Home 9 Against the Grain 9 v31 #3 Putting Our Students at the Heart of What We Do — eTextbooks at the University of Manchester

v31 #3 Putting Our Students at the Heart of What We Do — eTextbooks at the University of Manchester

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments


by Olivia Walsby  (Reading List Services Manager, University of Manchester)  

and Flora Bourne  (eTextbook Coordinator, University of Manchester)  

The Books Right Here Right Now Project

In common with HE Libraries across the UK sector one of the key challenges facing the University of Manchester Library is the perennial issue of providing our students with access to the books that they need in order to be successful in their studies, and in particular “core textbooks.”  

As a result of paying fees, UK students now have higher expectations of Library provision and equality of access to its resources.  This is a particular issue for large cohorts and distance learning students where traditional print and eBook models cannot satisfy demand. 

In line with the University of Manchester’s 2020 vision for achieving an outstanding teaching and learning experience for our students, the Library took a strategic approach to solving this problem.  Our reading list strategy is the final output of a three year library project, “Books Right Here Right Now,” which involved extensive research and consultation with academic colleagues and students to ensure that library provision of reading list material meets their needs.  The project examined student reading behaviour, and investigated and tested new models for textbook provision via a series of pilots: targeted, demand driven/point of need provision for specific student cohorts (Rayner & Coyle, 2016).

Prior to the project, the Library was frequently unable to purchase core textbooks in electronic format.  Publishers would often not make them available to the Library, or if they did, the pricing models were extortionate.  The work undertaken by the project team made significant progress towards changing the UK library model for electronic core texts and successfully provided individual copies of core eTextbooks to over 11,000 of our students over the three years of pilots.

Our eTextbook Service Today

Since its launch in September 2018, over 8,600 University of Manchester students have benefitted from seamless online access to their core reading via the Library’s new eTextbook Programme.  The Library’s offer provides students on 125 modules with a personal downloadable copy of their core textbooks in eTextbook format, including large first year undergraduate courses and distance learning cohorts.

Delivery of the programme sits within the Library’s Reading list Service which delivers a holistic approach to the provision of all reading list content through the University of Manchester Reading List Strategy.  Our Purchasing Policy for Reading List Items ensures the timely provision of recommended reading in sufficient quantities and in the most accessible and cost-effective format.  This includes the use of Evidence Based and Demand Driven Acquisitions as well as the digitisation of book chapters under the University’s Copyright Licensing Agency licence (CLA, no date).  We aim to ensure that all students benefit from appropriate provision according to specific content type, level of study and cohort size, not just those receiving an eTextbook as part of the programme.

Evidence of Impact

In order to ensure that any future implementation was evidence based, throughout the three years’ of pilots at Manchester we consulted with both students and academic staff to assess the value of delivering eTextbooks via this 1-1 model.  Surveys, focus groups and 1-2-1 interviews together with usage data has provided us with a wealth of evidence which points to the success and positive impact our eTextbook provision has had. 

Improving library provision of core text books in electronic format is, we believe, the only practical solution to satisfying demand from large numbers of students and those off campus.  

Key Benefits — A number of key findings from our student survey clearly demonstrated the role that the provision of eTextbooks had on their learning.  Students responded (82%) to say that they are more likely to complete their assigned reading when provided as an eTextbook, thanks to increased availability, convenience and low cost. 

Data gathered pointed toward the pedagogical impact that eTextbook provision could have and the opportunity to positively affect student attainment levels through an increase in the amount they read and engage with their texts (Broadhurst, 2017).  Teaching staff also reported benefits for their teaching, with provision enabling them to regularly refer to the textbook during lectures/seminars, knowing that all students had ready access. Furthermore, many reported seeing a reduction in student enquires regarding their reading.

Placing the library as the central point of expertise in the negotiation and coordination of the purchase of eTextbooks has enabled us to achieve increased value for money including higher economies of scale for the institution. 

We have begun to explore the potential for the programme to inform early intervention and address issues of retention by contributing to the growing area of learner analytics.  In particular, evidence from a recent national survey which included over 100 responses from University of Manchester students suggests that provision of eTextbooks has a particular benefit for those students who are currently under-represented in higher education.  Of these students, 73% said they would have delayed purchasing or reading content if their university had not provided access with 58% stating that they did not believe they would have completed their required reading without them (Vital Source & Shift Learning, 2018).

