If MOOC were the glamorous side of open education, claiming all the headlines and sweeping predictions, then open textbooks were the practical, even dowdy, application. An extension of the OER movement, and particularly pertinent in the United States and Canada, open textbooks provided openly licensed versions of bespoke written textbooks, with the digital version being free and printed versions at low cost. The price of textbooks has become an increasing issue for North American students, with the average cost per student over US$900 per year (Hilton, Robinson, Wiley, & Ackerman, 2014). This provides an initial opportunity for the OER movement to address a very specific problem and focus on creating openly licensed textbooks. Projects such as OpenStax, the Open Textbook Library, BCcampus, and Lumen Learning are all developing or promoting open textbooks. The findings from these projects have been positive, with research demonstrating the efficacy and quality of such textbooks is as good as, if not better than, existing ones (Fisher, Hilton, Robinson, & Wiley, 2015).
In terms of savings to students, it is difficult to quantify, as usage is not always reported and is thus difficult to track, and although estimates assume all students who downloaded a book would have purchased a new one, they may have opted for cheaper versions, borrowed ones, or decided the textbook was not essential at all. Both OpenStax and BCcampus attempt to accommodate some of this variation by using the average figure of US$100 per textbook per student. With this value OpenStax estimates it has saved students US$155 million in book purchases as of 2018 (OpenStax, 2019) and BCcampus more than CAD$13 million (BCcampus, 2019). Just a single college (De Anza College) estimated savings of US$1 million based on previous purchasing patterns (de los Arcos et al., 2014).
Similarly, Open Up Resources (https://openupresources.org) create open resources that align with the Common Core standard in the United States. These are authored by subject experts, then released as OER. As well as textbooks, Open Up Resources provide supporting material, such as lesson plans, assessments, and family resources. By releasing the content as OER, it can save schools money on purchasing textbooks and also facilitate a more rapid updating and improvement cycle. In South Africa, Siyavula (https://www.siyavula.com) has created open textbooks for maths and science and has worked with the education department to have these distributed. It reports that over 10 million books have been delivered into schools.
These examples illustrate large-scale, if not completely mainstream, adoption of open textbooks to the benefit of thousands of students. Open textbooks have been criticized for being an unimaginative application of the possibilities of the medium and nonetheless coming to dominate the OER field in North America.
Robin DeRosa (2015) has been one of the prominent advocates of open pedagogy, and urges a more radical rethinking of pedagogy, stating that she doesn’t “want to be part of a movement that is focused on replacing static, over-priced textbooks with static, free textbooks” (para. 2). Similarly, OER activist Rajiv Jhangiani (2015) suggested that cost should be seen as part of a nuanced message about the benefits of OER that recognizes the heterogeneity of faculty.
Despite these reservations, open textbooks offer a case study of several aspects that need to align for ed tech adoption in higher ed. Firstly, the open education movement set out to establish a solid evidence base. It did not just rely on altruism and statements of belief about the benefits. The Open Education Group at Brigham Young University, in particular, established an evidence base demonstrating that open textbooks were of high quality (Bliss, Hilton, Wiley, & Thanos, 2013) and had a positive impact on students (Hilton, 2016). This evidence makes it difficult for them to be dismissed by commercial interests or those who simply want to reject the idea.
Secondly, through the types of projects outlined above, professional, long-term providers were established who could produce textbooks of reliable quality. These books looked as good as anything that was purchased, and they didn’t appear to have been produced with a DIY approach. This initial reaction to the quality of the physical book is an important aspect for both educators and students. Books are artifacts with which people tend to have an emotional connection.
Thirdly, the switching of costs from purchase to production provides a viable economic model that is applicable for other open approaches. Most of the organizations and projects mentioned above have been supported by philanthropic institutions, such as Shuttleworth, or the Hewlett Foundation. Transitioning to sustainable models poses a challenge. Siyavula, for example, has repositioned itself as a technology company rather than as an open textbook publisher. However, financial models in open education are exploring an “open flip,” which sees “a reallocation of finances away from purchasing copyrighted resources to the production of openly licensed ones” (Weller, 2016b, p. 30). For example, the Open Library of Humanities (https://www.openlibhums.org) project operates a range of open access journals in the humanities, with no author facing charges, and is funded by subscriptions from university libraries. Generating such models with the considerable revenue spent in education currently allocated to purchasing copyrighted materials offers potential for considerable savings and the generation of open content.
These three elements of evidence, quality, and economics lay the foundation for the adoption of open textbooks, and they represent a model for how to realize ed tech adoption while avoiding some of the hype and subsequent backlash that has typified other approaches. Now, from this base, the challenge is to start innovating beyond the basic textbook. As with LMS, open textbooks offer an easy route to adoption, and like LMS, the concern is that open textbooks do not act as a stepping-stone to a more innovative, varied teaching approach but rather become an endpoint in themselves. This has led to an exploration of the concept of open pedagogy, which can be defined as teaching approaches that make use of abundant, open content, and which also emphasize the network and the learner’s connections within it. Wiley and Hilton (2018) proposed a more OER-centric version of OER-enabled pedagogy, which they defined “as the set of teaching and learning practices that are only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions which are characteristic of OER” (p. 135). To meet this definition, they proposed four questions to ask of an approach:
- Are students asked to create new artifacts (essays, poems, videos, songs, etc.) or revise/remix existing OER?
- Does the new artifact have value beyond supporting the learning of its author?
- Are students invited to publicly share their new artifacts or revised/remixed OER?
- Are students invited to openly license their new artifacts or revised/remixed OER? (p. 137)
Similarly, Jhangiani (2017) required students to create test questions to accompany an open textbook they were studying. This deepened the students’ understanding and created a pool of questions for subsequent students. DeRosa (2016), likewise, created an open textbook with students and then had each cohort add supplementary material and create introductions to sections to produce a more usable resource. In so doing, the students engaged actively with the text, questioning it and improving it. This changed the way they perceived a textbook: from a vehicle of received knowledge to something they could interact with in a profound way.
But even with these examples, the starting point was usually a desire to save students money. Will the open textbook model transfer when this initial motivation is absent, or not as prominent? The UK Open Textbooks project sought to answer this by adopting the approaches used in the United States for open textbook adoption. In the UK, spending on textbooks is less significant, with students paying out an average of £572 on books and equipment in their first year, falling to £465 in year two and to £490 in year three (Maher et al., 2017). This may not be as high as some U.S. expenditure, but it represents a considerable cost for many students. The use of textbooks in the UK, however, is less directed than in the United States, with students often presented with a reading list rather than a set text (Publishers Association, 2016). Despite these contextual differences, interest in adopting open textbooks has been high, indicating that the model is transferrable. In South Africa, the Digital Open Textbooks for Development (http://www.dot4d.uct.ac.za) project is similarly investigating the potential for open textbooks in their context. This is seen as a means of promoting inclusion and addressing the issue of equitable access. Open textbooks may be set to expand beyond their North American roots, but if the history of the movement is any indication, we should not expect this to be a tale of revolution but rather of slow, steady adoption.
Open textbooks are an example of an ed tech that has been largely driven from inside education itself. It differs in this respect from the sort of ed tech that gets labelled disruptive, as a key component to that narrative is outsiders coming into the education space. As such, open textbooks tend not to attract the sort of venture capital investment or media attention of the more tech-oriented solutions. The movement also doesn’t seek to remove the human element from education. The aim is to make education more affordable, flexible, and accessible, but still essentially human.