eTextbooks: bringing learning to life for international students

“International education is changing, and it’s up to us all in the sector to keep up with the technologies that shape its future”

There is concern in the UK higher education sector that Brexit and tighter government controls on immigration are starting to put some prospective foreign students off studying in the country. It’s more important than ever for universities to improve the learning experience of international students, and in this week’s blog, we look at how digital course materials can aid students’ transition to a course in a new location.

The latest UK Council for International Student Affairs report shows that there are over 442,375 international higher education students in the UK, of which 6% are from the European Union and 13% from the rest of the world. The number of Chinese students exceeds any other nationality; almost one-third of non-EU students in the UK are from China.

“If English is not a student’s first language, absorbing the key messages across significant amounts of texts can present a real challenge on top of already stressful degree demands”

Many university courses rely on print as the primary resource to support learning and some reading materials can be very text heavy and dense to process.  Engagement with the material can be quite static and mastery of the subject can be more challenging than it should be as a result.

Digital course materials are increasingly providing a compelling alternative to print textbooks as they can actively ease the learning challenge these students face. Features such as interactive quizzes, the use of integrated video, and sophisticated search and citation tools are all examples of digital eTextbook tools that can have a transformative effect in making the course text easier to digest.

From a teaching perspective, lecturers can see what texts have been accessed, how far a student has got with that text and can also leave instructional notes for students which can help address specific points of difficulty.

A recent VitalSource survey that evaluated how students use eTextbooks to access essential course material, found that out of the 979 students surveyed across 184 UK higher education institutions, 148 were international and 55% of them stated that English is not their first language. The research found that the majority of these international students (59% compared to only 48% UK students) said that eTextbooks contributed to raising their overall grade.

“As well as this, an overwhelming 84% of international students claimed that eTextbooks allowed them to study effectively on their own”

This is a significant factor that suggests digital textbooks are a useful learning tool for most university students but are especially of importance to international students who tend to use it to combat language barriers.

eTextbooks not only helped students to improve their grades and learn on their own, they also help international students to grasp what is being talked about in lectures. The survey also found that 74% of international students used eTextbooks to feel well prepared for a lecture, whilst 71% said eTextbooks made them feel knowledgeable on a subject. Finally, 68% said that eTextbooks made it easier for them to apply what they had learnt.

International students bring value to our universities, both financially and socially, but we must provide a learning environment that is supportive of their needs and aids in attracting and retaining these students. By providing digital access to core reading content, universities can add value for students through equality of access. Universities themselves will also gain from employing digital tools in their teaching and learning strategies. International education is changing, and it’s up to us all in the education sector to keep up with the technologies that shape its future.

John Donovan is Managing Director for EMEA and APAC at VitalSource.