Open textbooks are a type of open educational resource (OER). 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" (Hewlett Foundation). In the case of OER, the term "open" usually means that an author has chosen to give others permissions to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute copies of the content, which David Wiley calls the "5Rs of openness" (2014.)
Open textbooks are available for free online. The range of subject coverage can be surprising to faculty, and the number of publications is steadily increasing. Although open textbooks are born digital, students who prefer print books can print all pages themselves or request a printed and bound copy from the university bookstore or other retailer for a small fee (Senack, 2014).
Open Access means openly licensed and free to use for educational purposes. "Inclusive access" is the name of a textbook rental program from Pearson and other publishers in which books are neither openly licensed nor free. Compare the two models using this chart.
Information on adopting an open textbook can be found in the Libraries' Open Ed Portal, on the page "Adopting an Open Textbook." There is also information on modifying an open textbook.
Use this online form so the university can estimate overall student savings, and know which departments are making use of these resources. We'll also tell the Bookstore (VolShop), so they can tell students about print options for those that wish to purchase a bound copy.
Reporting your adoptions is important to the Student Government Association. Since 2017, the annual SGA Open Education Awards honor UT instructors who chose to assign open textbooks, saving students hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. Learn more about the SGA Open Education Award and past recipients.
It is increasingly difficult for students to buy all their required textbooks. A national study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that "textbook prices have risen over three times the rate of inflation from January 1977 to June 2015, a 1,041% increase" (Popken, 2015). In recent surveys, students report not buying required textbooks for some courses despite concern for their grades, using student loan money to purchase textbooks, and making course registration decisions based on textbook costs (Senack, 2014; Senack, 2015).
Open textbooks can help improve student access to textbooks and, as a result, improve student success. Fischer, Hilton, Robinson and Wiley (2015) recently studied "nearly 5,000 post-secondary students using OER and over 11,000 control students using commercial textbooks, distributed among ten institutions across the United States, enrolled in 15 different undergraduate courses." They found that:
"In three key measures of student success -- course completion, final grade of C- or higher, course grade -- students whose faculty chose OER generally performed as well or better than students whose faculty assigned commercial textbooks."
Though studies also show that open textbooks save students money -- one report estimated student savings of over $1.5 million dollars through the Open Textbook Library alone (Schaffhauser, 2015) -- adoption of open textbooks remains low (Allen and Seaman, 2016).
Open textbooks often result from grant funds. An instructor might apply and receive a course release and a small stipend for taking the time to create the book, with the agreement that the resulting text will be licensed openly.
Individual textbook prices often range between $200 and $400 (Senack, 2016). Cost of textbooks is a major concern for U.S. college students, according to a 2016 report of open textbook costs published by the Student PIRGs.
While not all open textbooks include supplemental materials, some do. Relevant supplemental materials may also be available for free from an OER repository (see below), or may be available for a fee from other providers.
Did you know that Tennessee law requires that "Faculty members consider the least costly practices in assigning textbooks and course materials, such as adopting the least expensive edition of a textbook available when educational content is comparable to a more costly edition as determined by the faculty member …” (Tennessee Code §49-7-141)?
If there isn't an open textbook in your field, you can still help students. Place an extra copy of your textbook on course reserve in the library, making it available to individual students for loan periods of 2 to 24 hours.
Also, the Open Ed Portal features a page about "Faculty Choice." Use it to help compare options when choosing sources for readings and assignments.
If you're interested in authoring an open textbook, contact UT's Scholarly Communication and Publishing Librarian, Rachel Caldwell.
Note: A Google search for [your subject] + open textbooks often yields results, too. Look for titles endorsed by an academic society, funded by a foundation or grant, or in use at a number of colleges or universities.
Slide decks, problem sets, videos, and other supplemental files may be available from OER collections, including:
Find additional OER repositories/collections on this page of the portal.
Open textbooks are a viable response to rising textbook prices, with more effective savings than renting textbooks, using e-books, and using e-readers combined (Allen, 2010). Read about initiatives that are making the news:
The University of Tennessee Libraries joined the Open Education Network, which "promotes access, affordability, and student success through the use of open textbooks," in 2016. Through the Network, librarians are learning about open textbook initiatives at other institutions to identify and explore options that make sense for UT.
Allen, Elaine and Jeff Seaman. 2016. Opening the Textbook: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2015-16.Babson Park, MA: Babson Survey Research Group. Accessed July 25, 2016, http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/openingthetextbook2016.pdf.
Allen, Nicole. 2010. “A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks Are the Path to Textbook Affordability.” The Student PIRGs, September. Accessed July 10, 2016, http://www.studentpirgs.org/reports/cover-cover-solution
Fischer, Lane, John Hilton III, T. Jared Robinson, and David A. Wiley. "A Multi-Institutional Study of the Impact of Open Textbook Adoption on the Learning Outcomes of Post-Secondary Students," Journal of Computing in Higher Education 27 (2015): 159-172. Accessed May 26, 2017, doi:10.1007/s12528-015-9101-x.
Popken, Ben. 2015. “College Textbook Prices Have Risen 1,041 Percent Since 1977." NBC, August 6. Accessed June 12, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/feature/freshman-year/college-textbook-prices-have-risen-812-percent-1978-n399926
Schaffhauser, Dian. 2015. “Open Textbook Network Saves Students $1.5 Million, Inspires OER Senate Bill.” Campus Technology, October 27, Accessed June 15, 2016, https://campustechnology.com/articles/2015/10/27/open-textbook-network-saves-students-1.5-million-inspires-oer-senate-bill.aspx
Senack, Ethan. 2014. "Fixing the Broken Textbook Market: How Students Respond to High Textbook Costs and Demand Alternatives." The Student PIRGs, January 2014. Accessed June 12, 2016, http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/fixing-broken-textbook-market
Senack, Ethan. 2016. "Covering the Cost: Why We can No Longer Afford to Ignore High Textbook Prices." The Student PIRGs, February 2016. Accessed July 24, 2016, http://www.studentpirgs.org/sites/student/files/reports/National%20-%20COVERING%20THE%20COST.pdf
The Open Textbooks Network. "Impact and Benefits." Accessed June 14, 2016 http://research.cehd.umn.edu/otn/impact-and-benefits/
Wiley, David. 2014. "The Access Compromise and the 5th R." Iterating Toward Openness, March 5. Accessed October 11, 2017, https://opencontent.org/blog/archives/3221.
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. "Open Educational Resources.” Accessed June 14, 2016, http://www.hewlett.org/programs/education/open-educational-resources.
For more information, contact your Scholarly Communication & Publishing Librarian, Rachel Caldwell.
This LibGuide was created in 2016 by Abbey Elder, Information Science graduate student, with the supervision of Rachel Caldwell.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
You are free to reuse original material on this guide if you credit Rachel Caldwell, University of Tennessee Libraries; however, much of the information on this page comes from other sources. Check the permissions you need to reuse any material that comes from other sources.
The author of this page in not a lawyer and the information provided does not constitute legal advice.