Open Textbook Discussions – Reinventing the Textbook (post 3)

The first of our project workshops on open textbooks was held at the University of the West of England, Bristol, on 20 and 21st July 2017. Previous posts contain links to slides and other discussions. This post captures some of the ideas around the potential of the open textbook publishing model, and in the discussions we critiqued the challenges we might face or questions we might wish to ask.


  • We put a book list up but then we don’t use it and students don’t know whether to go out and buy books. Some students in my last university went out and bought all books. “I was horrified and stunned”.
  • How does the open publishing improve the quality of the textbook?
  • How does the open reviewing impact on the actual book review – it all looks a bit good?

The workshops are designed to encourage academics and teachers to ‘adopt’ books, as developed by David Ernst and his colleagues at the Open Textbook Library . As part of this process, finding a book and writing a book review is the first important step. The results of reviewing can be found in the slide deck (slide 50) and most of the books score positively. Browsing the reviews is a useful thing to do as they point out in what courses books might be relevant, so it is probably worthwhile reading some of the reviews to inform your decisions if you are considering using a book.

Open Textbook Perceptions

What are student perceptions of open textbooks?


What more do we know about the quality of open textbooks?

The research coming out of the US Open Education Group at Brigham Young University is providing quite an evidence base to suggest that open textbooks are perceived to be as good as, or better, than textbooks that are purchased. I guess you might say well they would be! So, the follow-up empirical data is probably more important. The types of research presented are of a variety of designs, and this types of classroom-based studies are notoriously difficult to conduct and control for. Most are quite robust and have evaluated the impact of several books in longitudinal studies over several cohorts of students – those who use traditional texts and then swapping onto the open textbooks. Controlling variables is also very tricky – and it is impossible to say whether students were just using the open textbooks alone, or to what extent the teacher was encouraging use in the class. That said, there is quite a substantial body of work on large numbers of students suggesting that open textbooks are just as effective in supporting student learning and progress, or if not better, than traditionally purchased texts. In some of the studies there are subject anomoloies and we don’t yet know fully why some subjects lend themselves to the use of open textbooks compared to others.

How is student learning being measured? A number of measures are used to determine the impact on students – end of ‘course’ (module) grades; numbers of ‘courses’ (modules) studied and therefore quickness to graduation, for example. These indicators of performance and progression are important for us in the UK too.

Does open mean inclusive?

This was a common question in the workshops. The Creative Commons open license placed on the text allows the books to be shared, and some of the freer terms, encourage remixing and adaptation of the content, meaning the books can be recontextualised for (or by) different student groups. The textbooks can be accessed in a range of formats from digital to print, and the ability to further convert them through services such as means they can be made accessible for people with print disabilities. So theoretically yes, open educational resources in this way can offer more inclusive learning solutions, but there is little empirical evidence to show this. (One of the themes of the 2018 UK OER conference is reflecting diversity and inclusivity).

As the ensuing discussion pointed out, this doesn’t negate all barriers – there is still a digital disadvantage for people who may not have internet access, but then, the low cost print version provide a non-digital option. There may well still be unsurmountable study costs to consider, and the open textbooks won’t solve these. These arguments are absolutely valid, but we must also remember how far we have come from having no option other than students purchasing highly priced textbooks. Work to be done!

Open pedagogies and challenges?

The workshop attendees were at times interested in knowing more about how to adapt and re-publish the books. There are many aspects to be discussed and resolved.


  • Co-creation – you could end up with an infinite number of resources and videos? Maybe there is an editorial process?
  • Academics are more interested in the adaptation. Library = adoption.
  • The variety would suit students. Sometimes you don’t get on with a book. Here there will be more choice for students to access books that might be written in a way that they understand better.
  • If you take some chapters and re-write them – how is this recognised?
  • Can you take out any chapter?

The answers to these questions about adapting and repurposing would depend on the terms of the Creative Commons License being used with the book. The ‘BY’ part of the license says you always need to attribute the originator. There is no set way to record the changes, but if you look at some of the adapted books, they give detailed instructions of what was changed by whom, and the new version of the book is indicated. Can you take out chapters? Yes unless it is a No Derivatives ND license. You can however provide a link to individual chapters – you just cant repackage them in a new books – create something new. A process for re-versioning is perhaps something that the open textbook community needs to think about, or as with the present books, the academic or teacher can just review it as if it were new to ensure it suited their needs.

What might students think?


  • What might students think about using a book from somewhere else?
  • The perception might be that the member of staff hasn’t put the effort in?
  • One university offered free courses but they were not well taken up. The perception is that free isn’t good quality.
  • We need to make things seem valuable.
  • We need to say that something is available as an open educational resource – sell the benefits to students – give it a frame and value. “We are doing this intentionally to benefit you”.

This was a wonderful part of the discussion and again reminded me of how little research has been done to understand what students perceive and value. In Libor Hurt’s MSc dissertation on student perceptions of open educational resources students were favourable toward the sharing of OER within the academic community, but were less sure about having resources openly available to the public (p50 of the dissertation). Some students were concerned about paying high tuition fees and universities making content openly available: “if people can access the course material for free why are we paying to go here?” And other students were concerned about how medical and health relating content might be misconstrued if it were made publicly available and open to adaptation (p71 of the dissertation).

Closing thoughts and action

This was a full-on two days with four workshops and 25 attendees. One of the final comments was the most interesting to me:

Textbook almost seems a limited terminology – it is a challenge to what exists now but limits the potential? The pro is that people know what it (a textbook) is. OER? People don’t know. Textbooks a good foot in the door – and hope that other resources are added on.

Do contact us if you would be interested in an Open Textbook workshop in your university.


Vivien Rolfe

Open educator for over 10 years; advocate; open practitioner; OER creator; Director of OER projects and researcher. More here:

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