The potential benefits of open textbooks go beyond affordability, however. Faculty appreciate open textbooks because they are
customizable (Chae et al., 2015), thanks to open licensing. This
allows faculty to modify the text by choosing which chapters to
use, adding new material, and revising existing text. Faculty can
also make sure that content is up-to-date, and they can contextualize it by including culturally and regionally relevant information.
Open textbooks benefit students through cost savings and
empower faculty through customizable content, but are they a viable replacement? The research on this is nascent, but the emerging
trend is affirmative. The most complete review to date analyzed 16
studies that encompassed student and faculty perceptions of OER
and/or the effect of OER on student achievement (Hilton, 2016).
These studies indicated several important things. First, the use of
open textbooks resulted in no reduction in student achievement.
In some cases, students who used open textbooks demonstrated
small positive improvement. Second, students perceived open textbooks favorably, finding them easy to use and up-to-date, and were
likely to recommend them to other students. Additionally, many
faculty viewed them as being equal or better in quality compared
to traditional texts (Hilton, 2016). Based on the available dataset,
open textbooks appear to be a viable replacement for traditional
texts because they do no harm, and may have several benefits
including cost savings and increased student achievement.
For the present study, I wanted to understand students’
perceptions of open textbooks to determine if they are a viable alternative
to traditional textbooks in my own teaching context. Second, I
wanted to determine how much money students saved by the
implementation of an open textbook. This was important to me
because I teach in a rural county where the median income is 18
percent below the state median (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). To
achieve these goals, I surveyed students after they used an open
textbook for an entire 11-week course.
I developed an open textbook for an introductory, college-level
environmental science course. It was produced using publicly available, openly licensed materials and supplemented by small
amounts of original content. The resulting textbook, titled Environmental Biology, is available at https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/
envirobiology and can be viewed using a web browser or downloaded in a variety of file formats, including PDF and EPUB.
The open textbook was used in a four-credit course at a small
community college. The 11-week lecture and lab course, titled
Environmental Science: Biological Perspectives, included topics
such as ecology, biodiversity, climate change, food production,
and environmental health. Students were given an overview of
the open textbook at the beginning of the course to ensure that
they could properly access and use it.
During the final week of the course an online survey was
administered to all active students. The survey assessed their use
of the textbook, views of its quality, and aspects regarding their
actions in previous courses, such as if they tended to buy new or
used textbooks, if they have purchased digital texts, or if they have
chosen to not purchase a required textbook. Because the survey
was given during the final week of the term, students had been
thoroughly exposed to the open textbook. The survey was a mix
of closed and open questions and was adapted from the work of
Bliss et al. (2013a) and Jhangiani et al. (2017). The survey was
anonymous and voluntary, allowing students to answer honestly.
Approval for the ethical use of human subjects in this study was
granted from the institutional review board at a larger regional
community college that provided oversight.
One goal of this study was to quantify the average cost savings
that resulted from using a free, open textbook. In the survey, students were asked to identify the ways that they had acquired traditional textbooks in the past. Responses included purchasing new or
used, print or digital copies, renting the textbook, and getting the
textbook for free by borrowing from the library, sharing with a
friend, or pirating a copy. Based on the relative frequencies of the
responses from the entire class, I estimated the various ways that
students would have acquired a traditional textbook, if one were
actually used in my class, and used that to calculate an average cost
of a textbook. This novel method is more accurate than assuming
that every student will buy a new copy.
The survey was completed by 18 of 19 students. The class was
nearly split between males and females, with 17 percent identifying
as belonging to an ethnic minority. One-third of students had
received student loans, and two-thirds had received Pell Grants or
fee waivers for their tuition. Two-thirds of students were employed
at the time of the study, with 39 percent of the class working more
than 20 hours a week.
Students indicated a variety of means of obtaining traditional
textbooks in one or more previous courses (Figure 1). The most
commonly used method was buying used print copies, as indicated
by 74 percent of students. The next most common methods were
renting a print version (37%), followed by buying a new print copy
(32%). Overall, 37 percent of students indicated they did not purchase a textbook at some point, whether borrowing a copy from a
friend or library (26%) or illegally downloading it (11%).
There were several other indicators that students previously
chose not to purchase required traditional textbooks. For example,
Figure 1. College students were asked to indicate the various
ways of acquiring textbooks in previous courses. Shown here
are the percentages of students who chose each option at least
once (N = 18).