Category Archives: OERHub

Adopting Open Textbooks in the UK

This post was first shared via the Open Education Working Group blog.

In March of 2017 the Open Education Research (OER) Hub received a small grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to assess whether current US models of open textbook adoption would translate to the UK HE context. In a short space of time we put together under the UK Open Textbook Project a team of interested parties, which included David Kernohan and Viv Rolfe this side of the Atlantic, and David Ernst (Open Textbook Network) and OpenStax on American soil.

The cost of textbooks in the US is massive. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that textbook prices have increased by 88% in the past ten years. The average student enrolling in the 2015-16 academic year had to budget between $1230 and $1390 for textbooks and course materials. To put this in context, a loaf of bread is $2.50 and a pint of milk, 40 cents. That’s over 3000 pints of milk and nearly 500 loaves of bread that you’d need to go without in order to purchase your textbooks (and we all know in bad weather what’s the first thing that goes from supermarket shelves). Seriously though, academic performance is also taking a hit: Student PIRGS says that two thirds of students don’t buy a required textbook because they are too expensive, with cost having a negative impact on which and how many courses they register for. Can you imagine how you would cope in your course without the textbook? Research tells us that earning a poor grade, failing or dropping out would not come as a surprise.

The Open Textbook Library defines open textbooks as “textbooks that have been funded, published, and licensed to be freely used, adapted, and distributed. These books can be downloaded for no cost, or printed at low cost”. Because they serve to offset the cost of traditional textbooks, open textbooks have a reason to exist, and the fact that $5 million have been put aside by Congress to fund an open textbook grant program demonstrates that in the US the issue is treated with grave concern. However, is cost a valid argument to adopt open textbooks in the UK? In a recent report on the financial position of students in higher education in England, commissioned by the Department for Education we learn that:

“Compared with the cost of tuition fees, expenditure on direct course costs made up a smaller proportion of full-time students’ participation costs – they spent on average £512 (six per cent of total participation costs) on these items in the 2014/15 academic year. Fulltime students spent the most on computers (£253), followed by printing, photocopying and stationery (£105), then books (£101) and other equipment (£31).” (p. 279)

£101 does not sound like a lot of money, does it? Students in England are delivered a brutal blow by having to pay fees of £9000 a year, not by the amount of money spent on textbooks. It is true that we don’t want to add to their woes and anything we can save them comes as a bonus. What I’d like to highlight here is that if open textbooks are to be adopted in the UK, we need to look beyond cost and sing out loud what we (teachers and students) can do with an open textbook that we can’t do with a traditional textbook. My emphasis in the above definition has to be on “licensed to be freely used, adapted and distributed”.

As part of the work carried out by the UK Open Textbooks Project, the team ran a total of fourteen workshops in eight HE institutions in England, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. The aim of these was to raise awareness of open textbooks and to invite participants to review an open textbook from the Open Textbook Library. As it happened, I facilitated workshops in Glasgow Caledonian University, where registration fees are zero pounds, and NUIGalway, where students pay a ‘contribution’ of €3000 per year. Neither of these universities would see cost as the only swinging logic to use an open textbook in the classroom, but both could reasonably buy into the idea of an open textbook as a living creature that can be adapted ad libitum. An open textbook is more than free; it is free with permissions; permission to reorder chapters, localise examples, translate into any language, add content to, delete paragraphs, link to external sources, and more. More. More. Think about it. Ask your students to think about it.

If you do and you’d like our support, get in touch: @UKOpenTextbooks.


Open textbooks at NUI, Galway


Photo by Eileen Walsh, @EileenWalsh101

Over a week ago I facilitated a workshop entitled ‘Open Textbooks: Access, Affordability and Academic Success’ at the university in Galway. This is not my original work but adapted from a presentation that David Ernst gives as director of the Open Textbook Network. The reason is that we (the OER Hub team, David and other colleagues) are working on a small research grant from the Hewlett Foundation to evaluate how easily current US models of textbook adoption translate to UK higher education. The project is UK-based but hints at a wider European remit; since my European heart is closer to Ireland than any other country, it seemed to me perfectly fit to start my open textbook tour in my adopted home. I’m grateful to Sharon Flynn for kindly letting me take over her open practices session, and to her #CEL263 class for putting up with three whole hours of me talking open textbooks. #CEL263 is one of the modules contributing to NUIG’s Postgraduate Diploma in Academic Practice, a course I would like to take myself, without any qualms about giving up my Friday evenings.

But I digress. Let me give you a brief run through the slides:

Education is a human right. As such, higher education should be equally accessible to all. While one might be inclined to think that this is an issue affecting primarily developing nations, truth is, it’s right on our doorstep, yours and mine. We hope education will be the demise of social inequality, yet too often how education is structured serves to reinforce social inequality.

The bulk of the argument rests on data around cost: government funding of HE going down, tuition fees on the increase, blood-chilling drop out rates, and large student debt on graduation day. I actually thought that this wouldn’t run true in Ireland. Alas, I didn’t have to dig too deep to find that I was wrong.

The cost of having a degree in Ireland is phenomenal. Yes, students probably drink too much, and should use a bus éireann more often, and live at home longer (ahem). What can we do, realistically? Textbooks are expensive. Research tells us that this has caused students to not purchase the required textbook, take fewer courses, not register for a specific course, earn a poor grade, drop a course and even fail a course. We are not taking only about impact on student finances, but impact on students’ academic performance.

Could textbooks be free? Not if we follow a traditional publishing business model. A publisher produces a textbook, recoups investment in sales, and pays royalties to the author; copyright protects against, for example, one student buying a text and photocopying it for everyone else. There are other models, though: a funder pays the publisher to produce a book with the condition to make it available free of cost forever. This textbook is still copyrighted, how can the end-user be aware of the funder’s intent for the textbook to be shared freely? Enter Creative Commons licences.

Open textbooks are textbooks that have been funded, published, and licensed to be freely used, adapted, and distributed“. David Ernst started The Open Textbook Library to make it easy to find open textbooks. The rest of the slides in the workshop quickly introduce research covering how students and educators perceive the quality of open textbooks (as OER), and their efficacy. There are also a few examples of how open textbooks have been adopted and adapted, and finally an invitation to browse the library and write a review.

Questions and comments on the day:

Does creating an open textbook count towards my academic profile?’ ‘Do students really care about their learning?’. Plus, what I’m gonna call the usual Irish banter, ‘Do they not have photocopying machines in the US?’

If you read only one piece as a follow up to this post, make it Stephen Downe’s ‘If we talked about the internet like we talk about OER‘.