Open Education – Textbooks, Research and Data

By 07/12/2017 December 2nd, 2019 Education, Technology Enhanced Learning

In this post we look at the current trends in open education: textbooks, research and data. I intend to look at the advantages and limitations of open textbooks, why we should look to adopt open books to academic courses and the benefits of open research. This will all contribute to explain why opend education should exist and enjoy a more prominent role than what it does currently.

1. Open Learning

2. Open Education Resources (OER)

3. Open textbooks, open research and open data

4. The implications of ‘open’ for course & programme design.

Open Education: Open Textbooks

Textbooks are an increasing cost to students. Some textbooks can cost £200 or more, and university undergraduates may be required to spend between £450-£1,070 a year on textbooks. An open textbook however, is an openly-licensed, online publication free for downloading for educational or non-commercial use. There is an increasing number of sources for open textbooks, such as OpenStax College from Rice University, and the Open Academics Textbook Catalog at the University of Minnesota. These will help offset some of the cost involved in studying courses like Economics, Law, Medicine, Mathematics and Computer Science.

In British Columbia, Canada, the provincial government is funding the B.C. open textbook project, in collaboration with the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The B.C. open textbook project focuses on making available openly-licensed textbooks in the highest-enrolled academic subject areas and also in vocational training. In the B.C. project, as in many of the other sources, all the books are selected, peer reviewed and in some cases developed by local subject departments.

Advantages of open textbooks

Students and governments, through grants, loans and other forms of financial aid, pay billions of pounds each year on textbooks. Open textbooks can make a significant impact on reducing the cost of education. This could make for good business sense, where universities are reporting a shortfall in funding. By not placing a further financial penalty on students to purchase certain textbooks could improve the attractiveness of a course.

There are also other considerations. It was a common sight to see lengthy line-ups at college bookstores all through the first week of the first semester, but now the advent of all things Amazon has changed that. Students are generally happy to buy a book for a cheaper price than the full RRP.  Cable Green of the Creative Commons has pointed to research that shows when first year mathematics students have their textbooks from the first day, they perform much better than students who often do not get the key textbook until three weeks into the course. He also referred to research from Florida Virtual Campus that indicates that many students (over 60%) do not purchase all the required textbooks, for a variety of reasons, but the biggest reason being cost (Green, 2013).

So why shouldn’t government pay the creators of course textbooks directly, removing the middleman (commercial publishers), save over 80 per cent on the cost, and distribute the books to students (or anyone else) for free over the Internet, under a Creative Commons license? Cable Green’s ‘vision’ for open textbooks is simple and straightforward: 100% of students have 100% free, digital access to all materials by day one of their course. The financial pay walls that exist in academia around textbooks and research are becoming an increasingly frustrating thing for students and staff-accessing good quality research and books is becoming increasingly frustrating due to the costs surrounding higher education study.

Limitations of open textbooks

Within open education, Murphy (2013) has questioned the whole concept of textbooks, whether they are open or not. She sees textbooks as a relic of 19th century industrialism and a form of mass broadcasting which is no longer relevant or necessary in the digital age. In the 21st century, students should be learning the skills involved with finding, accessing and collecting digital materials over the Internet. Textbooks are merely a form of packaged learning, with the authors collating the work for students. We could see this as a rather cynical point of view of what a textbook is, as we do need to have an agreed standard of what constitutes accepted knowledge (apply this to the world of medicine and you will quickly see what I mean). Nevertheless, it has to be accepted that textbooks are still the most common delivery method of education, and while this remains the case, open textbooks can be a much better alternative for students than expensive printed textbooks.

Quality also remains a concern. There is an in-built and general prejudice that ‘free’ must mean poor quality. Thus the same arguments about the quality of OER also apply to open textbooks. In particular, the expensive commercially published textbooks usually include in-built activities, supplementary materials such as extra readings, and assessment questions, which will commonly be found online today.

Others (including myself) question the likely impact of ‘open’ publishing on creating original works that are not likely to get subsidised by government because they are either too specialised, or are not yet part of a standard curriculum for the subject; in other words will open publishing impact negatively on the diversity of publishing? What is the incentive for someone now to publish a unique work, if there is no financial reward for the effort? Writing an original, single authored book remains hard work, however it is published.

Although there is now a range of  ‘open’ publishing services, there are still costs for an author to create original work. Who will pay, for instance, for specialized graphics, for editing or for review? I have used my blog to get sections of my book reviewed, and this has proved extremely useful, but it is not the same as having top experts in the field doing a systematic review before publication.

Marketing is another issue. It takes time and specialised knowledge to market books effectively. On the other hand,  publishers are very poor at properly marketing specialised textbooks, expecting the author to mainly self-market, while the publisher still takes 85-90% t of all sales revenues. Nevertheless there are real costs in marketing an open textbook that need to be addressed and the solution needs to be realistic and workable.

How can all these costs be recovered? Much more work still needs to be done to support the open publishing of original work in book format. If so, what does that mean for how knowledge is created, disseminated and preserved? If open textbook publishing is to be successful, new, sustainable business models will need to be developed. In particular, some form of government subsidy or financial support for open textbooks is probably going to be essential.

