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Higher education student pathways to ebook usage and engagement, and understanding

This article explores the results of survey research, which investigated student perceptions, expectations and experiences of using ebooks as a learning resource at two universities in the northeast of England.

Ebooks have become an increasingly important part of UK academic library collections, with both staff and students utilising a hybrid collection of resources to support their working. Academic ebook use has grown sharply as a result of improved provision within libraries ‘from an average of around one per FTE user in 2004-05, to almost 90 in 2013–14 – more than double the average number of physical loans (including renewals) per FTE user’ (SCONUL, 2015). Consequently in the past three years the average number of ebook accesses per FTE user has increased by 77% (SCONUL, 2018), compared to a fall in print book loans of 27%, such that ebooks have become the norm for many users.

The survey research undertaken attempted to answer the following objectives:

  • To consider what student perceptions are regarding ebook availability as a learning resource.
  • To investigate the reasons why students choose ebooks as a learning resource.
  • To explore the ways in which students access ebooks.
  • To establish how students use an ebook as a learning resource, considering the ways in which they find specific information in the ebook, and engage with the content.
  • To understand whether ebook use satisfies student-learning requirements.
  • To understand the information literacy skills that students must adopt when using ebooks as a learning resource.
  • To identify what students expect from using an ebook as a learning resource.

The remainder of this article will briefly consider the literature related to this topic, and the research methods used, before providing discussion of the results, and concluding remarks.

E-book use in UK higher education

Whilst an ebook can be viewed as a ‘digital body of content that is primarily text and has a defined scope’ (Hernon et al., 2007: 3), it is worth noting that in our hybrid world, there still exist many permutations of such a digital item. Such that an ebook may be simply a digitised version of a printed book, or it may be ‘born digital’ (Mulholland and Bates, 2014: 493), possessing enhanced features that bring added value to its use, such as advanced searching or links to other web sources.

Many UK academic libraries have openly embraced ebook acquisition, due to greater numbers of publishers making books available electronically (JISC, 2017). Other influencing factors include a desire to satisfy user expectations driven by increased tuition fees and the National Student Survey; being able to cope with a diversity of study patterns and providing services for a generation of students who are more digitally savvy than their predecessors (Jones and Shao, 2011Pedró, 2006).

Frederick (2015: 12) suggests that ‘ebooks are an important presence in the vast majority of academic libraries’, providing multiple benefits related to availability, portability, space saving aspects, interactivity and the ability to satisfy millennial demand. However, she also hints at their disadvantages, particularly related to collection management, and it is worth noting that JISC (2017) warns that the increased transition to ebooks presents many challenges for academic libraries, and may not be as straight forward as the change to electronic journals. For this reason, the literature review will focus more fully on the disadvantages of ebooks, enabling the researcher to better understand and provide recommendations for encouraging better use of this growing resource.

Benefits of ebooks

‘Ebooks are now part of the academic mainstream’ (Rowlands et al., 2009: 5), providing a solution for staff and students wishing to cope with the challenges of work and study. Convenience is a key benefit of ebooks (Anon, 2010: 11; Enis, 2018), together with accessibility (Mizrachi, 2015: 309), which are the most frequent reasons for students choosing to use ebooks as a learning resource (Jeong, 2012: 391). Walton (2014: 267) also suggests that a student’s ebook use has a positive correlation with convenience, in addition to forced adoption through the non-availability of a printed book. In addition, ebooks are portable (Frederick, 2015Marques, 2012: 15) and available 24/7 (Jeong, 2012: 391). Their content is keyword searchable and there are navigation aspects enhanced within a digital environment (Wu and Chen, 2011: 300), such as links to other digital content, and the ability to copy and paste sections direct from the text. These technological advances further enhance attitudes towards ebook use, with usage growing exponentially (Safley, 2006: 456). From the library’s perspective, ebooks provide 24/7 access to information (Ferguson, 2016), underpin distance and part-time learning modes, can meet high demand reading list access (if simultaneous multi-user access is available) (Riha and LeMay, 2016) and save on space compared to multiple print copies (Frederick, 2015).

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