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May 4, 2020updated 05 May 2020 9:40am

Coronavirus case studies: How Perlego and Barclays are bringing free digital textbooks to students

By Lucy Ingham

Even in normal times, textbooks can be an eye-watering expense for students, but under lockdown, when libraries are closed, it is an even greater challenge. However, a partnership between Perlego and Barclays is providing unlimited free digital textbooks to students during the coronavirus pandemic.

Available to holders of the Barclays Student Additions Account, the service sees subscription-based online library Perlego make its 300,000 strong collection available for free until the end of June.

Perlego has a strong educational focus, with books across 500 subjects from publishers including Pearson, Wiley and Cambridge University Press. And according to Perlego CEO Gauthier Van Malderen, the decision to make its digital textbooks free to students with Barclays accounts was made due to the limited resources many students have access to.

“Universities are not all equally equipped to support their students remotely, so many students’ education is on pause to some extent,” he tells Verdict.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty among students about whether their grades will ultimately be affected too, so having unlimited remote access to the resources they would typically get from the library allows them a chance to protect their futures.”

Perlego had already been in discussion with Barclays to offer access to its digital textbooks as part of the bank’s student account packages, but when the coronavirus pandemic occurred, it accelerated the collaboration, resulting in the service being offered for free.

“It made sense to explore jointly what we could to help,” he says.

“Our mission has always been to make education accessible and affordable for all, so working with Barclays to bring Perlego to a large number of students with reduced access to reading materials was a great fit for us.”

How students are benefiting from free digital textbooks

The partnership between Barclays and Perlego was announced on 28 April and has already seen significant take-up from students.

“We’ve had an incredible response to the collaboration. A very high number of students came to us and created their free account within the first hour, and the number keeps rising,” says Van Malderen.

“Anecdotally we’ve had some really heart-warming feedback from the students themselves as well. For me this validates that we were right to collaborate on this project and are providing real, needed support to people who need it right now.”

Perlego has also witnessed a change in how students are accessing educational materials and sharing them with their classmates during the coronavirus.

“There’s been a pace shift in the existing trend of students adopting alternative ways of accessing their textbooks. We’ve seen an increase in students searching for online textbooks, and referral between friends and classmates has been following a similar trend,” he says.

“People recognise they are not alone in the current situation and are sharing useful resources with each other.”

And although they are not eligible for the company’s free digital textbooks offer, there has also been a notable increase in people who are not students accessing the platform, as people seek out ways to entertain themselves and grow their skillset during lockdown.

“Interestingly, we’ve seen a big increase in non-students reading on Perlego. We offer a range of non-fiction titles in many topics, so we’ve had scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs etc. reading on Perlego,” he says.

“Furloughed workers are being encouraged to take the opportunity to learn and up-skill from home, so although they can’t work for their employers now, many are taking the opportunity to brush up on skills and make themselves more employable if they do find themselves without work.”

Beyond the Barclays partnership: Perlego under lockdown

While it has launched the initiative to offer free digital textbooks with Barclays, Perlego has also had to step up its support for the universities it works with in order to help them to continue to provide educational resources during the lockdown. And this, combined with a general rise in user interest, has required the company to step up its support efforts.

“The first team to feel the increased demand is often customer support, so we’ve put in place systems to scale up the team. But we’re fortunate to have forward-thinking leadership in the development team who have built and maintained technology with scale in mind, so technologically we’ve not had any problems,” says Van Malderen.

“Having said that, we have had to scale up the team working to support universities through the crisis, and there’s been an increased sense of urgency within the team in general.”

During this the team itself has joined many in fully switching to remote working.

“The team went fully remote the week before the UK lockdown, and we had a practice day even before then in anticipation so the whole team were quite well-prepared,” he says.

“We’re fortunate enough to all be able to work efficiently at home, so our main concern has been the mental impact it could have. In response, we’ve introduced some great initiatives to support people, including a company-wide personal day, sending support packages to people and having virtual team-wide activities.”

Perlego, education and the future

Given the company’s success in operating under lockdown, it is now considering to what extent it will return to full in-office working, and whether it will allow employees to continue working remotely.

“This is a question we’ve been discussing at length, and there are some polarising opinions,” says Van Malderen.

“So we’ve decided to get feedback from the team on what they have liked most and least about working remotely to see if we can find a solution that gives people the best of the old world mixed with the best of the new. We’re waiting for the full results, but I suspect things will not go fully back to normal.”

However, on the education front, Van Malderen sees the use of digital textbooks – free or otherwise – proving to be part of a wider change in how university’s support their students.

“I believe the biggest change is yet to come – universities are having to reassess their offering to students and those that are behind the trend I suspect will be making a big change in their approach to adoption and provision of education technologies like Perlego.”

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