A Faculty Perspective on Open Textbooks

Recently I have found myself at many meetings and events (e.g., the Open Textbook summit) centered on Open Education. Despite my non-representativeness due to self-selection, I am often called upon at these meetings to represent the “faculty perspective.”

As much as I would love to do this, in my experience, there is no single faculty perspective on open education in general and open textbooks in particular. Some, like myself, are early adopters. Others are willing to go along if their concerns are addressed. Still others remain skeptical and resistant. And there are many views in between, many of which contain a mixture of curiousity, interest, and concern. And this is not a bad thing. Academic freedom is sacred. And, at least in my experience, a faculty members’ teaching philosophy is often intimately connected with their openness to openness.

Most faculty I know consider the cost to students when assigning a textbook for their courses. For them, shifting to an open textbook (assuming one is available) provides a clear advantage. Students can download and use a digital copy of the textbook for free or even print a physical copy at a fraction of the cost of a traditional textbook. At a time when a growing number of students are attempting to hold down full-time jobs while pursuing their post-secondary educational ambitions, this is a tangible benefit with a human face. Every semester I notice students in my classes who elect not to purchase the course textbook (despite cautionary notes from me) due to financial constraints. My colleagues report the same. In the battle between groceries and a textbook, the textbook loses every time.

This is especially true given the increase in the price of a traditional textbook over the past decade. We cannot fault our students for questioning the value of their (forced) purchase. As an example, the textbook I previously assigned for Research Methods in Psychology (which just happens to be the most popular textbook for this course in BC) is a softcover book printed in black ink that runs 416 pages long and retails for $114.95 + taxes & shipping. I should say that it is a great book and well written. But, in contrast, the Canadian edition of the open textbook for Research Methods in Psychology that I revised includes colour graphics throughout, runs 378 pages long and costs my students nothing. If they wish to order a print copy of the book it will cost them $13.06 + taxes & shipping. At least on price, there is no contest.

So why are faculty not yet adopting open textbooks more widely?

1. Quite simply, for many disciplines and courses, there is no open textbook available. So other than putting together a set of existing open educational resources, the nontraditional options are limited. I should say here that cost-saving alternatives like e-textbooks put forward by the big publishers are often a terrible option for students because they come with a time-limited license and have no resale value, which means that they often end up costing the students the same (or even more) in the long run, as compared with biting the bullet and buying the assigned traditional textbook.

2. In my experience, reason #2 has to do with concerns about quality (e.g., comprehensiveness, clarity, currency, etc.). Some faculty are instantly skeptical of open textbooks and hold them to a higher standard than traditional textbooks. This is fair, because traditional textbooks typically have several sets of eyes on them through their development and are later sent to many other faculty for their review. Although some open textbook initiatives (such as the BC Campus Open Textbook Project) collect and post comprehensive faculty reviews for the books in their repository, others do not. Where available, open textbooks or chapters written by leading scholars (e.g., the NOBA project) are especially helpful in countering doubts about quality.

3. But let’s imagine that a high quality open textbook is available for a particular course. Sometimes these are entirely text-based – no illustrations, charts, or graphics to aid comprehension. No questions or critical thinking exercises embedded. No online learning management system available that students can rely on for formative feedback. And, crucially for many faculty, no testbank, which means that the instructor is then obligated to write every question for every assessment for their course. Considering the amount of time it takes to write good test questions that are reliably able to distinguish between different levels of understanding, this is a tall order.

4. The choice of textbook is sometimes not an individual one. Especially for large, multi-section introductory courses (sometimes offered in two halves), in order to facilitate student mobility, academic departments often mandate that faculty adopt the same textbook across all sections. This reality often makes switching to an open textbook a less nimble decision.

One of the myths I often try to dispel is that faculty are the enemy and have some great stake in upholding the traditional textbook model. To be clear – assuming they are not the author, faculty do not receive any benefit when they assign a particular publisher’s textbook. Faculty are, however, deeply concerned about student learning. For this reason I believe that if faculty are presented with an open textbook alternative that has been favourably reviewed by other faculty, embeds good pedagogical features, and has an available testbank, it would be more difficult for the majority to continue upholding the status quo.

Beyond merely speaking to the legitimate concerns of faculty, however, I find it more refreshing to speak to the additional advantages that open textbooks bring to faculty:

1. Faculty have the ability to adapt and remix the textbook to suit their needs. They may choose to delete specific chapters or sections or even write and insert sections for their open textbook, making it possible to incorporate recent developments in research and theory much faster than the traditional textbook’s five-year review cycle permits. In other words, an increase in academic freedom!

2. There is some evidence to suggest that when an open textbook is carefully adapted to suit a particular program, student performance and retention is actually enhanced.

3. The ideal textbook does not exist. My colleague Takashi Sato at Kwantlen Polytechnic University recently made this excellent point. There are always tradeoffs that faculty make when adopting a textbook. Often it is a question of whether the content is “good enough,” assuming that several other resources are in place. For the reasons listed above, open textbooks are very often better than “good enough.”

4. As soppy as this sounds, the looks on your students’ faces when you tell them that you have adopted an open textbook. You have them at hello.

