Open Access Textbooks

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The Project

Can open textbooks provide a viable solution to the high cost of textbooks? Are open textbooks quality books? What will encourage faculty to develop or adopt open textbooks? What is a book? How do students prefer to interact with their textbooks? What is the sustainability model for a free and open textbook? How can the development of open textbooks become recognized and rewarded in tenure and promotion decisions? Answers to these challenging questions and more will be offered from the findings of this FIPSE Open Access Textbook grant project: Florida faculty and student survey results, interviews with OER leaders, articles, open textbook authors and faculty adopters, and lessons learned from Florida’s open textbook initiative - Orange Grove Texts Plus. This unique Florida partnership reinvents two existing organizations, the University Press of Florida and The Orange Grove digital repository, to acquire, develop and deliver open textbooks to students at no or low cost with no new funding. Read on to discover how your institution or state can participate in open textbooks and benefit from the evolving and replicable open textbook model under development through the generous support of FIPSE.

This open textbook model is designed to develop and test a set of processes and strategies to establish a statewide open textbook initiative intended to reduce textbook costs for students and increase recognition of faculty for open access publishing as a scholarly activity. The results of this approach will be evaluated and a set of guidelines will be the result. As the academic and business worlds interact and change, new opportunities and challenges arise. The open textbook model is intended to be sufficiently adaptable to embrace new opportunities and meet new challenges.


The primary features that differentiate open textbooks from traditional commercial textbooks are cost and copyright restrictions. Open textbooks, also known as open access textbooks, are “complete digital textbooks that are accessible online at no cost, and affordable to purchase printed as a book,” according to the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs, 2009, October 29). Focusing on intellectual property rights more than cost, U.S. Senate Bill 1714 called them, “college textbooks or course materials in electronic format that are licensed under an open license, which is an irrevocable intellectual property license that grants the public the right to access, customize, and distribute copyrighted material” (S. 1714, 2009). According to Frances Rowe (2010, October 26), “In order for a textbook to be considered open, it must be licensed by the author in ways that grant a minimum set of rights to users that are less restrictive than standard copyright. Generally, these rights allow users to digitally access and print the textbook without incurring a cost” (para.1 1). Open content and open access textbooks can be used, reused, often remixed and customized under a Creative Commons license that permits the author/s to retain ownership of their content, yet establish the rights under which the content may be used by others. Creative Commons licenses are free, easy-to-use legal tools that are standardized, globally accepted, and understood in many languages to support open content including open access textbooks. A list of characterizations of open textbooks by various entities can be found in Appendix A.

Dynamic textbooks are open access textbooks that contain links to embedded resources such as original source documents, maps simulations, videos, games, podcasts, animations, and relevant websites. In many cases, low cost, print-on-demand versions of dynamic textbooks are also available. eTextbooks are electronically enhanced commercially produced textbooks that are similar to dynamic textbooks, but typically with restrictions related to access. For example, the student usually may access or download the textbook from a single computer only and for a set number of days, such as 120 or 180 days, with access expiring at the conclusion of the allotted period. Other restrictions may apply to the number of pages that can be printed at one time.

Needs and Opportunities

The high cost of textbooks for our students has grabbed the attention of our state from the governor to the legislature, chancellors, college and university presidents, faculty, and most especially, the students. According to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA, 2008, April) Report No. 08-29, “The cost of college textbooks and required course materials has increased faster than inflation, and averages about $120 per course for common undergraduate classes. Textbook costs vary by discipline, and are highest for life sciences, physical sciences, business, and mathematics courses.” And, for students majoring in these subject areas, the cost of textbooks often exceeds the cost of tuition in Florida. There exists a tangible threat that the development of the intellectual capital through higher education of young Americans is at risk because of escalating costs, and the cost of textbooks is a major contributor. Among the several potential strategies for reducing the costs of textbooks, one solution is capable of addressing the wide range of student preferences: open access textbooks (Student PIRGs, 2010, September 30).

State and federal leadership across the country are in agreement that a solution to the high cost of textbooks must be found – one that is easy to use, cost effective, and makes a significant difference in the cost of higher education. Open Access Textbook (OAT) initiatives are one very promising solution. The 2010 Horizon Report (Johnson, Levine, Smith, & Stone, 2010), a collaboration between the New Media Consortium and Educause, predicted that open content will reach mainstream within one year and the time-to-adoption of open-content textbooks that can be “remixed” – that is customized, modified, or combined with other materials – is one year or less. According to the report, “Part of the appeal of open content is that it is also a response to both the rising costs of traditionally published resources and the lack of educational resources in some regions, and a cost-effective alternative to textbooks and other materials” (p. 17).