From Project to Service

Funding — Additional funding to support the programme and increase its reach was sought from the University as part of the Library’s annual budget review.  It was agreed to more than double the budget for service launch, followed by additional incremental increases over the subsequent five years. 

Programme Remit — The eTextbook programme at the University of Manchester is strategically targeted and explicitly seeks to enhance the University’s digital, distance and mobile learning agenda.  Our other primary focus is on increasing student satisfaction levels through direct support for the University policy on additional costs and through the provision of equality of access to core reading for all students on a particular course unit, supporting work on social inclusion and differential attainment.

The programme has initially been targeted at addressing issues of access for large Under Graduate first year cohorts, a group identified as making the most significant use of core textbooks.  However, we aim to extend our reach to large cohorts across all years of our UG programmes as funding and further economies of scale allow, potentially providing targeted help to support the outcomes of the National Student Survey (NSS).  The NSS provides information for students selecting their prospective Higher Education Institution (OFS, National Student Survey, no date).

Provision for our increasing portfolio of Distance Learning Programmes will ensure students benefit from an equitable experience to those studying on campus.

Scaling Up — Throughout pilot phase we used a number of different platform providers which allowed us to evaluate service in practice, however we felt that using one provider would be more practical to support roll-out of the programme on a larger scale.  Therefore prior to launch in September 2018, guided by our experiences during pilot and the SUPC framework (Southern Universities Purchasing Consortium), we selected a single platform provider with whom to work for the coming year, Kortext

Using Tableau Reader software we were able to run reports on our university course data to identify course unit modules that would fit within the programme’s agreed remit and budget.  This in itself wasn’t straightforward. The University of Manchester has the largest student community in the UK (just under 28,000 undergraduates) and more than 1,000 degree programmes running across 17 diverse schools.  Large cohorts were easy to identify but tended to fall within the same schools, leaving schools with smaller cohorts at a disadvantage by not qualifying for the programme, resulting in a potential unequitable offer.  Nevertheless, this potential dissatisfaction would be resolved via alternative provision through the Library’s reading list purchasing policy. 

Since September 2018, we have doubled the number of modules provided with an eTextbook and the practicalities of where to store and manage this data has become increasingly complex with much time spent evaluating the potential of various commercial systems.  With no solution found to date we are now relying on support from specialist colleagues within the library to help us develop a tailor-made solution.

Extending the programme also impacted the Academic Engagement Librarians.  Previously, during pilot phase, the Librarians were able to provide a bespoke service to our academics due to smaller numbers.  However, by necessity, we have now moved the majority of support to our platform providers and eTextbook Programme Coordinator, resulting in a more hands-off approach for the team.

Advocacy of the programme has been vital for its success, and we have worked closely with the Library’s Marketing and Academic Engagement teams to raise awareness amongst the academic community and the wider University.  The programme’s benefits have been reinforced in School Teaching & Learning Committees and we’ve used University wide communication channels to garner support, buy-in and uptake.

Successes — The Programme’s success since the beginning of this academic year is clearly evidenced through the analytics showing that uptake has been high, with 73% of students registering to read their eTextbooks, 95% of whom have then actively engaged with their copy.  The positive response from students and academics continues to support the theory that eTextbooks have the potential to transform how students access and engage with their core reading.

Students’ usage of the integrated learning tools such as note sharing, highlighting and annotations has demonstrated that they are engaging deeply with their reading in this format, and academic staff are benefitting from an analytics dashboard, helping them to monitor usage and track engagement.  One Senior Lecturer commented that “… students commonly use the search function (key words, events, concepts)…They often have it open on their device or laptop in tutorials. In terms of accessibility and our commitments to widening participation, I think we have benefitted enormously.”

Analytics also show that students are accessing their eTextbooks in 96 different countries across the world, demonstrating the global reach of the eTextbook Programme, particularly for distance learners.  Lecturer feedback echoed this, noting the availability of offline access “proved invaluable and a real asset to the course unit.” 

