Meeting the needs of today’s student

Cutting-edge digital services will play an important role in keeping the traditional university relevant, says John Donovan


There is no doubt that today we live in a digital age, with our lives seemingly governed by the provision of connected, mobile devices. Reports indicate that teenagers check their mobile phones 150 times a day, interacting with each other all day but almost entirely through a screen. To say there is a daily reliance on digital technology would not be an over-statement.

Not only do young people use these devices to communicate with friends, they are also relied upon for consuming media. Netflix, HayU and Amazon Prime offer instant access to the most recent films and TV series and blogging platforms such as Medium and Tumblr mean thought-provoking content can be explored without even needing to get out of bed. However, while young people are used to consuming information in diverse and varied ways, the delivery of learning materials in an educational environment has remained relatively static. 

Students of today have been brought up with online learning, with children as young as seven telling us they prefer learning on tablets. It should come as no surprise then, that as the world of higher education grapples with attracting and retaining students in an increasingly commercial environment, the provision of cutting edge digital services like eTextbooks will play an important role in keeping the traditional university relevant and engaging to a modern cohort.


Every day, university students head to lectures with a staggering amount of computing power in their hands. A survey conducted by Shift Media of 866 students from 131 higher education institutions in the U.K. confirmed that students use their devices to support their learning. 100 percent of respondents surveyed owned a digital device with 89 percent taking them to lectures and 81 percent using them for last minute studying or to verify something in class or before submitting an assignment. A student at Plymouth University who was provided with a digital copy of their textbook explained, ‘‘I mostly use it on my phone when I have a query in my head and I just want it to be then and there, over and done with.’

With a clear appetite for digital learning and an environment where immediacy is the norm; university materials need to be available for students anywhere, at any time and on any device

With a clear appetite for digital learning and an environment where immediacy is the norm; university materials need to be available for students anywhere, at any time and on any device. Portability is a huge benefit of eTextbooks, with students having access to all their learning material, with associated enhanced learning functionality, through their devices without having to lug around the text book equivalent of the Encyclopedia Britannica. As a student from Edinburgh Napier University who is studying computer science in Year 1 commented: “It’s quick and easy to access information and the interactive functions that help me discuss with my teacher or fellow students. It’s like having a classroom you can carry around, which is very helpful.”

However, in an environment where every student penny counts, making the eTextbook available when not connected to mobile data or wifi is crucial to their success. By providing eTextbooks that can be cached on a device, students do not need to worry about data costs when they are off campus.


This kind of anywhere access not only drives student engagements and empowers them to take charge of their learning, but has also been found to reduce stress associated with the pressures of studying. Without needing to remember which textbooks to bring, or queue in the library to get hold of a single copy of a text, it is no surprise that 75 percent of survey respondents said that stress reduction was one of the top two reasons that they enjoyed learning with eTextbooks.

This flexibility also benefits part-time students creatively fitting their reading in between meetings, and medical students on placement, who need an immediate answer. As the cost of student learning continues to increase, it is likely that more and more students will need to fit study around work and will demand the versatility that digital learning can support.   

From an institutional perspective, the analytics insights that are enabled by eTextbooks allow lecturers to see how students are engaging with the content in a way that print books simply cannot.   This empowers them to spot disengagement or problems early and take remedial steps to help students which could positively affect retention as well as the level of support that students perceive they are receiving.   


What is clear though is that for any eTextbook programme to reach its full potential for students, training and communication is vital. Our research has shown that lecturers themselves hold the key to proper utilisation and understanding of eTextbooks; as without the resources being incorporated into teaching they simply go unused by students. By moving beyond clunky powerpoints to quizzes, videos and platforms that encourage social learning, lecturers can motivate their students to more deeply engage with the content they are teaching.  

Despite their many benefits, adoption of eTextbook programmes is still occurring unevenly across the U.K. and implementation of them is not homogenous in its success. For the majority of institutions, major barriers remain, such as decentralised decision making, funding concerns, questions over infrastructure and digital content, and a lack of skill sets needed to manage the digital implementation necessary.  


While institutional challenges exist for all universities, the most progressive higher education partners we work with are listen to students and putting their needs, and the way they learn, at the heart of their future development strategy. Eighty-eight percent of students who have used an eTextbook would recommend them to a friend and increased use raises those figures even higher. Among those who frequently use institutionally provided eTextbooks, 98 percent would recommend them to a friend. That is the kind of response that gives universities confidence that this way of learning is something students are looking for and embracing.  

Acessing content digitally is the norm for students these days and as the higher education shifts to a more commercial, transactional environment, students will vote with their feet on which institutions they perceive to provide the most appropriate learning environment. 

John Donovan is Managing Director for VitalSource EMEA