Students often don’t expect to pay for online educational resources – and this could be a long-term threat to innovation in digital publishing
The students in the group were smart. They were well dressed and educated, all had laptops, several had expensive smartphones, and yet none of them really expected to pay much, if anything at all, for textbooks or academic materials.
I met the students a few weeks ago as part of a focus group looking at digital textbooks. The topic strayed – as it increasingly does – into a debate surrounding the cost of materials.
“I’ve never paid for anything educational online,” explained one student, “even though the journals want me to pay.”
“Abstracts are all you need,” added another, indicating the trend to skim the publicly available abstracts. “I often find I’m on a lot of US library websites, where they’ve already paid for the journal. Then I’ll go on their site and read it.”
Increasingly, I see this belief: online materials should be free, particularly when those materials are educational. A recent study by Bowker Market Research indicated that 48% of UK students using ebooks were likely to acquire them free, accessing them through their library or via filesharing.
Of those students who admitted to illegally downloading books, 22% believe some book content should be free. The message, as the students in the focus group said, is clear: online should be ‘off-cost’.
As someone working in digital education, I’m concerned that ‘e means free’ is a long-term threat to innovation. It could even act against the best interests of students. Consider open access (OA), which owing to the UK government’s recent approval of a report recommending shifting costs to authors and away from readers, is of particular timely relevance.
“The debate is polarised at the moment so that those who advocate open access equate ‘free’ solely with costless,” said Dr Martin Coward, senior lecturer in international politics at Newcastle University. Open Access refers to free at the point of use; this doesn’t mean there aren’t significant costs involved.
One cost might be associated with publishers, who add value through peer-review and authenticating research. Publishers also work with authors to make content more readable, filtering out the best work and putting information in context. All of this is meant to make information more accessible – online or off.
This isn’t to say that things aren’t changing. The world of online is full of opportunities for growth and development. I find this growth fascinating. Digital brings enormous potential to education, improving both the effectiveness and the reach of the learning experience. Look at Macmillan’s New Ventures – this is a programme that draws together education tech start-ups, providing financial assistance and the backing of a large name. Encouraging development, New Ventures has created things such as PrepU, an adaptive assessment tool that helps students practise digitally for exams.