What are we getting and do we want it?
Western Sydney University has recently made several claims regarding their free digital textbook program for new students. This program is a replacement for the popular electronic device program, which original saw first-year students receive free iPads or similar devices. It is my aim to test these claims and compare the two programs for new students.
Several bold claims have been made by the university regarding the implementation and benefits of this digital textbook program. One such claim, found on the Free Digital Textbooks 2017 page, is that the iPad program was replaced due “feedback from students indicating that covering the costs of purchasing textbooks was one of the key challenges they experienced when commencing their studies”. This feedback is, predictably, not available on the program webpage. In a follow-up email regarding the availability of this data, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Denise Kirkpatrick, responded that “This feedback stemmed from a range of informal channels through to more formal focus groups and surveys to provide input into the initiative and the University’s new digital platform”. With that question avoided, and another claim on the website that “textbooks can cost up to $800 in the first year of study”, I decided to test these claims by preforming my own research.
I created a survey of seven short two-option questions to gauge students’ opinions and preferences regarding the two incentive programs. These were given out to the students of two level one communication classes and a pass session. Forty-seven students responded to this survey. When given the choice between free digital textbooks for their first year or a new iPad for the duration of their course, fifty-six percent of students chose the iPad. Although this is a slim margin, it does not indicate a positive reception of this new program compared to the iPad program.
To further gauge the opinion and reception of the digital textbook initiative, I included several other questions in this survey, the results of which were surprising. Sixty percent of students indicated that they were unaware that they would only have access to the digital textbooks as long as they were enrolled into the corresponding unit. When asked about ease of use, forty-eight percent of students indicated that they had some difficulty accessing their textbooks. The most unforeseen result was the preference for physical textbooks over e-books, with seventy-seven percent of students responding that they would prefer hard copies over e-books.
Now we move on to the value proposition, are students saving more money from free digital textbooks when compared to the cost of buying an iPad? To solve this question, at least in part, I decided to look at the cost of the textbooks of an undergraduate course and compare this to the cost of a new iPad. With Apple Australia’s education pricing, an entry level iPad Air 2 will cost a student $539. The course we will analyse is a Bachelor of Art (Pathway to Teaching Primary) with a major in English. Each unit’s textbook list was retrieved from either the current unit guide or that from Spring 2016, accessed from Western SydneyUniversity’s library website. I then found the costs for these textbooks as listed on Booktopia.com.au . The textbooks come from the eight units: Mathematical Patterns and Relationships, Fundamentals for Working Mathematically, Australia and the World, Contemporary Society, Texts and Traditions, Analytical Reading and Writing, Introduction to Literary Studies and Approaches to Text. An issue that arose during my research is that Introduction to Literary Studies, Approaches to Text and Text and Traditions all have course readers that no longer have listings on the university’s Co-op book store. I have instead assigned each of these three course readers the cost of $80, a fairly high price for a first-year BA course reader. With that in mind, the total cost for a BA (Pathway to Teaching Primary) student’s textbooks for the first year came to $462.20, $76.80 less than an iPad Air 2. Clearly, textbooks don’t cost $800 dollars for all first-year courses.
Both of the main claims made by Western Sydney University regarding student preference for a digital textbook program and cost savings have failed to be substantiated in my small sample. Another significant value issue for students is the inability to resell their textbooks at a later date, as this is often done by students to recuperate funds to be used in other areas. I am certain that some student’s first-year textbooks will cost more than a new iPad. However, I ask you to do your own research regarding your course. Check your unit course readers for prescribed textbooks and google the results to see how much money the university is actually saving you. You may be unpleasantly surprised.