Q. What is an “open textbook”?

Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

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. Many open textbooks are distributed in either print, e-book, or audio formats that may be downloaded or purchased at little or no cost.

Part of the broader open educational resources movement, open textbooks increasingly are seen as a solution to challenges with traditionally published textbooks, such as access and affordability concerns.

The defining difference between open textbooks and traditional textbooks is that the copyright permissions on open textbooks allow the public to freely use, adapt and distribute the material. Open textbooks either reside in the public domain or are released under an open license that grants usage rights to the public so long as the author is attributed.

The copyright permissions on open textbooks extend to all members of the public and cannot be rescinded. These permissions include the right to do the following:

  • use the textbook freely
  • create and distribute copies of the textbook
  • adapt the textbook by revising it or combining it with other materials

Some open licenses limit these rights to non-commercial use or require that adapted versions be licensed the same as the original.

Q. Who decides what books are included on the reading lists for HE courses? 

In most cases, individual lecturers make the final decision about course reading materials. We have produced this quick overview to explain what happens:

Q. Why is there an interest in open textbooks in the UK?

Open Textbooks represent a primary route for the implementation of OER. They offer a number of benefits that can be readily communicated to higher education staff:

  • Familiarity with format – unlike reusable learning objects or online OER, textbooks are a format that educators are comfortable and familiar with, reducing the barrier to adoption.
  • Reduced costs – for students open textbooks are free or low cost if printed. This provides a compelling argument for adoption when the student’s perspective is foregrounded.
  • Performance – research from open textbook case studies in the US and Canada has found evidence for improved performance, retention and satisfaction for students. The reasons for this can be simply access (all students now have the textbooks), open textbooks being the impetus for course redesign, or improved quality and relevance.
  • Pedagogy – the open license on open textbooks has allowed for students and educators to modify the work, leading to explorations of open pedagogy, ownership over curriculum and digital literacy. These four components are relevant in almost any higher education context. However, simply having strong arguments is not sufficient for adoption. Several approaches have been developed within the North American context to aid the adoption process. When considering the uptake in a new setting, there may be practical, or policy related factors which inhibit the adoption of open textbooks in the UK.

The aim of this project is to investigate the adaptability of the models successfully deployed in the current setting, so as to establish a model for transferability to the UK.

Q. How widespread is use of open textbooks?

Since the release of their first open textbook in 2012, OpenStax have focused their efforts on promoting open textbooks within North America, particularly the United States. However, as their growing suite of open textbooks are freely available for anyone, anywhere to download, use of OpenStax has been reported across the world.  As at summer 2017, the United Kingdom had 15 known institutional adoptions, saving an estimated 11,000 students around $1 million.

Q. What does this project hope to achieve?

  • Adoption of open textbooks in a UK context
  • Guidelines for open textbook adoption. This will set out the methods for implementing open textbooks in other countries.
  • A set of open textbooks adapted to the UK context and peer reviewed
  • A UK open textbook champion network
  • Evaluation reports of open textbook adoption
  • Research publications


Q. When will the project take place?

The timeline for this sequence of work is provisionally April 2017 – April 2018.  This makes it really important that over the summer of 2017 we make arrangements to have the open versions of textbooks in place for trialling at UK institutions. If you’re in a position to help us with this then get in touch.


Q. How can I become involved with the project?

We are currently looking for practitioners (educators, librarians, technologists) who can help us to trial and evaluate the use of open textbooks that have been adapted from openly licensed material written in the USA.  There’s a form here where you can register your interest.


Q. Who is involved with this project?

The UK project team comprises members of OER HubViv Rolfe and David Kernohan. We are working with members of OpenStax and the Open Textbook Network. You can find out more about us an how we work on the ‘People‘ page.

We are also keen for people working in UK higher education to get involved with piloting and evaluating open textbooks across the UK.  By building a national network of “champions” we hope to further build momentum around open approaches and accurately assess the potential of open textbooks for the UK market.


Q. Who is funding this project?

The project team gratefully acknowledge the support of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.