Library Ebook Affordable Content Programs
by Victoria Raish, Chris Holobar, and Kathy Highbaugh (all from Penn State University) (bios)
Open educational resources (OERs) are part of the broader disruptive innovation of open source, which also includes sharing software and evolving copyright laws. Multiple innovations have propelled the movement forward, such as the creation of Creative Commons licenses, Open Access Week, the creation of high-quality open textbooks by OpenStax, and learning materials repositories such as Merlot. In addition, current initiatives like Unizin, the Open Textbook Network, and Open Courseware will undoubtedly impact the field in complex and unexpected ways. It is critical to think of Open Ed as a disruptive innovation, because that means it is a process. Processes happen in a system and do not occur instantaneously. Disruptive innovations are successful when they focus on serving an underserved population and on attacking existing models from multiple angles (Yu & Hang, 2010).
Currently there are strong movements attempting to disrupt the traditional publishing model and course material process, and aiming to place alternative systems in the power and reach of academia, students, faculty, and their strategic partners. Some schools now use OERs throughout their institutions or in multiple programs, including the University of Maryland system, the State University of New York system, and Tidewater Community College. In addition, several states have beneficial legislation that supports increasing student affordability (Steen, 2017).
The traditional criteria of OERs are that they are free and actively encompass the 5 Rs: retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute (eCampusNews, 2014). At Penn State University (PSU), this definition has been adapted to include:
any type of educational materials that are available to the university community with little or no cost. It may also be the case with PSU-OER that the nature of these open materials means that students, faculty, and staff can legally and freely copy, use, adapt, and re-share them within the university community (OER PSU, 2016).
The key feature of this definition distinguishing it from the broader definition of OERs is that, while there may be an institutional cost, it includes educational materials available at little or no cost to students. This means that library-licensed material that provides access to university members is a central part of the PSU-OER model. This expanded definition offers a solution to one common criticism of OERs: that there are not enough materials broadly available for higher-level coursework. We see library-licensed ebooks as being complementary to other OERs and increasing affordability for students.
In this chapter we describe our process of developing a library-licensed ebook program that places ebooks directly into the learning management system (LMS) for students.
In this chapter we describe our process of developing a library-licensed ebook program that places ebooks directly into the learning management system (LMS) for students. We cover our reasons for starting this initiative and our methods for assessing its impact and success, and discuss the technical underpinnings and broader theory that underlie our investment in it. If the OER community agrees that the broader focus of OERs is to provide affordable access to course materials, then a program that actively pursues multiuser ebooks and adds them to the library’s collection is a nice addition. Library-licensed ebooks are not a panacea, but they can be used to fill a niche in affordable content and should be considered with critical intention.
Rationale for the Program
Surveys suggest that seven out of ten students may take a class without purchasing the required textbook (Redden, 2011). This lack of access to materials considered necessary for a course raises concerns about student success. While there are certainly examples of students not buying books because they prefer not to, the far more likely explanation is rising cost. At Penn State, students can expect to spend $1,800 dollars a year on course materials (PSU Cost of Attendance). This cost is often not covered by financial aid; even when it is, resources are not always available early enough to provide access on the first day of class. In addition to the pedagogical benefit of having access to the fully intentioned design of a course, anything we can do to increase affordability and build affinity to the university is strategically sound from both a library and a university perspective.
Penn State’s focus on increasing the quality of the student experience includes a commitment to treating online students as equal to residential students. Residential students have the opportunity to check course out textbooks from the library in order to access materials without cost. Access to ebooks helps online students have equivalent access to needed materials, and follows the guidelines for equivalent access in the Standards for Distance Learning Library Services of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL).
In December, 2016, a team of librarians, staff, and instructional designers were asked to develop an equivalent course reserves model for online students. Team members of this Active Course Reserves (ebook licensing) Program included the following:
- The online learning librarian, who led the group and translated jargon between group members.
- An instructional designer and an IT trainer, who helped communicate the ebook program to faculty and other instructional designers and conducted training on how to add ebooks to courses in Canvas, our LMS.
- A quality assurance team member, who has a direct relationship with the traditional textbook vendor, MBS Direct, and is able to change the course catalog.
