Open-source textbooks

This is the second instalment about the practicality of open source texts. Last week, Robertson addressed the irony of offering winners of a sustainability contest a UVic Bookstore gift card. This week, she discusses the issue of affordability and practicality of open source texts.   

At first glance, the advantages of open textbooks appear obvious, perhaps most significantly in terms of savings for students.  In the past 15 years, the price of textbooks has increased three times more than other goods have due to inflation. This represents a significant financial burden for many students. Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani, an advocate of open-source textbooks at Thompson Rivers University reports that more than 60 per cent of students have at some point decided against purchasing a textbook due to high costs.

So why are professors continuing to assign expensive textbooks when institutions such as Thompson Rivers University and the Justice Institute of B.C. are making the switch to open source? I decided to take that question to Dr. Bruce Ravelli, who teaches Introductory Sociology to hundreds of UVic students each year. And the assigned textbook? It’s one he’s authored himself.

Ravelli said that his greatest concern with open-source textbooks is the defensiveness he is made to feel about a pedagogical tool he has worked hard to create. He is deeply concerned that professors will be pressured to use open-source texts, whose quality may not measure up to what can be expected of a text published with an academic publisher.

Unlike the open model of knowledge production used by Wikipedia, open-source textbooks are typically contracted products authored by a small group of individuals. The books currently being produced for B.C. campuses have largely been edited and adapted from existing open-source libraries such as OpenStax out of Rice University in Houston. In some subject areas, where no suitable open source book is available, authors are paid from $10 000 to $40 000 to produce a new open-source text.  A final means by which open-source textbooks are being produced for B.C. campuses is the “booksprint”—a hack-a-thon model of textbook production.

The first of these occurred in June of this year when a small group of geography instructors from across B.C. joined with a designer, programmer, and project managers at the University of British Columbia to create an introductory geography textbook in just four days. That’s right: 12 contributors, 52 hours, 48 420 words. That doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success to me.

While the impetus for the open source project in B.C. was to increase access to educational material, I have to ask: what quality of education can be provided with a textbook slapped together in a matter of days? In our interview, Dr. Ravelli conveyed that his own textbook (co-authored with Dr. Michelle Webber) took 18 months of full-time work to produce. I began to understand Dr. Ravelli’s concern regarding the pressure on instructors to adopt open-source textbooks; “In the pursuit for the free,” he asks, “what might we be giving up?”

But does open source necessarily mean lower quality? UVic sociology professor Dr. Bill Little recently spent eight months editing an American open-source introductory sociology text for use in Canadian classrooms. He recognizes many substantial benefits to using open source texts beyond simple affordability. Unlike traditional textbooks, open-source texts can be modified to better suit the needs of the instructor and students, and can be updated with greater ease and frequency than traditional texts.

When I asked Dr. Little if he would choose an open source text instead of the gold standard of published texts, he chuckled and replied, “Well that’s an interesting question. It’s funny; I probably would, because I think I could make it work”. Of course, Little has worked with this text for three quarters of a year, and so, as he suggested, “it’s set up in a way that represents my way of looking at things.” He noted that while he tries to be conscious of the cost of textbooks, his key priority is determining whether the book is useful or not.

However, there typically exists just a single approved open-source text available to instructors in most subjects. Limiting the choice of course materials so drastically does not sound like increased access to me. Ultimately, Dr. Little suggests that each professor should feel free to choose whichever textbook they deem most appropriate. He emphasizes that while he hopes that professors would at least look at available open-source materials, it would be a disaster to impose a book on an instructor. Reflecting the concerns of Ravelli, Little concluded our interview by stating that “there should be no pressure from anybody to choose an open source book over another [textbook]”.

Perhaps open-source textbooks, at least as they are currently produced, do not represent the panacea I first thought they might be. While the exorbitant cost of textbooks, the endless cycle of consumption, and the excessive waste produced by new editions screams for more sustainable alternatives, perhaps the true cost of open source is more than we’re willing to pay.


Avatar Don Gorges

__These 2 different Students’ learning outcomes Studies, referenced here by Clint and David, are framed as evidence that Open Textbooks are more effective than Copyright Textbooks. Rather, they are about comparing Students’ learning outcomes using their Teacher’s course-customized Textbook vs. a Textbook which had not been customized to the course. When the final Report is available, it will likely describe Teachers going through the collaborative decision processes and curating the material they and their students will use as teaching-learning resources. We know Publishers also offer Teachers the option of using their content to customize and curate course material their students will use. I expect that, over the years, there have been many research studies measuring the learning outcomes of Teacher-customized copyright content which would be relevant in this analysis.
David also feels he should instruct us to “NEVER confuse proxies for instructional quality” – with all due respect to David, no one’s confused about the importance and high value of quality visual communications in educational resources, particularly you, Veronica.

