Questions and Answers on Open Textbooks Part 1

Since the British Columbia government announced an Open Textbook project October 16, we have fielded many questions about it. This is Part 1 of our attempt to provide the basic information on Open Textbooks and the project itself.

What is an open textbook?

An open textbook is a textbook licensed under an open copyright license, and made available online to be freely used by students, teachers and members of the public. They are available for free as online versions, and as low-cost printed versions, should students opt for these.

What makes open textbooks different from a traditional textbook?

Traditionally-published textbooks are produced under closed copyright, meaning they cannot be shared, re-used or re-purposed. They are usually costly (hundreds of dollars each) with new editions published frequently, making texts only a year or two old out of date. Even if they are published digitally at half the cost, they are still expensive and come with digital rights management that means they only appear for a short period of time (4-6 months) on a student’s e-reader. The Student Public Interest Research Group in the U.S. has more information.

The open licensing of open textbooks allows for collaborations on and improvements to textbooks from contributors around the world (knowledge knows no boundaries). In contrast to traditional textbooks, with open licenses, faculty are free to adapt any portion of a textbook without requiring students to purchase an entire book only to use a small portion.

Quality: are open textbooks worth it? Is the quality equal to that of traditionally-published textbooks?

In a word: yes. Open textbooks:

  • are created by educators;
  • are reviewed by educators;
  • contribute to successful learning outcomes.

On October 18, BCcampus hosted an OER Forum and asked leaders in open licensing and open education to speak to B.C. educators and administrators about these topics.

David Wiley, Associate Professor of Instructional Psychology at Brigham Young University, was one of the presenters (you can see his entire presentation here He gave several examples of successful K-12 and post-secondary open educational projects:

Utah Open Textbook project ( Teachers adapt CK12 textbooks to their own use over the summer. They are distributed to students for their use to keep (i.e. they can highlight, make notes in margins, etc). Cost is US $4.99 per book printed and delivered (as opposed to US$80 previously). Result: 5.9% gain in standardized test scores.

Open High School of Utah ( Completely online with mandated use of OER. Serves 400 students in grades 9-12. Textbooks were aligned with state curricula. Teachers were alloted part of their time to reviewing/revising their texts – continuous quality improvement – something you can’t do with a copyrighted text book. Huge gains in student proficiency in all subjects.

Project Kaleidoscope ( a consortium of eight community colleges and four-year schools from California to New York. In this cross-institutional project – each institution contributed faculty time. The faculty aggregated OER-based textbooks to replace existing copyrighted texts that were then adopted by all participating schools. Last year open textbooks were adopted for 11 courses. Result: increased percentage (14 % gain) of students who completed classes at grade C or better. This is attributed to better accessibility: rather than waiting to buy an expensive text, or not buying it at all, students had access to all material from the first day of class.

Aren’t open textbooks, created with public funds, government textbooks created by a committee?

Most OER found in the world are created by conscientious instructors, professors and academics who are concerned with pedagogical integrity. BCcampus has already started on a pilot project to create a limited number of open textbooks, and they are being written by faculty from B.C. post-secondary institutions. Not only have they been created by faculty but they are also being reviewed by faculty to ensure quality control (just as traditionally-published textbooks are).

What is entailed in the Open Textbook Project BCcampus is implementing?

The B.C. provincial government announced on 16 October 2012 it will fund Canada’s first official open textbook project. It wants open textbooks for the 40 most popular post-secondary courses in the province, and BCcampus will be co-ordinating the implementation of the project.

Who will be creating the open textbooks in the B.C. project?

The textbooks will be created (or, where possible, re-created from existing open educational resources) by faculty or publishers, reviewed by B.C. faculty and made available under a Creative Commons license. Once the first textbooks are ready, BCcampus will publish them in an easily-accessible format online.

How are students and faculty going to find, print and download the B.C. Open Textbooks?

BCcampus will be creating an easy-to-use online repository when the first textbooks are available. For an example of what it might look like, see the University of Minnesota “Open Textbook Library” project.

Will students with disabilities be able to use the textbooks?

Making the textbooks available and accessible to learners with disabilities will be a key consideration in their creation. We will be consulting with experts in accessibility to ensure those issues are considered.

Image derived from a graphic created by Giulia Forsythe and remixed/re-used under Creative Commons license.