Dave Sherwood, CEO, BibliU

The highest ever volume of British 18-year-olds (38%) applied for university this year, with the pandemic limiting gap year prospects and Brexit red tape restricting opportunities to study abroad . In tandem, UCAS data also shows a huge 56% drop in EU student enrolment but an increase in students from African and Asian countries is expected. Unfortunately, this has led to lower enrolment figures overall in UK institutions for September 2021.

After a rollercoaster couple of years, these unexpected trends in global education movements paint a picture of a changing education industry. Many institutions, especially in the UK, adapted their offering to continue to deliver world-leading courses remotely as demands on university resources and student support changed significantly, thanks to the pandemic’s lasting impact.

However, with restrictions now lifted in the UK, universities need to consider how they’ll offer learning resources moving forward. They will need to use what they have learned during the pandemic to ensure that a British education remains attractive to those from both the UK and abroad. 

Democratising textbooks to attract more students

Universities have responded well to the digital needs created throughout the pandemic, but they’ve only just begun to lay the groundwork for future blended learning. With varying numbers of students expected from the UK and around the world, universities must prioritise catering for students with specific needs such as a disability or language barriers to ensure no one gets left behind. In addition, institution leaders must work to mitigate concerns from students surrounding how remote learning will impact university costs and the quality of resources provided. Addressing these areas will be key in ensuring global enrolment figures aren’t further impacted in future cohorts. 

Students understand that tuition fees are only one strand of their expenditure forecast. Rent, living costs, and textbooks also take a considerable chunk out of what is usually an already stringent budget. The average student in the UK spends between £450 to £1070 on textbooks alone each year. So, it comes as no surprise that students are now looking for new ways of efficient and effective study that doesn’t break the bank. If UK universities can offer digital learning materials as part of the cost of education, this will make British institutions more attractive by increasing accessibility to people with a variety of backgrounds and abilities. 

In addition, digital resources solve the issue of a limited number of physical textbooks being rented out to only a handful of students who use the resource term-long. Digitised textbooks don’t limit access for others while strengthening remote study to ensure that class learning is more informed, and therefore more productive. With access to an ever-expanding number of interactive features for a comprehensive list of learning materials, digitising and democratising resources will provide UK universities, students, and textbook providers with value for money by reimagining the business model surrounding physical resources.

Exploring interactive features to support universities in diversifying the content

Through innovative technologies, digital textbooks now offer study options, feedback, and collaboration like never before. Contrasting a flat PDF-like experience, students benefit from a uniform experience for all resources within a university’s collection - from text-to-speech capabilities to in-book shared annotations, there is something for every student. 

For example, in-book commenting opens the option of discussion between teacher and student and also peer-to-peer. This offers access to further information faster, as well as providing a more diverse range of feedback, which may be extra helpful for international students to aid understanding when English isn't the first language. It also aids group-based study. By allowing comments from multiple individuals on one document, this seamless method of collaboration renders sharing physical worksheets and textbooks redundant, meaning effective group study can be achieved even when not on the university campus due to both necessity and preference.

Similarly, a student can track their progress with the use of interactive quizzes. These mini-tests register the strengths and weaknesses of a specific student’s understanding and intuitively focus on the areas the student may need to re-read before retaking the end-of-chapter test. This gives students a better barometer of their progress without waiting for the final assessment results of each unit.

In addition, all resources can be accessed in colour which aids in bringing graphs and data to life, supporting videos can be embedded, and search options can be activated – which are particularly useful when citing quoted sources – as well as accessibility features like a speed reader to maximise study efficiency.

Digital textbook consumption also offers significant benefits for course leaders. They can easily access insights showing what content is being consumed, when, and by which students. They can use this information to evolve their course materials and diversify content as needed. In addition, student support teams can see where some students might be struggling in their courses and provide a more tailored experience to help that student succeed. 

Ultimately, blended learning structures, which offer flexibility through access to in-person teaching as well as a variety of digital resources, will better prepare students for the new hybrid work-life. If UK universities prioritise digital transformation, not only in response to initial pandemic-based challenges but to lay the groundwork for future cohorts, they will remain competitive and attractive on the global stage. The continued digitisation of learning resources as standard will cement the reputation of UK universities as responsive, effective, cutting-edge, and most importantly, student-first.

Dave Sherwood, CEO, BibliU

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