- The budget analyst and the acquisitions supervisor, who procure necessary licenses and works with I-Tech to automate the process.
- The manager of lending and reserve services, whose team adds the ebooks directly to Canvas using the Library Resources tab and ebook folder.
With Penn State’s online learning librarian leading the group, the ACRL standards for distance learners served as a base for the program. These standards emphasize equivalent library access for online students (ACRL, 2016). It is important to note that this does not mean identical access; naturally, it would be impossible to have identical access, as online users have unique needs and considerations.
In particular, the ACRL standards stress that it is the responsibility of the distance learning librarian to “prepare or revise collection development and acquisitions policies to reflect the profile of needs, ensure the provision of both electronic and hard copy resource needs, and develop methods for delivering library materials and services to the distance learning community” (ACRL DLS, 2016). Our ebook program is increasing our collections and serving the needs of our distance patrons. Our team sought a way to offer ebooks to students within the existing systems of library processes and procedures. The role of acquisitions and course reserves becomes crucial here, as it allows the program to be automated and complements it with the course reserves model existing for on-campus students.
Course Reserves Model
Rapid and some might say out-of-control inflation in the price of textbooks over the past 25 years, along with increased concerns about college affordability, have generated renewed interest in physical course reserves—a familiar and still popular library service for many resident courses. At Penn State there is increasing demand for course reserves, which is against the grain of nationwide trends.
Reserve textbook collections continue to play an important role, alongside licensed digital content and OERs, in providing cost-effective access to academic materials for our students. Penn State’s definition of OERs includes content available to the Penn State community with a total course cost of under $50 dollars. Although our libraries have provided electronic reserves service since the mid-1990s, widespread ebook adoption has lagged behind requests for e-journal articles, scanned book chapters, and even streaming audio and video. Initial barriers to wider adoption of ebooks include the relatively limited number of academic titles available for license, a direct-to-student and non-institutional model for many standard e-textbooks, licenses that restrict the number of simultaneous users, and confusing delivery platforms (Slater, 2010). As the number of ebook titles has increased, so have the number of more course-friendly multi-user licenses and user familiarity with delivery platforms (Celik, 2015), resulting in increased ebook adoption for course reserve supplementary readings. (General textbook publishers are still slow to make digital offerings available for institutional licensing.)
With renewed interest in course reserves helping us address college affordability, and with the increased availability of ebooks, the time seemed ripe to explore a more systematic way of promoting ebook use in the curriculum.
With renewed interest in course reserves helping us address college affordability, and with the increased availability of ebooks, the time seemed ripe to explore a more systematic way of promoting ebook use in the curriculum. Penn State’s online learning campus, World Campus, had relied heavily on digital course content and had a more limited course catalog than the resident programs. It was an obvious choice to partner with the library on a program to seamlessly integrate (from the instructor and student points of view) ebooks into Canvas, using Springshare E-Reserves.
To optimize the chances for a successful program, we focused on several issues: defining the ebook licenses we could use, defining our audience, analyzing an automated acquisitions strategy, determining the best place to host the content, and exploring program sustainability in terms of resources, labor, and cost.
Ebooks and Licenses
As mentioned in the introduction, this program is not focused on OERs under the standard definition. It is, however, an affordable educational resource program under Penn State’s modified definition. All university employees and students are able to access ebooks provided by the libraries. These ebooks are library-licensed materials that can be discovered within our catalog. User access (unlimited, multiple users, or single users) to each ebook depends on the platform hosting the book and the licensing agreement of the publisher.
From the perspectives of both collections strategy and equivalent access, the ebooks licensed for this program must have a multiuser lending model in the form of unlimited, nonlinear, or aggregate. We want to provide access to all students in a course, and a limited user model does not permit that option, defeating the purpose of an equivalent course reserves model. We are not licensing standard textbooks used in large-enrollment courses because they typically do not have favorable institutional licenses for sharing. Rather, most of our work uses licenses offered by academic publishers and other library-friendly publishers. If someone teaching a residential course learns about the program and wants to use a licensed ebook, we manually complete that process—a limitation that has more to do with scale and a different workflow for residential courses than with increasing our collections and the money spent on the program.