The programme’s aim to support University policy by reducing the cost burden to our students has been our ultimate success which many of our academic staff support citing that it “sent a key message that ‘we’ (University of Manchester) invest in our students and that we ‘care’ about their success.” 

Challenges — Moving from pilot to service also presented a number of challenges.  The team were working within a tight time scale prior to roll-out in September 2018, putting pressure on requirements gathering, publisher negotiations and delivery via the VLE.  The drawn out nature of publisher negotiations and complexities of access set-up require a long lead in. This continues to be a challenge, with the need for title requirement gathering as early as May for teaching in September, which does not necessarily fit with our academics’ teaching planning timelines.  This has led on occasion to last minute changes of title and a few cases where a title is no longer required due to changes in unit or programme leads.

Liaising with publishers, we have agreed a more centralised approach to promotion of the eTextbooks as we have found, on occasion, that they have operated independently within Schools leading to confusion about the Library’s eTextbook programme offer. 

We are keen to see an increase in Academics’ use of user analytics.  Whilst we see evidence that they are making use of the integrated analytics dashboard, we suspect academics are not benefitting from its full functionality. 

The Future of the Service

The success of the programme to date and response from academic staff demonstrates the desire to see the programme expanded to further year groups to increase impact on final exam results, The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) and National Student Survey (NSS) outcomes.  The TEF is a national exercise in England assessing excellence in teaching at universities and colleges, and how well they ensure excellent outcomes for their students (OFS, Teaching Excellence Framework, no date).  

Importantly, however, there are a number of significant potential challenges emerging within the Higher Education sector, creating an uncertain backdrop to the expansion of the programme.  The imminent outcome of the Augar Review, a major review of post-18 education by the UK Government, may have significant detrimental effects on budgets in Universities such as Manchester (Department for Education, 2019).  In addition, uncertainties remain around the impact of Brexit on economic growth, EU staff and students; it was recently reported in the Financial Times (Jack, 2019) that there has been a 3% drop in the number of EU students starting studies in Russell Group Universities for the 2018/19 academic year. 

Expansion of the programme is planned with incremental budget increases across a five year period, but due to the current financial challenges outlined above we will need to be flexible in our approach to expanding coverage.  The advocacy work that has already been done around the programme should generate interest and uptake and we will need to manage expectations with the context of budget restraints. After our initial targeted approach to title identification, expanding the programme will now be more organic, relying on greater awareness of the offer and asking teaching staff to self-identify titles via our Reading List Service.  Roll out of the wider strategy and implementation of new reading list software will allow us to streamline the requesting process over the next few years.  

Ultimately the benefits are clear and evidential and we will continue to pursue expansion, prioritising those areas which can see the biggest impact and benefits for our students, whilst ensuring a flexible approach and adapting our service to fit the changing institutional and sector landscape.


Broadhurst, D. (2017).  The direct library supply of individual textbooks to students: examining the value proposition, Information and Learning Science, 118(11/12), 629-641, https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-07-2017-0072.  

CLAUK Copyright Licensing Agency, n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2019.  www.cla.co.uk.  

Department for Education (2019, Feb 19).  Prime Minister launches major review of post-18 education, Gov.UK.  https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-launches-major-review-of-post-18-education.

Jack, A. (2019, Jan 4).  EU student enrolment drops at top UK universities, Financial Times Online.  https://www.ft.com/content/32072762-0f6b-11e9-a3aa-118c761d2745.  

OFS. National Student Survey.  Office for Students, n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2019.  https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/student-information-and-data/national-student-survey-nss/.

OFS.  Teaching Excellence Framework.  Office for Students, n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2019.  https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/teaching/what-is-the-tef/.  

Rayner, S. & Coyle, D.  (2016).  Books Right Here Right Now at the University of Manchester Library.  Insights, 29(2), 172–180.  http://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.309.  

Vital Source & Shift Learning (2018) eTextbooks and differential learning: reducing inequalities in UK higher education.  Web. 7 Mar. 2019https://news.vitalsource.com/etextbooks-and-differential-learning?hsCtaTracking=b09e4eda-6266-4c07-b83e-8a0169db3aa2%7C5d4d1422-8dcf-4dee-a9b1-e036713a17a1.  



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Share This