Walking into the office and seeing the team working away has quickly become the highlight of my day. Over lockdown, I found working from home a really lonely experience and have been so grateful for the slow transition back into the office. The experience, however, was made even more challenging by the fact that coronavirus accelerated some of the industry issues we’ve been pushing for a number of years around the accessibility and security of content, meaning it has been one of the busiest times for our business.
The last few months have been tough for universities and I have been very aware of the struggles students are facing being stuck in halls, unable to enjoy freshers or even attend lectures. Myself and the entire team have been busier than ever speaking to students, publishers and university staff who are struggling with implementing strategies and processes that would enable students to continue working.
The reality of university life is suddenly very different to what anyone could have predicted six months ago, and basic things, such as access to material and collaborating with friends is just not possible. Listening to students' experiences and speaking to universities, it quickly became apparent that the industry was not prepared for this sudden shift towards remote learning and the current crisis has left students and lecturers in an impossible position.
Many institutions across the UK failed to implement effective digital learning strategies when they had the chance, and now students and the publishing industry are paying the price, with pirated material going through the roof and stories of students not being able to find the core material they need to finish their coursework.
The consequences of this are already apparent, with lecturers telling me that their students' grades have been negatively impacted by the fact they simply cannot access course material remotely. Many have resorted to sharing illegal PDFs or photocopied pages as a quick fix to an ever growing problem and as the reality of further lockdowns approach, they still do not feel prepared to deliver this new ‘blended learning’.
So how can we fix this?
While this is a long term problem that is not going to be solved overnight, there are a number of tangible steps the industry can take to help ensure material is available to everyone while tackling the wider problem of piracy.
Access to legal content is crucial, not only to support students, but also to recognise the important work of publishers and help to bring the industry back to growth. Traditional publishers have been reluctant to adopt a digital strategy, as proven by the fact that within a £160 billion industry, only 3% is digital. To truly open up access, we need to see an acceleration towards digital services in education alongside a quicker delivery of printed material.
This can then allow us to tackle the issue of affordability within the academic space. UK copyright law means that university libraries cannot simply purchase an ebook in the way an individual can – instead they are required to purchase a version licensed specifically for university use. This expensive and convoluted process has placed an unnecessary restraint on university libraries, who can not provide the material their students so desperately need.
By transitioning to digital, publishers will be able to better understand how their material is being used through the new data they will receive. Rather than simply looking at book sales, publishers will be able to see a breakdown of reading time down to the individual chapter, which will in turn help inform a fairer pricing structure and better curated content for the future.
As we see this transition to digital unfold, we should also be looking beyond our own backyard. Historically, textbooks are tailored for American and European audiences, but the issues I have highlighted are not limited to these regions alone. Coronavirus is a global issue, so why is the publishing industry not adopting a global solution? Territories, such as India and Africa can now become core to a publishers strategy, as being a digital product, you no longer have the barriers to entry as you have with print.
While it might seem like a big shift, now is the time to be asking these questions. Just as my working day will never look the same, it’s unlikely the publishing industry or higher education will look the same as it did. Even just a few weeks into term, it is clear that more still needs to be done, as students continue to self isolate and face the real risk of having Christmas in halls. Now we have this momentum, we need to ensure we maximise it.
Gauthier Van Malderen is founder and c.e.o. of online learning library Perlego.