The evolution of digital learning, ebook and audiobook usage in schools

The pandemic has had a profound impact on schools and student learning. Following the shift to remote or hybrid teaching, digital book usage has skyrocketed

As one of the school sector’s leading providers of digital books, OverDrive Education sought to understand the digital shift and how schools are using ebooks and digital audiobooks in the classroom, libraries and at home. OverDrive Education examined data from its network of 46,000 K-12 school partners worldwide, comparing March 1, 2020–February 28, 2021 to the previous year. This report summarises these findings and also includes case studies from a range of districts.

Data analysis and findings

Significant increase in number of schools using ebooks and audiobooks

As of April 2021, 48,700 schools partner with OverDrive Education for their digital reading services, a 108% surge year-over-year. This means the number of students with access to the company’s Sora student reading app and their individual school’s or district’s digital collection also significantly increased (to 23 million, +93 percent).

Students read more during the pandemic

Also noteworthy is students’ increase in reading, as evidenced by secure aggregated data from Sora app usage. This includes the growth in digital books opened (+228 percent), average hours students spent reading (+25 percent), average hours spent reading per book (+21 percent) and average hours spent per session (+88 percent).

During this pandemic timeframe, digital books borrowed by or assigned to students from their school’s digital collection grew by 139%. Ebook usage (measured as ‘checkouts’) increased by 155%, while audiobook checkouts rose by 66%.

Students use public libraries through school app to expand reading choices

In addition to checkouts from the school’s collection, students checked out 3 million additional ebooks and audiobooks from their local public library through the Sora app (+516%). More than ever, school-library partnerships – known as Public Library CONNECT – enabled students to use their school credentials to borrow ebooks and audiobooks from both their school and local public library through Sora.

Digital book usage in curriculum surges

Prior to the pandemic, leveraging digital books as part of the curriculum was still gaining traction. Now, use of digital books in support of the curriculum has grown exponentially, contributing to overall growth in student reading, as publishers expand digital rights to align with schools’ needs and educators realise the convenience of digital access. The most prominent digital book access model in the past year was the On-Demand Class Set rental, which enables a title to be deployed to many students at a time, with a typical 90-day access period. This access model helped drive a 4,500% increase in digital title assignments for required reading.

Most high-quality curriculum programmes require trade book titles for specific units and grades, such as The Dreamer, by Pam Munoz Ryan for 11th grade. Throughout the pandemic and prior, OverDrive Education teams worked with publishers to identify required curriculum titles and overcome challenges associated with rights, permissions and digital production issues. The result is that Sora can now supply more required trade books in the Class Set model than ever before. For example, as of March 2021, Sora featured 93% of EL Education’s K-8 Second Edition Required Reads that are available in digital format, an increase from 75% in August 2020. Expanded availability of required digital trade books is of interest for any district that uses high-quality instructional materials. Digital Class Sets in Sora can be made available to thousands of students in just a few hours.

Case Studies

Class Set Rentals increase curriculum flexibility at Cypress Bay High School (FL)

For Shawn Maas, library media specialist at Cypress Bay High School, it’s been a challenge to find ways to keep its highly social, inclusive student body – comprising over 4,800 students – connected throughout remote and hybrid learning. But having tools like the Sora app has helped make the physical separation just a little bit easier, as he describes their digital collection as “pre-pandemic ready”.

“Sora provided us the ability to make sure that our students had access to material,” he said.

In order to create as much continuity and normalcy as possible, Maas has used Sora for activities like virtual book clubs and reading and checkout challenges to keep students engaged.

Furthermore, Maas found that Sora has become a key tool for classroom instruction as well, noting an increase in usage of Class Set rentals – which provide for temporary, high-volume reading needs – to supply required reading to students.

“That’s one of the things I absolutely love with Sora. I don’t have to pay US$30 (£21.69) for the book, I can just get that US$5 (£3.61) copy and kids have it for three months, and when they’re done, they can release it,” he said.

In particular, Maas notes that though classics like To Kill A Mockingbird remain popular, using Class Set rentals has also given teachers the flexibility to experiment with new, more diverse curriculum titles.

Digital books address curriculum needs, learning loss at Elmbrook Schools (WI)

At Elmbrook Schools, where Kay Koepsel-Benning is director of library services, having digital books in place prior to the pandemic helped simplify the process of supplying English Language Arts and other required reading to students. Use of ebooks and audiobooks – Class Set rentals, in particular – for classroom reading in the Sora app, book clubs and grade level reads surged during remote and hybrid learning.

This is a trend that Koepsel-Benning expects to continue even as students return to in-person instruction full-time, noting the ease of use and speed of access to materials through Sora.

“I think that will stay in place going forward for some of our curriculum literature,” she said.

Furthermore, Sora has played an important role as Elmbrook diversifies its collection. Recently, the district rolled out a ‘Books for All’ project, providing a core set of books for each classroom and grade level across the district with a diversity, equity and inclusion lens. To augment this collection and support virtual learners, the district also made sure to curate digital book collections in Sora.

One of the ways Elmbrook hopes to leverage Sora is to help address pandemic-related learning gaps and support struggling readers, using tools like high-interest ebooks and audiobooks and reading data tracking (including time spent reading) to keep students engaged and accountable.

Virtual book club boosts recreational reading at Stratford School (CA)

At Stratford School, an independent private school with 1,200 middle school students across eight campuses, educators knew they’d need to find new ways to keep kids interested in reading as they transitioned to remote learning in 2020. Seeking ways to use Sora to facilitate this, Director of Library Services Keira Pride met with her OverDrive Education team for ideas, and learned that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was temporarily available as a simultaneous-use title in the app – meaning that an unlimited number of students could borrow it at once, no waiting.

As a result, Stratford launched a school-wide virtual Harry Potter book club.

“The club was an instant success!” said Pride.

Initially, Stratford planned to host the club just over spring break. That week, educators saw nearly 200 students in grades 4-8 meet each day over Zoom to discuss the books, recap chapters, do crafts and connect with each other as they sheltered at home. The club proved so successful that Stratford brought it back after spring break, having students virtually meet twice a week for one hour to complete activities and participate in discussions and challenges. The club provided a fun way for students to safely socialise with their peers and kept them reading, all at the same time.

The results of Stratford’s efforts to keep students engaged was a spike in overall recreational reading. In the eight weeks after lockdown began, students checked out more than 8,373 books and spent 7,221 hours inside those books.

“Thank you, Sora, for being our partner and inspiring the joy of reading in Stratford students,” added Pride.

Learn more about OverDrive Education and Sora

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