What’s in an Open Textbook?

Who has the authority to make textbooks for a college course? Instinct gives us this answer: big-name publishers. This authority, however, is being challenged by educators and learners who believe that education should be not just open, but adaptable.


When people talk about textbooks, they typically refer to old-fashioned paper and ink pages. These texts are static: they can’t be altered once they’re printed, and over time, they become outdated. Electronic textbooks have also become mainstreamed, essentially migrating a traditional book’s contents onto a digital platform, such as Kindle. Both of these books, however, serve the same purpose: to be purchased, and to give the consumer a finite amount of information from the text.

But what about a textbook that can be updated? One that can be altered, revised, added to by anyone who has their hands on it?

That’s what known as an “open textbook“.

Open textbooks are available online, often at little, or zero, cost. These books are openly licensed, and can typically be downloaded in various formats (ebook, audio, print) to be used in classroom settings.

The low cost isn’t the biggest perk of the open textbook, however. The biggest benefit is the public interactivity. Professors and students are allowed to revise the content inside by editing the textbook. By doing so, the book can be customized to fit each classroom’s learning goals. The revised version of the open textbook can then be republished online for public use.

Retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. These are considered the 5 “R”‘s of Open Educational Resources, or OER. Open textbooks demonstrate these R’s perfectly.

In an anthology, for example, headers, footnotes, hyperlinks, video, audio recordings, and digital images can all be added to give context and depth to the bare literature. Depending on the license, all that may be needed is permission from the original publisher, and a page to show credit for the previous publications. The anthology can then continue to grow with content as more versions are distributed online.open-source_t750x550.jpg

At Plymouth State University, students are already utilizing and building open textbooks in their classrooms.

In 2015, Dr. Robin DeRosa, former English professor and current Director of Interdisciplinary Studies, enlisted English students and alumni to form The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature. In this anthology, literature was selected from the public domain to appear in the textbook, and students contextualized the work with introductions, images, and more. This textbook was then used in DeRosa’s course, Currents in American Literature. DeRosa and her students continued to add to the book throughout the course.

In an interview, DeRosa explained that the accessibility of open textbooks is hugely advantageous for students. She noted that the cost of traditional textbooks may leave some students hesitant or unable to purchase the materials for class, which can have devastating effects on their performance.

DeRosa explained that having students work on open textbooks for class “makes changes and improvements to the textbooks, keeping them current, and keeping them relevant to the course.” This benefits what she calls “connected learning”, or the sharing of resources across educational institutions.

The development of open textbooks as coursework can be preferable to the use of closed educational platforms such as Moodle, which DeRosa calls “the place things go to die”. Assignments in Moodle tend to remain between the professor and the student submitter. With OER, however, the content students create can be shared with anyone who has access to the textbook.

14596269419_d5bb8e007f_oIn the current Fall 2017 semester, Dr. Abby Goode is revising her own version of the anthology for Rethinking Early American Literature. According to Goode, part of her course requires students to add to the anthology, ensuring that it continues to grow from semester to semester.

Two different professors, two different anthologies. What makes the anthologies notable, however, is not just that there are different versions created by Plymouth State students. What’s remarkable is that the book is available online for anyone to use. With DeRosa’s permission, the anthology can continue to grow through the hands of any students or professors with internet access. Classrooms across the country have access to the open anthology and can continue to refine it as it passes through collaborative learning spaces.

In this way, open textbooks become more than the content they contain. They become conduits for participatory culture, allowing the public to be creators rather than passive consumers. Rather than accept the analogue, traditional textbook, students can adapt the book to their own vision.

In a TED Talk, Charles Leadbeater, former advisor to Tony Blair, explains the face we tend to give those who create the content we use in daily life:

“Special people, special places, think up special ideas, then you have a pipeline that takes the ideas down to the waiting consumers, who are passive. They can say “yes” or “no” to the invention.”

The open textbook provides a third option: make your own resource. Not only that, make it for free, and give it to others to use and improve.

Of course, relevant and accurate materials are needed to make a course successful. Understandably, this is why many professors default to using traditional textbooks; the name on the spine and the price-tag are meant to assure their value. But when students can create materials that are equal in quality and adaptable, it may be time to rethink what goes onto the “course requirements” list. Open textbooks not only help students develop their content-creating skills, but also give them the authority to control what’s used in their classroom.

Proved by Dr. DeRosa and Dr. Goode, students and professors can make materials that are just as functional as a paper-and-ink textbook, and more importantly, they can share these creations with others.

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