During the Fall 2016 semester, 40.9% of our World Campus students were residents of Pennsylvania, and 59.1% were non-residents. The vast majority of students were older than 24, and approximately 18% were in the military. These demographics are a compelling reason to find ways to provide content to our students in electronic format: nearly 60% of our students are not able to take advantage of the vast course reserves collections and library resources available at Penn State University Park and our Commonwealth campuses. Even those who live in Pennsylvania are not necessarily close enough or do not have the resources to visit a campus. The ebook program allows us to offer alternative textbook options to our online adult learners.
Sustainability and Strategy
Library Sustainability and Strategy
At the start of any new program, it is vital to develop a plan for each of three scenarios: 1) the program is not successful and needs to be retooled, 2) it is as successful as expected and the plan is working well, and 3) it experiences unprecedented success. We built in necessary constraints and guidance for increasing the program at a rate that was feasible in terms of both financial costs (the actual expense of licensing the ebooks) and manual labor (primarily that of the course reserves staff, as they are responsible for adding ebooks to Canvas and answering any technical access questions).
Our pilot project began in the summer of 2017 with 18 courses. Based on a review of the full World Campus catalog, the Libraries proactively purchased 151 titles , at a total cost of $21,200, prior to the end of the 2016 fiscal year. Since many of these titles are reused every semester, subsequent new purchases decreased to just 38 additional titles for the fall of 2017, for an additional cost of $5,043. Licensing fees thus far for the project total $26,343.
The potential cost savings for students thus far has ranged between $383,000 and $417,000 each semester, calculated based on the mean course enrollment times the average book cost times the number of books offered. This return on investment has been extremely justifiable in terms of library resources spent. The current labor cost is manageable, but the workflow needs to be addressed as we explore residential courses. The busy time for the course reserves team is in the weeks just before a new semester.
Long-term sustainability and the possible expansion of this service beyond Penn State World Campus are not without challenges at our large, multi-campus university. Our current ebook program provides titles to approximately 160 course sections in World Campus, which typically offers 1,400 sections each semester, so approximately 11–12% of sections are using titles that are available as licensed ebooks. Resident course sections across all Penn State campuses with active sites in Canvas, however, number more than 14,000. If a similar percentage holds, the number of course sections for which we could potentially purchase titles could increase to almost 1,600. With approximately 1.2 ebooks available per section and an average cost of $139 per title, total investment could exceed $220,000. All of which is speculative, of course, as wide expansion of this service to so many course sections will no doubt reveal wide discrepancies between different subjects in ebook title availability and cost, which would significantly impact this estimate. Even if costs exceed this estimate, however, potential dollar savings to students could number in the millions of dollars, making this a worthwhile investment overall.
World Campus Sustainability and Strategy
Prior to the start of a new semester, instructional designers are responsible for reviewing the semester ebook report to determine which courses/titles are available via this program. Design staff then contact the faculty to make them aware of the ebook partnership between the Penn State Libraries and World Campus, noting this is part of the provost’s access and affordability initiatives. Potential savings for students are also provided to faculty. The program requires minimal work by faculty, resulting in it being well received. Sustainability efforts center on informing learning design shops, updating course information in the required materials system, and maintaining records over time to track material changes. World Campus staff place the ebook information in the course catalog, and we notify academic advisers of all ebooks so they can share the information with their students. Program sustainability revolves primarily around communication and alerting the appropriate units.
After the summer 2017 pilot, in which we worked with a handful of receptive instructors, we finalized a workflow process:
- Approximately twelve weeks prior to the first day of class for the upcoming semester, World Campus provides the library with a list of all required books for the upcoming semester catalog.
- Library acquisitions staff compare that list both to our current ebook holdings and to other ebooks not currently owned but available for purchase. Only ebooks with multi-user licenses are considered, and current holdings with more limited licenses are upgraded if possible.
- After verifying holdings, acquisitions staff make the final list of ebooks available to:
- World Campus staff, who add this information to the student course catalog
- course reserves staff, who create the ebook records, associate them with course numbers and instructors in Springshare, and add metadata to allow seamless learning tools interoperability (LTI) integration with Canvas course sections.
- The ebook is published in the course catalog eight weeks before courses start. Ebooks are added to the Canvas space immediately prior to the start of the semester.