5. Although this post is about open textbooks, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the open research movement is a natural and strong ally, particularly when addressing faculty. Open access journals like PLOS ONE have become mainstream as researchers have come to appreciate the need for the fruit of their labour (and public tax coffers) to be shared with the public. In many ways, open textbooks are merely an extension of this same philosophy and permit faculty to live more closely in concert with their values.

Of course there are many remaining issues to work on before open textbooks can go mainstream. The sustainability of who will continue to revise and update the open textbooks is one such question. Government support and resource sharing agreements help a great deal. But ultimately I believe that it is institutional culture that will need to shift. A university’s strategic priorities need to include moving towards open education. From the president’s office down, open education initiatives need to be supported for these to develop and mature. This includes time releases for faculty adapting/adopting open textbooks, institutional recognition of this work, practical and regularly offered professional development workshops, and the consideration of the development of open educational resources in the files of those on the tenure-track.

I recently met a student from the University of Regina who spoke eloquently about why we should avoid pitting different stakeholders (e.g., faculty and students) against one another. I believe she is correct. There is not just one reason to consider adopting open textbooks. The benefits to students are obvious, the benefits to faculty can be highlighted, and the benefits to the institution (e.g., with recruitment) may need to be spelled out. Open textbooks represent a rare win-win-win scenario, the kind we do not see very often in post-secondary education.

To finish, I ask you to engage in a useful thought exercise: Imagine a world in which open textbooks, open research, open pedagogy, and open educational resources are the norm. In this future world, imagine that a representative from a for-profit publishing house approaches a faculty member in order to persuade them to adopt one of their textbooks. What would their pitch look like? And what could they possibly say that would convince faculty to adopt their product?

17 thoughts on “A Faculty Perspective on Open Textbooks

  • Farhad Dastur

    Thank you for this cogent article on the merits and demerits of open textbooks. The goals of the “open” movement are inspirational; the path to get there will be perspirational.
    –Dr. Farhad Dastur (Kwantlen Polytechnic University)

  • Rajiv you do an admirable job in this post representing faculty view(s). Your point that faculty are not a homogeneous entity is spot on, yet I think this post does capture many of the diverse responses I have heard from faculty. It rings true to me, despite your self-selection bias insistence ;). Your approach is balanced and represents both the pragmatic and idealistic; the pros and the cons of being an open educator.

    You are right – we are talking about not only an institutional shift, but a cultural shift in how we conduct the practice of teaching & learning. In my perfect world, it would be a considerable success if the work in BC around open education led to a shift where educators start with open first as the default. To recognize that there is another way of doing things, albeit different and often challenging, as new things often are. But that, for me, would be a massive win in and of itself with this project.

  • __Thanks, Rajiv, for your well-written article — you pose very interesting questions about the future evolution of learning resources as we transition to personalization. It was worthwhile to compare the 2 Research Methods in Psychology textbooks cited here and to read your review. Since continuous improvement is ongoing, we shouldn’t make too fine a point about a Comprehensiveness Rating: 5 out of 5 in a textbook where a Table of Contents and Index are missing. I would, however, like to have the link to “Buy a print copy” fixed so we can see how one prints and binds a colour, soft-cover, 377 page Textbook at $13. Thanks, again.

    • drjhangiani

      Thanks for the comment, Don. I revised the text rather quickly last summer (working in MS Word) outside of the BC Open Textbook project and purely in anticipation of a pilot adoption for the Fall semester. This summer I will revisit the text to finish the job, including taking into account student feedback over the past year. One of the simpler changes that we will make is the default spacing, which is unnecessarily far apart right now (increasing the page count). The development of BC Campus’ Pressbooks plugin helps make these kinds of changes very straightforward to implement.
      The link to purchase a print copy works for me. Students have the option to order a print copy in either B&W or colour format.
      I agree about the rating for comprehensiveness, which better reflects the coverage but not the absence of an index & glossary.

    • drjhangiani

      Hi Don. Softcover binding (glossy cover) with B&W printing is $13.06. The price you mention is for colour printing.

  • __Thanks Rajiv. If Students feel that not having a Table of Contents or Index isn’t a concern, then likely B/W copies of colour illustrations won’t be an issue either. Hopefully creators of OER won’t allow their Textbooks to be so easily distinguished for their nearzero visual communications and low quality manufacturing standards. [State Instructional Materials Review Association (SIMRA)]

    • Hi Don,

      A compromise between colour and low cost might be for students who prefer print to purchase the low cost black and white for reading passages of text and use the full colour PDF to view full colour illustrations. No reason why they can’t use multiple formats. As for an index, this isn’t really needed for electronic versions of books as ebooks have search functionality, which is the primary purpose of an index.

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  • I certainly agree that much more needs to be done to understand why faculty, students and institutions are resistant to what looks like a no-brainer on the surface. The technology to pull this off is in hand but there is much more to it than that. The greater challenge is how to rearrange the culture of higher education so that the people affected are willing and able make use of the technology.
    Commercial publishers won’t be standing still either. They are already hard at work creating some very seductive alternatives that may well come to market before open eTextbooks become established. It’s a race that they are better equipped to win.

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  • Dr. Melanie Glennon

    Wonderfully informative. Thank you!


    This post is significant and should be read by as many University Faculty as possible.
    There are some serious traditionalists among University staff. The most important aspect to emphasize here is that this change is driven by many legitimate factors that are well explained/discussed in this article.


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