To Print or Not to Print

Results from the Canadian Distribution of OpenStax Hardcover Textbooks survey

By Lauri Aesoph, manager, Open Education Operations, BCcampus

Last spring BCcampus, in partnership with Vretta and the Manitoba Open Education Initiative, surveyed Canadian post-secondary institutions about how printed open textbooks fit into their classrooms and what they knew about the distribution of OpenStax’s hardbound books in Canada. Answers were provided using a narrative format.

Eighteen anonymous responses were received for this survey—mostly from instructors, many of whom taught science courses—between February 23 and April 28 of this year, 11 months after the COVID-19 pandemic began. The number of responses is similar to those received to an unpublished 2018 survey regarding OpenStax and Pressbooks. 

Most respondents said there is some demand for printed textbooks in the courses they teach (estimates ranged from 10 to 25 percent), especially among mature students. However, some students, said instructors, are unaware that printed textbooks are available or don’t know where to find them.

No one taking this survey had ordered an OpenStax textbook from the Vretta distribution service though some said their bookstore had. When asked which titles they’d like to see, astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, math, and stats were listed.

The Pros and Cons of Open Textbooks

This survey did not seek opinions about OpenStax textbooks specifically, but instead, asked about open textbooks and other OER in general. 

Faculty use a variety of parameters to judge whether a textbook (open or commercial) is right for their course. In this survey, quality (content, image and diagram clarity, readability) and cost of a textbook ranked near the top. These factors were followed by thorough coverage of, and relevance and alignment with the course curriculum; inclusion of practice exercises and problems; the availability of multiple formats that are easy for students to find and download.

Comments about where open textbooks fell on the quality spectrum were provided in the question about barriers that open educational resources present. A few respondents said open textbooks are of poor quality, and that most instructors lack the ability and time to customize and correct them. Others praised open textbooks for their flexibility and value.

Beyond quality, reported barriers ranged from “none” to the observation that open textbooks have not caught up with the publisher-supplied homework systems and other supplementary materials that come with commercial textbooks. One reply noted that a lack of ancillary resources for certain open textbooks added to the “overwhelming workloads” of faculty because it meant time must be spent gathering or creating these materials. Another expressed discouragement about an incident when an instructor guide was “leaked out” to students. 

The inability to locate a suitable open textbook in some disciplines was a common complaint. When OER was available, the time needed to evaluate the new resource felt daunting. One instructor admitted their hesitancy wasn’t just the time needed to review a new resource, but also an unfamiliar type of resource like OER. The conventional publishing system is not only familiar, but the willingness of commercial publishers to provide free copies of their textbooks to instructors so they may review them for a course was appealing, said another respondent.

Print or Online

One instructor said that making printed copies available was vital to students and that providing none created a barrier for students who lacked internet access or could only read the textbook on their phones. Many students like a localized PDF saved to their computer so they are not dependent on an internet connection, said another. Some students, who have access to an e-textbook, said one instructor, forget to look at this online version. Whereas students who order printed copies tend to use the book more consistently. 

Survey Questions

  • What courses do you teach? Have you considered OpenStax textbooks for any of them?
  • Have you ordered textbooks through Canada’s distributor of OpenStax hardcover books (Vretta)? If yes, what did you like? What can be improved?
  • Is there is a demand for print textbooks among students? Is it more or less since the pandemic pushed most instruction to move online?
  • When choosing resources for your classes, what are some of the factors that you consider?
  • What are barriers to students and/or faculty accessing open educational resources? Does the availability of printed copies help or not?
  • Which specific OpenStax titles would you like to see be made available in hardcover format?

The featured image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by cottonbro from Pexels