Evidence of student engagement in learning has also been attributed to the use of open textbooks. Students in Lisa McDonnell’s Sociology class at St. Petersburg College, 99 percent of them, reported anonymously to her that the Intro to Sociology open textbook (created by Ron Hammond and Paul Cheney) they used in her class “was awesome, that they really appreciated me using this textbook, and they wished that more professors would actually us it” (McDonnell, n.d.). Erik Christensen (2010, February 17) said students gave rave reviews of the open textbook he adopted for his Physics course at South Florida Community College. “They felt more engaged, did a lot of peer learning …. It was more the way I like to teach rather than strictly lecture in front of the students.” Open textbooks were found to support inquiry-based, interactive learning and pedagogy in a series of studies conducted by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME; Middleton-Detzner, 2010, July 21).

Project Goal

The goal of this project is to develop an open access textbook model for statewide implementation and to test its processes and strategies. The intended outcomes of the project are to (a) reduce textbook costs for students, (b) increase the recognition of digital publishing as a significant scholarly contribution, (c) evaluate tools for customization of open textbooks such as Rhaptos, and, (d) through The Orange Grove, provide a systematic means to locate online free open textbooks.

In describing a model for the sustainable support of open textbook authoring and adoption, numerous roles and processes must be taken into account. Students are at the core of the issue because they are the ultimate consumers and the ones who have the need for reduced costs. However, faculty members are the target of the change effort. Without strong sponsors at one or more levels (e.g., national, state, institutional or departmental), little change can be expected.

Many of the processes involved in publishing and distribution are crucial to the acceptance of open textbooks by faculty. Moreover, a critical mass of high quality open textbooks must be available and easily found, and the effort required to create those assets is massive. Finally, various models for sustaining the process financially have been implemented, with varying degrees of success. This analysis will examine the factors that influence open textbook creation and adoption from the perspectives of each of these elements and describe the processes tested and the results they produced.

Overview of Key Partnerships

Building collaborative relationships is essential for the success of a coordinated statewide initiative. Two central entities are the repository where resources are stored and catalogued and a professional publisher that assists authors in the development and review of texts, provides copy editing, and coordinates the many services that prepare a text for printing and distribution. Florida’s repository, The Orange Grove, and professional publisher, University Press of Florida, work as a team to make open textbooks available. Also key to that collaboration are the ancillary producing partner, WebAssign, the print-on-demand printer, Integrated Book Technologies, Inc. (IBT), and campus bookstores which receive a discounted price for print-on-demand books. All of these partners have important roles to play in the collaborative process of making affordable open textbooks available to faculty and students.

Overview of Available Data

In 2009, the Florida Legislature passed Statute 1004.091(2), entitled Open Access Textbooks. In response to this statute, the Open Access Textbook Task Force (OATTF) was formed. The principal responsibility of the OATTF was to present a plan to the Board of Governors to promote awareness of open access textbooks in Florida. In the process of fulfilling its duty, the task force conducted two surveys—one of faculty and administrators and the other of student government leaders—to assess current perceptions about open access textbooks. The complete task force report can be accessed at OATTF Final Report. What follows are brief overviews of the findings of the two surveys.

The faculty and administration survey, which took place in October of 2009, received 2707 responses of which 57 percent were from university faculty and administrators and 43 percent were from state and community colleges. Approximately 10 percent of all responses were from administrators. Two thirds of university faculty selected their textbooks in all cases, whereas 62 percent of state and community college faculty reported that textbook selections were made by their department or a group of faculty.

Slightly more than half of all respondents were not at all familiar with open access textbooks. Only 12 percent had ever used open access materials, and only half of those had used open textbooks. The remaining users of open access materials reported using “other” or “supplementary” materials. Most faculty reported that they would be somewhat likely or very likely to use open access materials in the future (textbooks 53%, supplementary materials 60%, and other materials 55%). The likelihood of them developing materials was lower (textbooks 30%, supplementary materials 38%, and other materials 43%). From among 10 factors provided that would influence their decision to use open access materials, “academic quality” was ranked highest and “impact on bookstore” lowest. From among 13 factors provided that would influence their decision to create open access materials, “time to develop open access materials” was ranked highest and “impact on campus bookstore” lowest.

The survey of student government leaders, which was administered from November 2009 through January 2010, focused on students’ preferences and the cost of textbooks. The twenty participants in the survey included 16 university and four college student government leaders. Six respondents had used free online texts and 14 had not. They reported purchasing an average 8.3 textbooks for fall 2009. The average cost of textbooks for fall 2009 was approximately $400.

The student government leaders indicated that multimedia components and practice opportunities were better in online texts than in traditional printed texts. When asked if textbooks were too expensive, 16 said yes and four said no. Factors that respondents judged to be very important for meeting the needs of students were high academic quality, free online access, low cost print copies available for purchase, unlimited printing of text permitted at home, and texts remaining accessible at any time online or via download. Slightly important to neutral factors were attractive layout or good graphics, high quality practice materials, and inclusion of multi-media supplementary materials. A large majority of SGA leaders indicated they thought their associations would “publicize open textbooks on campus,” and “provide student teams to inform campus faculty about open access textbooks.” When asked if their associations would “assist in funding open textbook creation,” six responded “yes,” 10 answered “maybe,” and two indicated “no.”

Funded by Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE)