Open Textbooks: Home
What Are Open Textbooks?
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 versus Inclusive Access
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.
Find an Open Textbook to Adopt
- Start with the Open Textbook Library. The OTL provides a list of peer-reviewed and openly licensed textbooks that are currently in use at multiple higher educational institutions, or affiliated with a higher education institution, scholarly society, or professional organization. The OTL also includes instructor reviews for each title.
- Other collections are listed below under "Where to Find Open Textbooks."
Adopt an Open Textbook, or Modify One
Report Your Open Textbook Adoptions
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.
- Fill out this short form to report your adoption.
- Wonder who has adopted open textbooks at UT? Find out on this list.
SGA Open Education Awards
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.
Why Open Textbooks Are Important
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).
How Are They Funded?
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.
What Else Is Important to Know?
- The quality of open textbooks, like traditional textbooks, varies widely. Knowing reputable publishers can help. Some major universities have undertaken open textbook publishing initiatives, including Rice University's OpenStax, the State University of New York (SUNY), and the University of British Columbia. Additionally, some open textbook collections, such as the Open Textbook Library, include faculty reviews to ease and expedite decision-making when considering the adoption of an open textbook for a course.
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.
- Open textbooks offer several advantages. They are licensed to allow addition of material so that current information can be added to the text. Open textbooks are also licensed to be "remixed" so that information from a range of sources can be combined by instructors and shared with students.
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)?
No Open Textbook in Your Field?
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.
Where to Find Open Textbooks
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.
Where to Find Supplemental Materials
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 in the News
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 open textbook initiatives that are making the news:
The University of Tennessee Libraries joined the Open Textbook 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.
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.
Free to Reuse with Credit
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.