Monday, September 21, 2009

Further Education's Digital Tectonic Plates

We were recently in Iceland which among other things is living proof that tectonic plates can collide, or pull apart and from it can come benefit. In Iceland’s case it is free energy. The tectonic plates between free and paid for Further Educational content is equally fraught and offer much for all, but some would suggest that we can’t wait for nature to take its course on this occasion.

The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) has reported the findings of its ‘e-books for Further Education (FE)’ research to make 3000 e-books freely available to every college and sixth form in the UK. In the next 5 years, the project aims to enable all students in FE in the UK to access online course texts to support their studies.

The research studied UK student usage of 36 online textbooks at 127 universities during the period November 2007 to December 2008. In that time, 46,000 visits were made and more than 761,000 pages were viewed. More than 50,000 university staff and students were surveyed. The e-books on offer via the project were chosen by ballot system by colleges across the country, with more than 80,000 votes cast. It also compared print sales of the same textbooks during the period which fell during the print-sales-only period 18.7% and fell 13.7% during the subsequent free-access period.

The study recommends that publishers develop better e-text platforms, which could include removing digital rights management, making content available to plagiarism detection software vendors, and having e-books include and conform to ISBN standards. It claims that many students viewed the texts online, and did not download them even though downloading was an option. Most of the textbooks were scanned for content, not read completely, and the incidence of cutting and pasting information was high. This is very interesting as it would support the view that online is important and that online is used for reference and mashing of text. It would indicate that merely replicating the physical book as an ebook may be not what is required. This clearly presents many publishers with not a DRM issue but a rights issue as it suggests that it isn’t the content that needs protecting but the rights cleared to facilitate mash-ups which is a subtlety but different perspective.

JISC wish the new ebook titles to be available to students at anytime, anywhere which again raises some interesting issues. Colleges will also be able to build a digital library of e-books tailored to meet the needs of all its students and buy additional e-books at specially discounted prices to add to their collection. What is not clear to us is whether all the books will be made free under the same terms or will the additional ones be restricted?

It is hoped that the results will give publishers the confidence to release more e-books. We see both pluses and minuses here as there should be the realism that students with little discretion always buy what is required for their courses. However we note that they still want print and this would suggest that the Flat World Creative Commons approach would make sense. This suggests that there is an opportunity for superior product development and integration.

Details of how to subscribe to the online catalogue

Details of the e-books for FE project can be found at JISC


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