I keep hearing a lot of buzz about open textbooks and open educational resources. I’m interested in providing access to more affordable materials to my students, but frankly, the phrase “open education” sounds suspiciously idealistic. How can textbooks possibly be available for free and still support student learning?

-Openly Optimistic

Dear Openly Optimistic,

YOU are the best judge of how well any resource meets the needs of your students and supports the learning outcomes of your course!  Open textbooks are gaining traction as a great way to keep costs down and support your students.


What are open textbooks?

Open textbooks are one type of open educational resource (OER). OERs are teaching and learning resources that are free of cost and provide permissions for open use. The “open” permissions give others the right to retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute these materials. Creative Commons licenses are typically the vehicle that provides information on how the OERs can be used by others.

Who creates open textbooks?

The idea of a textbook that is produced free of cost may conjure images of a lone educator creating a textbook and putting it online without an editorial process. While it is true that this way of sharing has resulted in a lot of content, this is not the main model for open textbook production.

In most cases, funding is provided to a publisher to create the textbook. Authors are typically experts in the field, and peer review is often part of the creation process. With production costs paid up front, there is no need for the publisher to recoup costs through sales. Copyright can be open, as economic damage is not done, while the production process remains similar. So, who provides the funding?

  • Universities: SUNY, UMass Amherst, and Portland State University and others provide funding and publication support for open textbook creation. This is the fastest-growing model of production.
  • Foundations: The Hewlett Foundation, Gates Foundation and others, working alongside nonprofits such as OpenStax, provide funding for high quality textbooks.
  • State and Federal Government Bodies: British Columbia’s provincial government provides funding for the Open Textbook Project based at BCCampus to provide access to 40 open textbooks.

Why consider an open textbook for my class?

Whether you are considering an open or a commercial textbook, you are the best judge of what resource will meet the content needs and learning outcomes of your course. However, the cost of textbooks can be a barrier to learning for students. Many students may opt not to purchase required texts, putting their academic success at risk. Several peer reviewed studies have found OERs support positive student outcomes. One recent study of 10 institutions found that students who used OERs tended to perform the same or better than their peers in terms of grades, course completion and other measures of academic success.

How can I find out if there are open textbooks in my discipline?

The best place to start your search is the freely available Open Textbook Library, browseable by subject area. All titles included are openly licensed, have been produced by an institution or scholarly society or have been widely adopted. Most textbooks in the library include peer reviews by faculty members to aid in your decision-making process. If you are interested in exploring further resources, talk to your liaison librarian. Librarians can also help you to identify whether open ancillary materials may be available.

Have a question you’d like us to answer?

Submit your questions to faculty-commons@udel.edu and you might just see your question answered in our next Dear Faculty Commons!

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