By DAVID MYTON
If you see a young person anywhere in the vast expanses of Western Sydney, perhaps on a bus or train, eyes locked on their digital device of choice, chances are they are not engaged in some social media exchange or playing a game.
Instead, he or she could be a Western Sydney University student hard at work studying – reading an e-textbook, making notes, going about the business of learning.
And maybe feeling pleased that they have some extra cash in pocket because instead of having to fork out hundreds of dollars, the e-textbook they are reading, and others like it, was provided free by the university.
As reported in CMM late last year Western Sydney University announced that starting first semester this year it would be providing e-textbooks free to 10,000 students across 700 courses, worth around $800 to each student.
The e-texts are being sourced from 100 participating publishers via digital partner Proquest. Some 358 titles will be provided electronically, and 30 titles provided in print where they are not available electronically.
The scheme replaces a previous WSU program, begun in 2013, which provided 50,000 commencing students with their own iPad.
With some justification WSU trumpeted the initiative as “ground-breaking”, saying it was “one of the world’s largest provisions of free textbooks for commencing university students”.
Professor Denise Kirkpatrick, DVC Academic, told me the decision to provide the free e-texts was a direct response to student feedback that the cost of books – $100 or much more each – was a huge and often unmanageable hit not only on their finances, but also those of their family. The looming outlay was often a barrier to study.
Students had enjoyed and appreciated the university’s free i-pads scheme. But WSU’s research revealed that most students were increasingly happy to use their own devices.
The same research also showed that many first year students were struggling to meet the cost of textbooks. Sometimes buying books was a “reluctant purchase”.
‘Food versus textbooks’
“If you don’t have a lot of money it can come down to food versus textbooks. Obviously food takes priority,” she said.
“Making the e-texts available was a direct contribution to their welfare and in their decision to come to university.”
Kirkpatrick said the cost of the project was commercial in confidence, but the funds came from “our investment in our students”.
“We always look at what it is we are doing that makes the most difference. Providing the e-texts was the thing we identified as doing that.”
Most of the texts were already available in a proprietary e-book format.
“We looked at the total number of titles and of course the total number of textbooks they require for purchase. What we have tried to do is minimise the number of textbooks they need.”
The designated university working group examined if the use of e-texts was “pedagogically sound” and concluded they would not be an impediment to effective learning.
“Some academics were already using the e-textbooks in their courses so we knew students were accessing them,” she said.
For students with a disability the books are completely accessible to screen readers and other support tools.
The e-text format, accessible on all modern digital devices, allows students to highlight passages and to make notes, and the students can use them wherever they are.
Students will be able to access the texts through the university’s learning management system – vUWS – which also provides details of all subjects, assignments, class information and a range of library resources.
“There is also the opportunity to browse other textbooks from different units if they have an interest, perhaps if they are thinking about doing that subject,” she said.
Kirkpatrick said the scheme would be closely monitored and its use evaluated.
“We will talk to staff and students about what they think. Right now we think it a good idea and to date we have had a good response from students and their parents, who often end up paying for the textbooks themselves.”
The university’s Librarian led negotiations with publishers, who had “been incredibly responsive – it’s a first for many of them”.
WSU is the leader of the pack in providing free e-texts, but other universities may not be far behind.
Kirkpatrick said she wouldn’t be surprised if other institutions followed suit.
“We have had many inquiries from various universities; lots have approached us about how it works,” she said.