Free Textbooks? Is that even possible??

October 22, 2014

In Open Access Week it seems an appropriate time to consider the cost of textbooks and the impact the open movement might have on the situation.

Open Access Textbooks (OATs) and Open Educational Resources (OERs) are gaining attention worldwide as a low user cost alternative to the prescribed textbooks that have been the norm.  So, what are they and how can they help?

OATs are born digital educational or class resources that students can access at no cost online.  They are designed to be used in place of a traditional published textbook and are designed with the learner as the primary audience (for clarity, some OERs are designed as teacher resources rather than learner texts).  They are generally licenced with a Creative Commons or GNU licence that allows for reuse and remixing (that is the bit that makes them ‘open’), so that a teacher can mix and match content to meet the explicit needs of their learners and course (therefore eliminating possible redundancy in a commercial text).

As the costs of printed textbooks continue to rise, and both libraries and students come under increasing financial pressure, a free and open alternative starts to sound attractive – but there are of course some limitations.

  • OATs don’t write themselves – someone needs to create them and then choose to make them freely available online and this takes time and commitment
  • OATs are not (usually) published books – so they aren’t universally catalogued and indexed by libraries, making it a bit tricky to find them
  • OATs are online – there is a lot of research out there about student preferences when it comes to reading online or print, much of it conflicting and this is probably an area where we will see considerable shift in the next few years

So, while OATs aren’t the complete silver bullet for the problem of textbook cost, they could be part of the mix.  It stands to reason that while a learner may (still) prefer to read a print textbook, if their financial situation means they cannot afford to purchase all their required texts, surely a freely available OAT is more attractive than no textbook at all.

While finding OATs is acknowledged as a point of frustration, here are a few examples if you are curious about what is available:


Further Reading

Allen, N., & The Student PIRGs. (2010). A cover to cover solution: How open textbooks are the path to textbook affordability. Retrieved from

Hellman, E. S. (2011). Open access e-books. Retrieved from

Hilton III, J. L., Robinson, T. J., Wiley, D., & Ackerman, J. D. (2014). Cost-Savings Achieved in Two Semesters Through the Adoption of Open Educational Resources. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 15(2), 67-84.

Morris-Babb, M., & Henderson, S. (2012). An experiment in open-access textbook publishing: Changing the world one textbook at a time. Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 43(2), 148-155. doi: 10.3138/jsp.43.2.148.

Okamoto, K. (2013). Making Higher Education More Affordable, One Course Reading at a Time: Academic Libraries as Key Advocates for Open Access Textbooks and Educational Resources. Public Services Quarterly, 9(4), 267-283.

Petrides, L., Jimes, C., Middleton-Detzner, C., Walling, J., & Weiss, S. (2011). Open textbook adoption and use: Implications for teachers and learners. Open Learning, 26(1), 39-49.

Robinson, T. J., Fischer, L., Wiley, D., & Hilton, J. (2014). The Impact of Open Textbooks on Secondary Science Learning Outcomes. Educational Researcher, 43(7), 341-351.


Heather Lamond, Associate University Librarian – Client Services

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