Open Textbooks: What They Are and How They Help

While the high cost of a college education has been a topic of discussion for years, one particular aspect of this issue getting attention recently is the high cost of college textbooks. It has been estimated the average college student spends approximately $1,300 per year for textbooks alone. Concern over these costs have led to the exploration of alternatives to the traditional big publisher-produced textbook.

According to the Open Textbook Alliance, textbook prices have risen at three times the cost of inflation over the last decade, to the point where many textbooks now cost between $200 and $400. The high cost of books means many students either opt not to purchase the course text or simply cannot afford to purchase the text. A recent survey by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group revealed 65% of college students went without a textbook for a class. In some instances, a student will avoid taking a class altogether due to the high cost of the textbook.

Research has shown students who don’t have access to a textbook are less likely to succeed in their courses and, consequently, more likely to leave college before finishing a degree. For too many students, lacking access to a key part of the class itself –the required textbook—is an impediment to college success.

Open textbooks are an alternative to traditional textbooks. Similar to a traditional textbook, open textbooks are authored by college faculty, undergo a scholarly review process, and are updated regularly to reflect current knowledge in the field. But they are published under an open copyright license, which means their content can be freely used, re-used, shared, and customized by the faculty who use the books in their classes. Most online versions of open texts are available at no cost to students, while print versions can be purchased for very low cost (much lower than traditional textbooks). Open textbooks ensure students have access to the required course materials regardless of their financial situation.

Open textbooks not only save students money, they also help improve their overall educational experience. It has been shown students using open materials fare just as well as students using publisher-produced materials. Having unrestricted access to the course text gives students a better chance of understanding the course content, successfully completing the class, and completing their degrees. Removing this financial barrier has a significant impact on student learning.

Here at CMU, the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Support (CIS) launched an open textbook initiative during the 2020-2021 year. With support from a President’s and Provost’s Fund for Program Innovation and Excellence grant, and in partnership with an open educational resource (OER) librarian consultant and the CMU Libraries, CIS’s “ZenEd” project seeks to forge zero-materials-cost paths through the university’s general education courses.

As of June 2021, fourteen different courses such as ENG 101, ENG 202, and STA 282QR, have become part of the ZenEd project. Led by department-appointed faculty, each of these courses now utilizes zero-cost-to-student open access textbooks and, in some cases, freely available library-licensed content.

Some sections of the participating courses have been surveyed and the feedback from students and faculty has been positive. These classes have successfully achieved the anticipated outcomes of improved student preparedness and significant cost savings. As the initial ZenEd project concludes this summer, representatives from CIS and the CMU Libraries are discussing how to best continue this important work.

For more information about open textbooks and other freely accessible learning resources check out the library’s guide to open educational resources.

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