For more specific details on the workflow, see Appendix A.
It is essential to make sure that students enrolled in these courses are aware of the program, and know ahead of time that they do not need to buy these course materials. This communication happens in four ways: the ebooks are listed in the World Campus course catalog and on the World Campus ebooks webpage, their availability is communicated to advisers who then inform their students, and faculty have the option to send students a message letting them know an ebook is available (see Appendix B).
With preliminary survey results showing that students were not going to the World Campus catalog to find their course materials, we also began obtaining a list of all instructors and emailing them about this program a week before the start of each semester.
Pros and Cons
The benefits of this program include: filling the niche for more affordable course content for higher-level courses not currently being served by OER choices, bringing the library into our local OER conversation and making it a visible player in affordable content initiatives, providing students first-day access to the ebooks, embedding materials directly in the LMS so students do not have to go to the library website to access course material, creating potential student savings of around $400,000 per semester, reaching the standards of ACRL Distance Learning Standards, and creating a great return on investment.
These benefits solve several existing problems. Because of constraints of time, resources, and staffing, it is not feasible to have all faculty create OERs for their courses. Using ebooks to provide access to materials faculty have already selected is therefore a way to work within their existing course material selection process. In addition, by working directly with the course list and adding these materials to the LMS, we bring the library to the fore for people who choose course materials, allowing faculty who might not have a strong relationship with the library to turn to their library resources in the LMS and gain access to the provided ebooks.
Access on the first day of class is an important focus of the OER community. Through the work of acquisitions, World Campus, and course reserves staff, we provide first-day-of-class access to available course ebooks. Placing the ebooks directly into our LMS is also crucial, as it increases ebook adoption and lessens the frustration of having to go to multiple resources and websites in order to successfully complete coursework—a frustration felt especially by online students.
The potential cost savings for students will only increase as more ebooks are placed online and faculty become cognizant of student affordability.
The potential cost savings for students will only increase as more ebooks are placed online and faculty become cognizant of student affordability. While we are unable to provide exact numbers on usage statistics because these books are also readily available in the library catalog, we can assume a potential cost savings.
This program also allows us to provide equivalent services and a specialized program for World Campus students. We believe its benefits will cross over to residential and blended programs as well, as most students can be considered remote users at one time or another.
One unexpected benefit of this program has been its effectiveness as a marketing tool. The online learning environment is very competitive and students can enroll in different schools with, essentially, a click of the mouse. Promoting student affordability to potential students is an appealing strategy to show that we are student-centered and consider the affordability of our programs.
The program has a few downsides to consider as well, the largest being that we are not able to fulfill all demand through this program, primarily due to publishing license limitations. Another is that while this ebook program fits within Penn State’s definition of affordable content, it is not truly OER in the spirit of Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix, and Redistribute, and might not fit with your institution’s definition. Additionally, depending on the needs of your institution and your budget, it might not be possible to acquire new ebooks; existing records, however, should be checked for ebooks already in the collection and being used in courses.
The different features, access requirements, and accounts required by the databases and interfaces hosting our ebooks require a learning curve to students who might have to use one or more databases to access their materials. The program can be cost-prohibitive for some institutions, although the initial investment is low compared to the final return. And finally, we are not able to look at actual ebook use in the LMS, as our data are not reported at that level of granularity.
Implementation of any new program is unlikely to solve every existing issue. This is especially true for an emerging concept such as OERs, which lacks the depth of content to fill the need of every course. For Penn State, the benefit of the ebook program has greatly outweighed the downsides, and the program has significantly increased use of the library collections. Even if the complete program is not replicable at other institutions, pieces can be borrowed and tweaked to fit local needs.
Assessment of Program
We assessed the program through a few different channels. First, to gauge the perception and voice of those with access to the ebooks, we emailed a survey to instructors and placed a student survey directly within the ebooks folder in Canvas. Through email we also provided instructors with a message they could forward to students to encourage them to take the survey and provide feedback. Briefly, these surveys demonstrated that the top two reasons instructors choose to participate in the program are student affordability and the minimum work required on their part. Students reported being very happy with the program overall, but noted a need for increased communication and awareness. One suggestion for those interested in a similar program is to seek user feedback at all stages of the process to make sure it is meeting the needs of constituents.
