Lesson Ten Reading

13. Open Textbooks

Textbooks are an increasing cost to students. Some textbooks cost $200 or more, and in the USA a university undergraduate spends on average between $530 – $640  a year on textbooks (Hill, 2015), although the cost of recommended textbooks is between $968 and $1221 (Caulfield, 2015).

An open textbook on the other hand is an openly licensed, online publication free for downloading for educational or non-commercial use. You are currently reading an open textbook. There is an increasing number of sources for open textbooks, such as OpenStax College from Rice University, and the Open Academics Textbook Catalog at the University of Minnesota.

In British Columbia, the provincial government-funded the B.C. open textbook project, which operates in collaboration initially with the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, but now also with other provinces through the Canada OER Group. The B.C. open textbook project focuses on making available openly-licensed textbooks in the highest-enrolled academic subject areas and also in trades and skills training. In the B.C. project, as in many of the other sources, all the books are selected, peer-reviewed, and in some cases developed by local faculty. Often these textbooks are not ‘original’ work, in the sense of new knowledge, but carefully written and well-illustrated summaries of current thinking in the different subject areas.

Advantages of Open Textbooks

Students and governments, through grants and financial aid, pay billions of dollars each year on textbooks. Open textbooks can make a significant impact on reducing the cost of education. The government of British Columbia estimates that the BC Open Textbook project has saved the roughly 300,000 post-secondary students in the province more that $4 million in textbook costs between 2012 to 2017 (Bernard, 2017).

Cable Green, the Interim CEO of the Creative Commons has a ‘vision’ for open textbooks: 100 percent of students have 100 percent free, digital access to all course materials by day one. That is far from the case today.

DeNoyelles and Raible at the University of Central Florida found (2017) that due to high costs:

  • 30 Percent of [student] respondents said they have opted not to purchase a textbook at least once
  • 41 Percent have delayed purchasing a textbook
  • 15 Percent have taken fewer courses or decided not to take a particular class

DeNoyelles and Raible concluded that:

  • The cost of textbooks is negatively impacting student access to required materials (66.6% did not purchase the required textbook) and learning (37.6% earn a poor grade; 19.8% fail a course).

A survey of all public post-secondary students in Florida conducted by the Florida Virtual Campus (2016) found that due to the high costs of textbooks:

  • Time to graduation and/or access to courses is impacted by cost. Students reported that they occasionally or frequently take
  • Fewer courses (47.6%)
  • Do not register for a course (45.5%)
  • Drop a course (26.1%)
  • Withdraw from courses (20.7%)

There are also other considerations. It is a common sight to see lengthy line-ups at college bookstores all through the first week of the first semester (which eats into valuable study time). Because students may be searching for second-hand versions of the books from other students, it may well be into the second or third week of the semester before students actually get their copy.

So why shouldn’t the government pay the creators of textbooks directly, cut out the middleman (commercial publishers), save over 80 per cent on the cost, and distribute the books to students (or anyone else) for free over the Internet, under a Creative Commons license?

Figure 6: Open textbooks: no bookstore line-ups! Image: The Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Limitations of Open Textbooks

Faculty resistance is still a problem for open textbooks. Open textbooks had been adopted in between half and two-thirds of all post-secondary institutions in Canada in 2017, and a further 20 percent were exploring their use. However, this varied considerably by province. In British Columbia, 90 percent of all post-secondary institutions had adopted open textbooks for some courses; in Saskatchewan and Quebec, less than a third of institutions were using open textbooks (Donovan et al., 2018). This indicates clearly the impact of government support for open textbooks. Adoption was highest in universities and large institutions. Donovan et al. also found that there was a lack of knowledge and even more so of training for instructors in the use of open textbooks and OER.

Murphy (2013) has questioned the whole idea of textbooks, whether open or not. She sees textbooks as a relic of 19th century industrialism, a form of mass broadcasting. In the 21st century, students should be finding, accessing, and collecting digital materials over the Internet. Textbooks are merely packaged learning, with the authors doing the work for students. Nevertheless, it has to be recognized that textbooks are still the basic currency for most forms of education, and while this remains the case, open textbooks are a much better alternative for students than expensive printed textbooks.

Quality also remains a concern. There is an in-built prejudice that ‘free’ must mean poor quality. Thus, the same arguments about quality of OER also apply to open textbooks. In particular, the expensive commercially published textbooks usually include in-built activities, supplementary materials such as extra readings, and even assessment questions. Nevertheless, Jhangiani and Jhangiani (2017), in a survey of 320 undergraduate students in British Columbia who had actually used an open textbook for one or more of their courses found that  96% of respondents perceived the quality of their open textbook to be equal or superior to a commercial textbook.

Others (including myself) question the likely impact of ‘open’ publishing on creating original works that are not likely to get subsidized by the government because they are either too specialized or are not yet part of a standard curriculum for the subject; in other words will open publishing impact negatively on the diversity of publishing? What is the incentive for someone now to publish a unique work, if there is no financial reward for the effort? Writing an original, single-authored book remains hard work, however, it is published.

Although there is now a range of ‘open’ publishing services, there are still costs for an author to create original work. Who will pay, for instance, for specialized graphics, for editing or for review? I have used my blog to get sections of this book reviewed generally, and this has proved extremely useful. Nevertheless one can still approach top quality reviewers for an independent review, as was done for this book (see Appendix 3). I also received free technical support from both BCcampus and Contact North, but other potential open textbook authors may not have that kind of access.

Marketing is another issue. It takes time and specialized knowledge to market books effectively. On the other hand, my experience, having published twelve books commercially, is that publishers are very poor at properly marketing specialized textbooks, expecting the author to mainly self-market, while the publisher still takes 85-90 percent of all sales revenues. Nevertheless, there are still real costs in marketing an open textbook.

How can all these costs be recovered? Much more work still needs to be done to support the open publishing of original work in book format. If so, what does that mean for how knowledge is created, disseminated and preserved? If open textbook publishing is to be successful, new, sustainable business models will need to be developed. In particular, some form of government subsidy or financial support for open textbooks is probably going to be essential.

Nevertheless, although these are all important concerns, they are not insurmountable problems. Just getting a proportion of the main textbooks available to students for free is a major step forward. To see whether or not I felt it worthwhile to write the first edition of this book, see ‘Writing an Online Book: Is it Worth it?’ (Bates, 2015).

Learn How to Adopt and Use an Open Textbook

BC campus has mounted a short MOOC on the P2PU portal on Adopting Open Textbooks. Although the MOOC may not be active when you access the site, it still has most of the materials, including videos, available.