How CEHD’s Open Textbook Network Is Increasing Access to Education

Over the last two decades, we’ve seen a complete revolution in the way we access and distribute information. Thanks to the Internet and mobile technology, most of society has a nearly limitless access to information. In the pre-Internet age, making copies and distributing information – books, newspapers, video – took a lot of time, expense and effort. Today, access to that same information has little or no cost at all.

We’ve moved from an age of information scarcity to information abundance. In this environment it doesn’t make sense that we ask students to make large investments in textbooks and course materials. However, America’s college students are asked to budget as much as $1,300 a year on textbooks and course materials. To cope with this high cost, students are often forced to share textbooks – or not buy them at all – causing students to take fewer classes, drop a class or even fail.

There’s a better way. In 2012, we launched the Open Textbook Library – an online catalog of free and openly licensed college textbooks – and started talking with CEHD faculty about adopting them. Digital versions of the textbooks are free, or print versions are available at a very low cost. Four years later, there are over 200 textbooks in the Open Textbook Library, and it continues to grow quickly.

Bringing Free Textbooks to America’s College Students

CEHD’s success attracted interest from several other schools. In 2013, we started helping those schools build their own open textbook programs with generous funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. We ran workshops to educate and engage their faculty, and helped local staff learn to talk with faculty about open textbook options. We were pleased to achieve a more than 40% adoption rate among the professors who attended our workshops. In 2015, these schools formed the Open Textbook Network (OTN).

This convinced us the program was viable, and the Hewlett Foundation provided another grant to take the Open Textbook Network nationwide. Since then, we’ve experienced tremendous growth. Today, the program is in place with partners that represent more than 100 campuses, including Purdue University, The University of Kansas, The Ohio State University as well as systems like Minnesota State Colleges & Universities, which is composed of 34 universities and community colleges in the state.

And it’s clear that we’re having a significant impact. In the fall of 2015, the first nine schools to take part in the OTN reported that they had already saved students $1.5 million in textbook costs. With each new semester, we’ll see that number grow quickly as more institutions provide us with their statistics, and as new institutions continue to join the OTN. We’re optimistic that we can meet our goal of having more than 50 partner institutions and 160 campuses in the OTN by the end of 2016.

Expanding Open Textbooks to High Schools

The success we’ve have had at the college level has encouraged us to begin looking at a way to provide free textbooks and course materials for high schools. The need is certainly there. Many of our nation’s schools are cash-strapped, forcing them to purchase only one set of textbooks that stay in the classroom to be shared by all students. Or, if students are issued their own textbook, they are often afraid to bring it home or mark them up for fear of losing the book or incurring a fine for damage.

With open textbooks, all this could change. Schools that have a “one-to-one” program where students are issued an iPad or similar device could provide free textbooks in electronic form. If not all students had access to a smart device, free textbooks could be printed for a very low cost – allowing the student to take notes in the margins and even keep it after the school year is done.

Addressing A Worldwide Need

The issues of access to education and information are not limited to the United States. In fact, in many countries with less funding for public education and a greater gap between the rich and poor, the need is even more pressing. Over the past four years, the Open Textbook Library website has received visitors from every country in the world.

In March, I’ll be traveling to Cape Town, South Africa, to attend an Open Textbook summit. There, we will work with local educational leaders to help advance awareness of open textbooks within their educational system. I believe the programs we’ve pioneered here in CEHD can help inform programs worldwide, and I’m looking forward to taking this first step towards making that happen.

Empowering Teachers

While reducing the textbook and material costs for educational systems and students is at the core of the Open Textbook Network’s mission, its benefits are not limited to just providing free textbooks. Open textbooks have a Creative Commons license, which means that they are not only free, but they are also living documents that can be altered and edited by the teachers that use them.

For example, if a group of science teachers used a physics textbook for a semester, they could meet at the end of the term and talk about what they liked or didn’t like about the text and how well it met the needs of their students. With an open textbook, instructors could edit, remove or add content to the textbook. In this way, textbooks will improve over time and be updated to reflect the latest research and discoveries.

We’re also having conversations with professors and researchers who are excited about the possibility of publishing textbooks for the Open Textbook Library. Instead of working with a traditional publisher and relying on royalties from sales to be paid, the work would be funded upfront by an educational institution or philanthropic foundation and distributed as a free textbook through our network.

These exciting new possibilities, coupled with the rapid success we’ve enjoyed over the past few years, give me hope that the Open Textbook Network can continue to accomplish and expand its mission of making education more accessible to all students.

If you’d like to access the Open Textbook Network’s catalog of more than 200 free textbooks, or are interested in learning more about how your education institution can become an OTN partner, please contact the Center for Open Education.

[sc:dave-ernst]
Dave Ernst, Ph.D.

About the Author

Dave Ernst, Ph.D.

  • Chief Information Officer
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • University of Minnesota

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