This program has been operationalized with minimal issues or roadblocks, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and the investment is more than justified in alignment with Penn State’s strategic plan.
This program has been operationalized with minimal issues or roadblocks, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and the investment is more than justified in alignment with Penn State’s strategic plan.
Due to our establishment of team and shared goals at the beginning of the process, our challenges were minimal. We made several early decisions that helped us avoid potential roadblocks:
- Test, test, test: Several different parts of this process needed to work well in order to implement it effectively. These included obtaining a complete and accurate list of required course materials from World Campus, running this list through the library acquisitions database, deleting duplicates, and communicating the finalized list to the course reserves staff. We tested these elements in the spring of 2017, prior to launching the small pilot program.
- Start small: We started with a small pilot that involved only two instructional design units on campus, and ensured that the process worked before communicating about it further. To make sure that we worked with willing and eager participants, we also used an opt-in model for faculty during the pilot.
- Collaborate: A crucial part of our success was effective collaboration among the assembled team members. To make this project successful, we had experts in each of the necessary departments. We met monthly and communicated via email and cloud storage whenever necessary, and conducted training with external stakeholders when appropriate.
- Request needed information: A key element for each member of our group was knowing what information they needed to ensure success with their part of the process. If inputs and outputs did not match or other concerns arose, we were able to immediately identify problems.
- Communicate: Ebook program information needed to be communicated to instructional designers, faculty, advisers, students, and librarians. This was accomplished by the appropriate central team member conveying an agreed-upon message to their colleagues. For example, the online learning librarian communicated information to other librarians, and the IT trainer conducted a training for other instructional designers.
- Seek feedback: We sought feedback through formal assessments but also through informal conversations with peer institutions and administration. Though students are the primary recipients, we want the program to serve the needs of everyone it is benefitting. Actively seeking internal and external feedback allows us to see if we are meeting the needs of our students, and to gauge initiatives and programs at other institutions so we can stay current with trends in affordable content.
Recommendations and Conclusion
Penn State’s ebook program, working through a partnership with World Campus, has successfully placed ebooks in approximately 150 courses each semester. This program complements other OER initiatives and places ebooks directly into the LMS. The average potential cost savings per semester ranges from $383,000 to $417,000. This program has been successful in no small part due to the support of administration, connection to the Penn State strategic plan, and the involvement of the right people on the team. Although fully launching the program does require an investment in new ebooks, a library could match a list of required course materials against its current digital collections.
A commitment to student affordability is the ethically correct decision for better serving our students.
If you are interested in starting a similar program at your own institution, there are a few things to consider. The most important is your motivation for implementing a program. Are you interested in serving students with equivalent access? Expanding your definition of OERs? Answer those questions and develop a shared purpose so that your group stays focused on its goals. Second, form a strong and strategic group. Consider starting it with people in management or leadership positions, and have them recommend the most appropriate team members based on your goals; then be sure to engage in regular communication. Third, identify external institutions that have done something similar. Consider setting a meeting with another school to learn more about their process and help inform your future workflows. Fourth, assess and plan for three scenarios: the unsuccessful program, the expected success, and the unexpected success. Develop contingencies and ways forward. Finally, iterate on the project for future semesters, develop timelines, and communicate.
A commitment to student affordability is the ethically correct decision for better serving our students. The cost of textbooks should not be the reason that students choose different courses or, even worse, different majors. At Penn State we have been able to complement traditional OERs with a library-licensed ebook model, and we look forward to scaling this process up to provide access for more students in the future.
