary issue for academic publishers is they can only continue to exist if they find a way to sell their intellectual property digitally for a price that covers their costs.

I have spoken with both librarians and publishers to help seek a workable solution for all, but it is clear to me that, to deliver a solution that enables university libraries to meet the needs of their students, publisher models need to evolve. 

Library budgets and, indeed, university funding is already stretched, student expectations are changing all the time and barriers to education are even more apparent as universities serve an increasingly diverse student body. There has to be some movement to break down these barriers. 

Consider how much better student and institutional outcomes would be if universities could provide their students with unbridled access to all their learning content in an intuitive, accessible and engaging digital environment. At Kortext, we are deeply committed to helping both sides of this debate find the right outcome, which helps to deliver the fair, accessible and affordable future our students all deserve.  

James Gray is CEO at Kortext