Assessing the Impact of Purchasing (and Promoting) Etextbooks 

We start the semester off with a post from Karen Kohn and members of the Open Education Group (Steven Bell, Andrew Diamond, Courtney Eger, Kristina De Voe, Janeen Lamontagne, Alicia Pucci) that describes in detail how Karen and the team are evaluating the effectiveness of promoting this important but time-intensive effort. Karen’s account is a great example of assessment, but also how hard we work towards ensuring our collections support the curricular needs of our students.

Since Spring 2018, Temple University Libraries have been systematically purchasing electronic copies of books assigned in courses. We began this effort in response to research showing the difficulties students have in paying for textbooks. (See previous posts on the Library News blog.) Building a partnership with the campus bookstore, we request a list each semester of all the books faculty have asked the bookstore to order for their courses. As Collections Analysis Librarian and part of the Acquisitions department, I (Karen Kohn) am responsible for reviewing the list and ordering textbooks. I check the list against our library holdings to see what we have as an ebook, and then I check which additional texts we’d be able to buy as ebooks. For many years, Media Services Librarian Brian Boling has been maintaining an Etextbook Database to facilitate students’ finding the library copies of their texts. 

After the Libraries’ Open Education Group formed in fall 2019, we added an assessment component to the etextbook acquisition and promotion process. The original goal of our assessment was to estimate how much money the Libraries had saved students by purchasing electronic copies of their textbooks. After seeing a presentation by Villanova librarians John Banionis and Marianne Watson in fall 2020, I mapped out a process that the Open Education Group has since used for estimating savings. The calculations have turned out to be useful in ways beyond our initial intention. 

The Details of Calculating Cost Savings

In theory, the estimated amount of money the Libraries save students is the cost of the book multiplied by the number of students who didn’t have to pay that cost. In practice, the calculations are a little more complicated. Student workers record the final enrollment for each course and the price of the textbook. We instruct them to record the “Buy Used” price, as this falls between the cost of a new book and the cost of a rental. Once the semester is over, I collect information on how many times each book was used. If a book is available on several sites, I add together the usage from all the sites. Usage is measured with COUNTER reports, which follow an international standard. COUNTER reports provide a metric called Unique Title Requests, which tallies how many sessions were spent in a given book. 

Including usage data allows us to adjust the savings estimate downward if not every student used the book. I calculate the estimated savings using whichever is lower–the number of enrolled students or the Unique Title Requests. An example can illustrate the reason for doing this. If a course had 25 students and its textbook was used 100 times, we have only saved at most 25 students the cost of buying the book. If a course had 25 students and its textbook was used 5 times, then at most 5 students used it, and we only saved those five the cost of purchasing the book. Multiplying the lower number by the Buy Used price produces an estimate of the amount the Libraries have saved students by providing an electronic copy of their textbook. 

Promoting the Etextbook Purchase Program

A surprise for the Open Education Group initially was the number of etextbooks that were not used at all! While the number of unused books varies by semester, it is still notable that any book assigned in a course and available through the Libraries would have no use! We decided to try promoting the books more to see if it would make a difference. 

Looking at the textbook usage over time has allowed us to see the impact of various changes in our processes and promotion efforts. In fall 2022 for the first time the Open Education Group used a mail merge to notify every faculty member that the Libraries had their textbook. The mail merge feature lets us customize emails by pulling information from a spreadsheet, so each email contains the professor’s name, the course number, title of the book, and a link to our catalog. We got a generally positive response to this, and a slight decrease in the number of books that were unused.

Promotion Is Working

So far, the lowest-ever number of unused etextbooks was the past spring. Two parts of the process might have affected this number. One was the mail merge, which we used that semester for the second time (thanks to Andrew Diamond). Another factor was that for the first time, the bookstore sent us the textbook list ahead of the start of the semester, and we were able to notify faculty before the semester started. In fall 2023 we were not able to notify faculty until the end of the first week of classes, so we will watch to see if that leads to fewer books being used. Over time, assessment will help us see the impact of both our purchases and our promotion efforts, so we can make the etextbook collection as useful as possible to Temple students. 

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2 Responses to Assessing the Impact of Purchasing (and Promoting) Etextbooks 

  1. steven bell says:

    Great post by Karen – which provides a better understanding of our efforts to provide students with access to e-textbook versions of required and recommended course materials. Another effort to increase usage of these e-textbooks is being conducted by the University’s Textbook Task Force (TTF). That is a campaign to encourage more faculty to submit a library e-textbook as adopted material for their course to the Barnes & Noble AIP (Adoptions Insight Platform) system. Many faculty have not been aware that they can submit no-cost course materials to the AIP. When faculty submit one of our e-textbooks to the AIP as course material, students will then have the opportunity to know – at the time of course registration (or even if they wait until the start of the semester) that they can access the course textbook at no cost – if they choose to use our library e-textbook.

    Keep in mind that the bookstore’s course material search system will also present students with commercial options – in case they do want to purchase or rent a copy. The TTF should be obtaining more information this fall about the number of courses that did adopt both OER materials and e-textbooks as course material. If more faculty are adding e-textbooks to the AIP then it should lead more students to make it their choice.

  2. Mary Huissen says:

    Great post – thank you, and thanks to Steven for the information about TTF.

    Your efforts seem focused on informing faculty of options – an important place to begin when considering “affordability” – but in addition to getting the word out to professors, what have you learned from students? Do their preferences play any role that could inform your approach to acquisition?

    I’m also curious about whether or not you factor the amount of staff time needed to support this as part of the cost.

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