Penn State Cost of Attendance Calculator. (2018). Penn State tuition and costs. Retrieved from https://admissions.psu.edu/costs-aid/tuition/
Redden, M. (2011, August 23). 7 in 10 students have skipped buying textbook because of its cost, survey finds. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/7-in-10-Students-Have-Skipped/128785
Steen, K. (2017, July 11). 2017 State legislature: Open education. SPARC. Retrieved from https://sparcopen.org/news/2017/2017-oer-state-legislation-roundup/
PSU News. (2017, October 11). Libraries’ textbook and educational resources fund a 2018 class gift. Retrieved from http://news.psu.edu/story/487699/2017/10/11/academics/libraries-textbook-and-educational-resources-fund-2018-class-gift
Slater, R. (2010) Why aren’t ebooks gaining more ground in academic libraries? ebook use and perceptions: A review of published literature and esearch. Journal of Web Librarianship, 4(4), 305-331. DOI: 10.1080/19322909.2010.525419
Celik, O. & Peck, R.M. (2015) The future of textbooks and course reserves in academic libraries: An evolving role and emerging opportunity. Proceedings for the Charleston Library Conference. Available at https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/charleston/2015/collectiondevelopment/37/
- 12 weeks out – World Campus QA Team uploads a list of courses and their materials to the “WC Adopted Materials Per Semester” Box Folder https://psu.app.box.com/folder/27786771487.
- LD QA Team sends email to acquisitions lead letting them know the list has been uploaded.
- If needed, the online learning librarian updates the title of the list with the proper semester and time period.
- The acquisitions lead uses this list and matches it with Gobi to determine which ebooks we license and which we can license.
- 8 weeks out – The acquisition lead uploads the list of WC adopted materials with ebooks to the WC ebooks Per Semester Box folder.
- Acquisition lead emails LD QA Team letting them know the list has been uploaded.
- 8 weeks out – the Learning Design QA Team sends the design shops an email with a link (you must use this shareable link https://psu.box.com/s/9c60znpeu62qcqvxkneb9kddr6ihewpp) to the WC ebooks Per Semester folder which contains the list of which courses will have an available ebook.
- The World Campus team refers to the list in the WC ebooks Per Semester folder and starts updating the course catalog with the information that an ebook is available to students.
- The design shops enter the language onto all of the necessary resources to let students know in those classes they will have an ebook and how to access it. This includes language for instructors who may want to post an announcement about this program.
- The academic advisers are informed by the online learning librarian of what courses will have free-to-students ebooks.
- Lending and Reserves manager emails the LD QA Team on the day he is getting the list of sections from LP. Quality assurance professional will forward that message to the Design Staff, and if sections are added after that date, the Design Staff should contact lending and reserves manager to let them know.
- 3 weeks out – The acquisitions lead provides the list of ebook courses to Course Reserves and to I-Tech. Course Reserves begins adding these ebooks to all WC sections of the course. If there is a merged section, Design Staff for that course lets course reserves know at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can manually add that for the merged course. I-Tech updates the student savings website that lives in WC with the new semester ebook information. Both of these groups need the list 3 weeks out.
- 3 weeks out – Academic advisers are reminded to discuss this program with students who have classes that qualify.
- The survey for the ebook program is also linked to from the E-Reserves tab. Email instructors and remind them to remind students to complete the survey.
- Survey Results are shared every semester and the process begins again for the next semester internally with the ebook team and administrators. At a later time, we can evaluate sharing more broadly.
I am very glad to be part of a program that provides you one of the required materials in this course as a free ebook. To access this ebook, do the following:
- Go to the Library Resources tab in the course navigation menu.
- Select the E-Reserves link.
- Open the ebooks folder.
- Select the appropriate title and URL to go directly to the ebook.
For questions or issues, you can contact the University Libraries Reserve Help(UL-RESERVESHELP@LISTS.PSU.EDU).
Victoria Raish, Online Learning Librarian, has a Ph.D. in Learning, Design, and Technology and has been active in online learning for the past 8 years. In her current role, she serves to increase access and awareness of library resources, instruction, and service to online learners. Her research interests focus on emerging technology use in the online environment, student perceptions of their education, systems thinking, and equivalent access. In particular, she looks at the intersection between information literacy and connectivism through digital badges and a hierarchy of instruction from foundational to experienced learners. She has published and presented at nationwide conferences and journals.
J. Christopher Holobar has worked for more than 20 years at the Penn State University Libraries and is currently a manager in Access Services. He has written about integrating electronic reserves in course management systems, copyright permissions and the Copyright Clearance Center, and the changing roles of staff in academic libraries. He holds BAs in both philosophy and English from Penn State.
Kathy Highbaugh has worked for The Pennsylvania State University for the past 17 years and is currently a Quality Assurance Manager for the World Campus Learning Design Department. She oversees the material relationship and with the World Campus’s bookstore, MBS Direct.