Nevertheless, although these are all important concerns, they are not unsolvable problems. Just getting a proportion of the main textbooks available to students for free is a major step forward.

Learn how to adopt and use an open textbook

BC campus has mounted a short MOOC on the P2PU portal on Adopting Open Textbooks. The MOOC is not active and it will through up a warning page, but by continuing onto the site, you will be able to see most of the materials, including videos, available.

The open license allows a textbook to be copied, shared and revised. This means that the textbook can be distributed to students for free. It also means that educators have the right to change the content of the textbook, allowing textbooks to be customised to meet the specific needs of learners.

Adapt. Remix. Modify. Whatever term you use, the end result will be the same: a customised version of a textbook that is suitable for your educational context. The ability to change the content of a textbook is one of the primary positives of open textbooks that have been released with Creative Commons licenses. Educators can legally and ethically change, alter, delete, add to, improve and enhance the resource to fit their specific learning context. The one exception, of course, are textbooks released with a No Derivative (ND) Creative Commons license.

However, just because educators have the means to modify a open textbook, not many do.  Hilton, Wiley & Lutz (2012) note that only about 7.5% of instructors who adopt an open textbook also modify the textbook. Of the modifications that do occur, Hilton, Wiley & Lutz outline four common changes that academic staff will undertake when they do adapt an open textbook:

  1. Additions: these occur when a user adds material to a book by inserting one or more new chapters, sections, more up to date examples, or paragraphs or characters to an existing paragraph.
  2. Deletions: these occur when a user removes one or more chapters, sections, paragraphs or characters from an existing paragraph.
  3. Reorders: these occur when a user alters the sequence in which the chapters appear in the book or the sequence in which sections appeared in a chapter.
  4. Remixing: these occur when a user imports content from one book into another book.

Reasons to Adapt an Open Textbook

The following is a modified list that appeared in the article Why remix an Open Educational Resource? by Liam Green-Hughes and used under a CC-BY license. This lists some of the reasons why you might want to adapt an open textbook to bring about a more open and inclusive attitude to open education:

  • Adapt the material to make it more accessible for people with different disabilities
  • Insert cultural specific references to make a concept easier to understand
  • Translate it into another language
  • Correct any errors or inaccuracies
  • Update the book to add the latest discoveries or theories
  • Insert more media or links to other resources
  • Chop the book into smaller chunks that might be easier to learn from, or could be reused elsewhere
  • Adapt it for a different audience
  • Change the target educational level
  • Add input and participation from students who might be using the textbook
  • Expand the textbook by adding in other information
  • Insert a different point of view to that originally given in the material
  • Adapt it for different teaching situations

For example, maybe you find a textbook that is pretty good, but could be stronger with the addition of specific case studies. Or the book may be specific to a certain country and needs to be changed to make it more relevant for students in your geographic region.

Open Education: Open Research

Governments in some countries such as the USA, Canada and the United Kingdom are requiring all research published as a result of government funding to be openly accessible in a digital format. In Canada, the Minister of State for Science and Technology announced (February 27, 2015) that:

“The harmonized Tri-Agency Open Access Policy on Publications requires all peer-reviewed journal publications funded by one of the three federal granting agencies to be freely available online within 12 months.”

Also in Canada, Supreme Court decisions and new legislation in 2014 means that it is much easier to access and use free of charge online materials for educational purposes, although there are still some restrictions.

Commercial publishers, who have dominated the market for academic journals, are understandably fighting back. Where an academic journal has a high reputation and hence carries substantial weight in the assessment of research publications, publishers are charging researchers for making the research openly available. The kudos of publishing in an established journal acts as a disincentive for researchers to publish in less prestigious open journals without having to pay to get published.

However, it can only be a question of time before academics fight back against this system, by establishing their own peer reviewed journals that will be perceived to be of the highest standard by the quality of the papers and the status of the researchers publishing in such journals. Once again, though, open research publishing will flourish only by meeting the highest standards of peer review and quality research, by finding a sustainable business model, and by researchers themselves taking control over the publishing process.

Over time, therefore, we can expect nearly all academic research in journals to become openly available. This will make an open education that is accessible for all and more equitable for all.

Open Education: Open data

In 2004, the Science Ministers of all nations of the OECD, which includes most developed countries of the world, signed a declaration which essentially states that all publicly funded archive data should be made publicly available. Following an intense discussion with data-producing institutions in member states, the OECD published in 2007 the OECD Principles and Guidelines for Access to Research Data from Public Funding.

The two main sources of open data are from science and government. In science, the Human Genome Project is perhaps the best example, and several national or provincial governments have created web sites to distribute a portion of the data they collect, such as the B.C. Data Catalogue in Canada.

Again, increasing amounts of important data are becoming openly available, providing more resources with high potential for learning.

The significance for teaching and learning of the developments in open access, OER, open textbooks and open data will be explored more fully in the next section.


Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

I'm a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. My research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, how we interact with technology, blended learning and professional development. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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