(Picture of the ABT Conference Student Panel, (c) Alan Staton, Booksellers Association)
Six international students took part in the student workshops at the ABT Conference 2019. They were respectively from Mexico, The Netherlands, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Indonesia. The workshop was run twice, so that all delegates could attend once (it ran back-to-back with a publisher / bookseller workshop). It was moderated by Louis Coiffait.
Much of the discussion focused on textbooks. The students agreed that the purpose of a textbook is to impart knowledge, rather than introduce controversial or exploratory ideas. Simplicity of approach is therefore key to success. “You have a student who wants to know something; don’t put it in a complicated way.” The layout and structure of a textbook is also extremely important. Textbooks should be constructed in an accessible way; and although the definitions included in them probably don’t change much over time, students would appreciate it if the practical examples are updated regularly, to maintain currency and interest. Worked-through examples, either in the book or on a complementary website are extremely important in some subjects – e.g., Business or Engineering.
Asked what kinds of learning resource they used other than textbooks, the students said they started by looking at core articles for which references were supplied in the resource lists, then selected follow-up references in order to grasp “the big picture”. “The Library guarantees access to a lot of publications not normally available.” (This meant material not available via Google or Google Scholar.) One of the students, an Italian, said the choice and range of materials available for students to access from the Library in this country is much better than in Italy. Here it’s “brilliant, wonderful”.
Most of the students agreed that they should not have to pay extra for resources over and above their tuition fees. For international students, the point is of particular importance, because many of them pay higher fees than home-grown students. Some had borrowed family money to study in the UK, which would have to be paid back eventually.
Asked about discovery, all agreed that they would like discovery systems and publishers’ search engines to replicate Google; and they would also like publishers to produce more ‘how to’ video clips of the type found on YouTube.
The students were also asked how they knew they could trust material they just found on the Internet, as opposed to via the Library or conventional publishers’ sites. “You get to know which ones are most tried and tested; and students talk to each other about them. I struggled with Maths two years ago. I found a website that gave good explanations and clear examples and operated at my level in the subject.”
Louis asked them when they felt lecturers were or were not helpful. Opinions on this varied, from “Textbooks are a guide only; the role of the teacher is most important”, to “Some lecturers tend to over-explain” and “Sometimes you need to go through the whole book to search for the keywords they’ve mentioned”. Some lecturers fail to put an author on the reading list and then mention them extensively in the lecture – so the author and his or her work is “lost in the wind”.
Asked how much they would be prepared to pay for a textbook, they suggested that £30 was a “manageable” price for a book they really needed. “£50 is too much, even with discount.” However, two of the students said that if a book was more expensive but contained more worked examples, they would then buy it. Accompanying answers to the questions or worked examples are also vital: “If there aren’t answers provided, I don’t look at the questions.”
Tables of Contents came in for some criticism. “The explanations in them aren’t detailed enough. It makes me frustrated when they don’t describe what’s actually in the chapter.” Short textbooks were almost universally preferred. The students felt that book length could be cut down considerably by omitting details of the provenance of a concept and how it evolved – though one said that maybe such information might be more interesting in later years of study. “An engineer doesn’t need to see the history of what he does, but I guess that, for the Humanities, there is a need to draw a lot more connections.”
None of the students regretted choosing to study in the UK, despite the expense. “It’s a great country – in education, it sets a very high standard. I’m from a developing country. There are people needing these types of materials in my country, that are accessible to them. They want a real textbook that is relevant for them. Publishers might think this is obvious, but maybe the message hasn’t got across.” However, these students didn’t necessarily think that textbooks would be the key resource of the future, as they still are of the present. “It is really difficult to be able to say that this is the form / shape / structure of the material I will always want to buy.”