Open textbooks – benefits and challenges for universities

(Note: this is a summary of sorts for a presentation I gave at the 2015 Idaho Library Association Conference.)

Copyright was invented at a time when ideas could only really be expressed in physical objects, like books. Today we are not just dealing with physical items anymore. Think of the newspaper. It used to be that you could only access a newspaper in physical form. You could give that newspaper to your friend to read, or they could read it over your shoulder. Now, newspapers can be delivered through digital means. And now everyone (with an internet connection) can view the NY Times online at the same time. This sets a different state for the sharing of information. I can share things without giving them away. Everyone gets a copy. This is a very different kind of situation from when copyright was created.


This photo, “Classic OPTE Project Map of the Internet 2005” is copyright (c) 2009 Mike Lee and made available under a Attribution 2.0 license

This big, beautiful interconnected thing that is the internet makes it much easier to share things. But copyright is designed to put barriers around information so creators can keep creating.

Creative Commons licensing alleviates this situation a bit. CC licenses are copyright licenses that use the power and strength of copyright law to enforce sharing rather than putting barriers around sharing. CC licenses indicate that you WANT this material to be shared in this way. They provide a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to creative work. They cover permission, attribution, commercial use, and future sharing. There are a variety of flavors in CC licenses:

Screenshot 2016-01-11 13.00.53

Open educational resources (OERs) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, texts, software, and any other tool, material, or technique used to support access to knowledge.


How many of you know students that don’t have equal access to learning materials for one reason or another? It is one of our most common questions at the reference desk, right? There’s a whole spectrum of reasons why students’ wouldn’t have access, although money is the most common.

Textbook prices are high. Since 1985, textbook prices have risen at a higher rate than medical care and gas. Nationally, the average student pays around $1300 each year for textbooks. 65% of students regularly don’t purchase books and 35% will register for fewer courses due to cost. It’s rather clear that the high cost of these books is impacting our students.

Idaho currently ranks 50th in the nation for high school graduates going on to college. According to the National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) Center for Public Education, the #1 reason for not attending college is the cost.

Nearly half of Idaho’s K-12 students are from low-income households. The U.S. Department of Education found that a young person in a low-income community has a 9% chance of completing college.

Screenshot 2016-01-11 13.21.21

And while 24% of Idahoans currently have a college degree, 61% of Idaho jobs will require a college degree by 2018. (Source: National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (2008), Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce, “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018” (2010))

Open educational resources present an alternative to the traditional textbook, one that could save students thousands of dollars. Based on data from pilot OER programs across the country, a student will save $128 on average per course. If every full-time undergraduate had just one of their traditional textbooks replaced with an open textbook each year, it could save students nationally almost $1.5 billion in textbook costs. (Source: studentPIRGS)

Open textbooks are the solution

What happens if we start dramatically lowering the cost of required textbooks?

Equality of access. Lowering or removing textbook costs can have a powerful effect on the affordability of a college education and has the potential to improve retention and graduation rates.

Aside from the finances, OER materials are improving student engagement and success. After Mercy College switched over it’s section of college algebra to open textbooks and materials, they noticed a visible increase in passing grades in all OER sections of the course.

This trend is true across all institutions that have adopted OER materials. Students increase their grades and completion rates and will take on more credit hours.

Students increasingly need and expect mobility, flexibility, and ease of access to course materials. Digital media literacy continues to rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.

Faculty members are looking for alternatives to one size fits all textbooks. Many OER resources and platforms present the opportunity to build one of a kind materials for your courses and students.

Any move towards reducing textbook costs would also be an excellent PR move for university administrators.

And, open course materials can lead to open pedagogy, transforming disposable assignments into renewable assignments. Instead of an assignment being unimportant in the grand scheme of the class, renewable assignments provide lasting value. The students see value in doing them, faculty see value in grading them, and the assignments live on to contribute to the greater good.

One example of a renewable assignment is this collaboration, where a University of British Columbia class completed a class project on Wikipedia. Their collective goal was to bring a selection of articles on Latin American literature to featured article status. By project’s end, they had contributed three feature articles and eight good articles. Visit the project page here.

Each time this professor teaches Project Management for Instructional Designers, a graduate level course, the students revise and remix and improve the course textbook. Class assignments directly relate to creating new content for the textbook or editing current content. At the end of the class, their names are added to the growing author list of collaborators.

Using OER the same way we used commercial textbooks misses the point. In order to best engage students and yourself with the new material, consider taking these steps

  1. OER as worked example – Help students understand the design of the OER you’ve assigned
  1. Remix OER – Assign students to organize and transform OER to teach more effectively
  1. Provide feedback on remixes – Offer multiple types of feedback on student remixes and require revisions
  1. Reciprocal teaching – Have students teach each other using their remixes
  1. Continuous improvement – At end of term, engage in data-based formative evaluation of the course. Incorporate student work in new version as appropriate
  1. Create clarity – Students should understand what their remixes should contain, how they will be graded, and how they potentially will be used
  1. Create trust – Establish relationships with students that demonstrate your confidence in their abilities to create great OER remixes


Real-life Application

Imagine you are teaching Biology 101 next semester. You have a list of learning outcomes your students should be able to demonstrate by the end of the semester, right? One of the best ways to incorporate open educational resources into courses is to map your course learning outcomes to open materials.

For Biology 101, let’s use these two learning outcomes:

  • Demonstrate understanding of cell structure and function
  • Demonstrate understanding of transport into and out of a cell

Then, let’s search for some open textbooks in biology. This one from OpenStax looks good.

Looking through the table of contents, it is easy to spot the sections that would best work with our learning outcomes.



Like the journal publishing industry, it has become clear that something in the system is broken. Open textbooks are not out to get textbook publishers, they are about trying to intervene in an unhealthy process in order to best serve students.

Because this is a student issue. The costs of a college education are rising, including tuition and fees, but textbooks are the one thing we can control in the cost of education conversation.

Idaho needs this. And Idaho can do this. All we have to do is try.


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