Avatar opencontent

Veronica, see our recent peer reviewed research article on the learning impacts of open textbooks, just published in Educational Researcher (one of the top educational research journals in the world). #Openaccess version should be appearing shortly. Here’s the abstract while you wait:

“This study uses a quantitative quasi-experimental design with propensity score matched groups and multiple regression to examine whether student learning was influenced by the adoption of open textbooks instead of traditional publisher-produced textbooks. Students who used open textbooks scored .65 points higher on end-of-year state standardized science tests than students using traditional textbooks when controlling for the effects of 10 student and teacher covariates. Further analysis revealed statistically significant positive gains for students using the open chemistry textbooks, with no significant difference in student scores for earth systems of physics courses. Although the effect size of the gains were relatively small, and not consistent across all textbooks, the finding that open textbooks can be as effective or even slightly more effective than their traditional counterparts has important implications in terms of school district policy in a climate of finite educational funding.”

We’ve just completed an even bigger study, this time looking at post-secondary education. It’s includes 16,000+ students from ten colleges across the US, again using propensity score matched groups, comparing learning outcomes for students using OER and students using commercial materials. On all four measures we examined – completion rate, percentage attaining C or better final grade, credits taken the same term, and credits taken in the next term – students using OER come out ahead. We’re submitting this for publication next week, watch for it to appear soon.

We must NEVER confuse proxies for instructional quality – graphic design, hardback covers, glossy paper, number of pages – with ACTUAL instructional quality. Instructional materials’ ability to support learning is the ONLY measure of quality that matters. Glossy materials that lead to poor student outcomes are poor materials. Rather bland looking materials that lead to great student outcomes are great materials.

Don’t be fooled by the *proxies* for instructional quality. Instructional quality is all about supporting learning, and OER can do a terrific job supporting learning.

Avatar Clint Lalonde

Hi Veronica,

Thank you for the article on the BC Open Textbook Project. I am the Manager of Open Education with BCcampus and am working on the BC Open Textbook Project.

I would like to respond to a few points in the article. First, open textbooks give every instructor the ability to do what Dr. Ravelli has done; create a textbook that meets their specific pedagogical needs or reflect their own pedagogical view. Only with an open textbook, they don’t need a publisher to do that.

Open textbooks give faculty a starting point to adapt a textbook to meet their specific pedagogical needs. The “open” is not just free. The “open” in open textbooks means open intellectual property license. In our case, a Creative Commons license. This means that any faculty can take and further modify or improve the book without having to get third party permission to do so. Open textbooks empower faculty to customize and create their own learning resources to fit their specific pedagogical needs, instead of wrapping their pedagogy around a textbook controlled by a publisher.

As for the quality of the books, we do not “approve” the books in our collection, Our collection continually grows as we find openly licensed textbooks. The fact that some subject areas may only have one book is only because we have not found other openly licensed books in that subject area to add to the collection. The collection will grow and there will be more choice for faculty as we find them.

But we at the project are not the judges of quality of these books. British Columbia Faculty area. There is an open peer review process with all the books in our collection. Any faculty in BC can review any book in our collection. These reviews are posted publicly alongside the books in the collection to help faculty evaluate the book. They are also meant to provide a starting place for further adapting a book, which is where the real pedagogical power of open textbooks emerges.

For example, the Sociology book that Dr. Little adapted. When the reviews of that book started arriving, it was clear that the book was too U.S.-centric to meet the needs of BC faculty. So, Dr. Little submitted a proposal to change the book based on the reviews. Along the way, Dr. Little adapted the book to meet his pedagogical vision. He now has a learning resource that meets his needs, and provides another starting point for other faculty. Some may choose to adopt it outright, others may wish to take a copy and further modify it to meet their needs and their vision. In a sense, Dr. Little’s book becomes a seed that can then be further adapted and modified by others to fit their needs.

In fact, all the books in our collection are seeds. Some faculty may find them acceptable and adopt them outright, while others may want to further refine them, either individually or in groups. For example, a Psychology department could take an open Psychology textbook and further adapt it to fit their department needs, like the Houston Community College Psychology department did with an open Psychology book. Six full-time and six adjunct faculty took and existing open Psychology textbook and created their own customized version the book to meet the needs of their students. They then went one step further and created ancillary resources (presentations, flashcards for student self-assessment, and a supplemental handbook for students) to support the open textbook. As a result, their students did better on their final exams, had higher grade point averages and had higher retention rates (Hilton & Layman 2012). These are the ways we, as educators, need to be measuring – do they improve student learning.

It is these types of collaborative activities among post-secondary faculty that we are trying to enable with the open textbook project. This is the type of collaboration we hope to model for others with events like the Geography Open Textbook Sprint and the Psychology Open Testbank Sprint. These events bring faculty together to collaborate on the development of learning resources that work for them, and are then released to the system to take and use as they wish. For some, the Geography book created during the sprint may only be a small part of the resources they use in their Geography class. For others, it may represent the start of something bigger that they can build on and further develop.

This is a different model of educational content production that puts the control of the resources in the hands of any faculty member who wants it to be able to do what Dr. Ravelli has done. It is a model that puts faculty in control of their resources to create better learning experiences for their students.

Hilton, J., & Laman, C. (2012). One college’s use of an open psychology textbook. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 27(3), 265–272. doi:10.1080/02680513.2012.716657

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