'It's funny where life takes you…'

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Alice Duijser, managing director EMEA & APAC at VitalSource, talks digital-first, data analytics and the future of scholarly communications

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications…

My background is in academic publishing, where I started as a field-based sales representative in the Netherlands 19 years ago and continued to develop in commercial roles in the higher education market throughout my career. Always intrigued and curious about digital learning environments and the wide-ranging benefits and opportunities these deliver, I was thrilled to join VitalSource in early 2019. 

It is especially during these initial years speaking with lecturers about the ever-changing student, and how they continually look to teach, engage, motivate and support student success that inspires me daily to work in this sector supporting universities and publishers in delivering immersive, engaging digital content.

Can you explain your digital-first approach to content?

Our digital-first approach to delivering learning content reflects the changing preferences and needs of today’s cohort of students. They want materials they can access anytime, anywhere. They want to be able to easily search their core textbooks for snippets of information. They want to interact with their lecturers online, as they have become accustomed to doing with their peers in daily life. With digital learning materials, it is possible for academic libraries to more closely align with the preferences of the modern student. 

That said, we understand the complexity that lies in technological innovation within the library environment. It can be a challenge for librarians to convince lecturers and faculties to move away from tried-and-tested methods of delivering their course materials, especially as digital learning materials can be viewed as little more than ‘paper under glass’. This is why we work closely with both universities and publishers to find solutions that will help their organisation to provide the best learning experience for students. 

The landscape for content provision is varied. There are a number of business models in the higher education sector such as the one-to-one licence model where a student has their own copy of a title for perpetual use, usually with online and offline access. There are a number of institutions providing content to their students using this model, either at the course or department level but whole institution provision is still limited to a handful of institutions in the UK.

What we have noticed become popular in markets such as the US, is a subscription-based model where publishers allow universities or students to access a number of books in a method of delivery that is similar to the likes of Netflix. Subscription-based models such as these exist within libraries, but not necessarily for higher education materials, which still tend to be made available to students via an annual library licence. Students on a particular course or module receive their licence to relative materials and then a copy is also made available for general access in the library, to meet the library mandate of access for all.  

It is interesting to consider how the future of academic publishing may be shaped by changing methods of delivery and the evolution of the virtual learning environment. 

How does this fit in with your plans for VitalSource?

At VitalSource, we have a clear aim which is shared by all education providers. This is to help students achieve the best possible learning outcomes from their higher education studies. Not only is succeeding to the highest ability clearly crucial for those participating in higher education, but also for universities which are under more pressure to perform highly against the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) rankings. 

We believe that digital learning materials can help students from all backgrounds to achieve at university, as they facilitate easier distance learning and are inherently more accessible than classic textbooks. We recently commissioned research with 979 students from 184 universities, which examined their experiences with eTextbooks.  Two thirds of students agreed that eTextbooks gave them a greater sense of confidence in their studies, and 83 per cent said they allowed for more effective independent study. However, some of the starkest results came from students with disabilities, all of whom agreed eTextbooks saved them time and hassle. 

Universities have always been focused on the efficacy of their course materials and the impact they have on learning gain, and at VitalSource we believe that digital learning materials can play a key role in helping them to measure and optimise this. Particularly for the widening cohort of students with additional responsibilities or needs. By taking a digital-first approach, universities and publishers alike can ensure their materials are accessible for all and utilised in the best possible way. 

What do think will be the biggest developments in scholarly communications over the coming years?

I believe that data analytics will only continue to gain momentum and have more impact on academic publishing. At VitalSource we strive to help universities to get the most out of the resources they provide to their students. In the past, this has been a challenging metric to measure, given the time and resources needed to assess the levels of engagement with core texts from students. 

However, with data analytics and machine learning technology, it is possible for universities to get a much clearer picture of how their students are using learning materials. This has multiple benefits. 

Clearly universities do not want to invest in materials for students that aren’t going to be effective and useful. However, even with the best materials possible, some students will simply fail to engage with them, or worse, simply have a lack of understanding about a certain topic and fail to speak up before it is too late. Rather than waiting until end of year exams to find out that a seemingly engaged student has missed some crucial information, or that many students are struggling with the same concept, lecturers can also be given the power to catch those falling behind before they slip through the net. 

VitalSource recently acquired a cognitive and data-science based platform Acrobatiq, which we believe has the potential to lower costs of learning materials and improve student achievement. It creates the options to deliver rich digital courses that adapt to the individual needs of each learner. We hope that the combination of excellent course content with advanced data-science tools will provide the future of the education system with adaptive courseware at scale – which in our minds really is the holy grail. 

Any interesting facts, pastimes or hobbies that you want to tell us about?

I always thought I’d be an architect! It's funny where life takes you.