ATG Original: “Open Access Foments a Textbook Takeover, Part 1: OER Takes Main Stage

by | Jun 30, 2018 | 0 comments

Nancy Herther

by Nancy K. Herther, Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota (

(Click here for Part 2: Should Commercial Publishers Worry?)

In a just-released Survey of American College Students: Use of Textbooks & Open Access Educational Materials from Primary Research Group, 1,065 students at 4-year American colleges were surveyed on their attitudes and behaviors with existing textbook options. Family income was seen as a major factor in textbook selection, with “mean spending in the most recent semester for textbooks by students in the sample was $223.38 with a median of $200 and a range of 0 to $1,500.” The survey also found a curious rural versus urban trend: “Students who grew up in major cities were much more likely than those who grew up in rural areas to take classes that use open access or very low-cost materials.” Clearly consumers are always looking for the best deals, but with textbooks there has traditionally been few options available, textbook selections are the domain of the faculty or school boards. In the past twenty years, college costs have become a major political and economic issue. Technology has provided options for scalable models for Open Educational Resources (OER).

Chart: Open Access publishing has shown steady growth

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a major supporter of the OER movement defines it as “teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.” Their investments in OER, which began in 2002, are targeted at “addressing the costs and quality of learning in the U.S. and the dearth of high-quality course materials, we see an unprecedented opportunity to scale OER and unleash its potential to improve education for the future. Our grant making supports mainstream adoption and effective use of openly licensed educational resources that provide students around the world greater access to a world class education.” Although sharing of library guides, sample homework ideas and other course options and ideas is common, Open Access (OA) textbooks is something that has arisen in the past ten years.


In the U.S. alone, the cost of educational services is massive. According to Statistica, advertising in this market segment was nearly $2billion last year alone. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the federal government alone has seen a rise in “discretionary spending quadrupling at the Department of Education from fiscal year 1989 to fiscal year 2016, rising from $17.1 billion to $68.3 billion.” OECD estimates in their Education at a Glance 2017 the lack of availability of quality educational materials and uneven national investments continue to lead to disparities that affect progress across the globe.

In the U.S. alone the costs of educational materials, especially at the college-level, have created push-back from students and colleges alike. Getting good data on the costs of educational materials, even in colleges, is difficult. The National Association of College Store estimates that students spent, on average, $579 on required course materials in 2016-17. The College Board recently  estimated costs for all types of educational materials for the average study to be as much as $1400 each year.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently estimated the cost of print textbooks grew by 65% in the past ten years, although they noted some leveling in recent years.


Historically, most protests and battles on textbooks have been based on content issues – going back to the Scopes Trial and before – as social and political changes roiled school boards and challenged long-held societal and personal beliefs. However, beginning in the late 1970s, colleges began to experience significant increases in the prices for texts, as much as 1,041% from 1977 to 2015 as researched by NBC News. “The tension between publishers and advocates is rooted in what is widely viewed as a broken model of textbook pricing,” notes a recent report in the Washington Post. “Academic publishers have maximized profits from college textbooks by setting high prices to recoup their investment and to offset limited sales.”

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This open movement began in the 1990s with the rise of the internet, often referred to as the “information superhighway,” and the availability of open source software, which allowed for programming on a global scale. Brewster Kahle founded the Internet Archive in 1996 with the goal of providing “universal access to all knowledge.” The 1998 Open Source Initiative created an organization dedicated to promoting open-source software – created, recreated and shared freely over the internet. One of the founders, Eric Raymond put the idea of decentralized collaborative, peer production of knowledge and software in his book The Cathedral and the Bazaar, in which he referred to himself and this movement as an “accidental revolutionary.”  The concept of the “commons-based peer production” was first used by Yochai Benkler in an article and later in his book The Wealth of Networks. It didn’t take long for an academic, Brigham Young’s David Wiley, to apply these new ideas to education with the creation of the Open Content Project as a place for educators to openly share their educational materials.

The potential for this new communications channel to bring knowledge and education across the globe to improve literacy led UNESCO to champion the development of what they named OER or Open Educational Resources, in 2002. The same year MIT launched their OpenCourseWare initiative to make course content freely available. Out of this movement developed key roles for OER movement for libraries and librarians as key partners and channels for finding, developing and distributing OER to their communities. However, given the massive growth – and instability – of many web-based resources, libraries have been criticized for not opening their websites more broadly to feature OER options for their users.

Educopia, founded in 2006 “to fill a critical gap in the information management landscape by providing a lightweight, inexpensive administrative infrastructure to facilitate and coordinate the work of collaborative communities,” took on independent library-based publication by providing a framework for the development of the Library Publishing Coalition.  The LPC is a confederation of “academic and research libraries and library consortia that have or are considering library publishing programs,” dedicated to creating “scholarly publishing landscape that is open, inclusive, and sustainable.” Their 2018 Library Publishing Directory includes 125 institutions across the Western world.


Today there are many indexes of OER products available freely over the internet.  For textbooks, these sources provide key information on OA textbooks across the” disciplines:

As Nicholas Burnett, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General Education noted in 2009:

“The OER movement offers one solution for extending the reach of education and expanding learning opportunities. It seeks to make educational content from institutions and individuals also over the world available freely and openly online for use, adaptation and reuse. Open sharing and collaboration offer real potential for enhancing both teaching and learning. And by promoting and facilitating the adaptation and translation of resources, it upholds education that is meaningful and relevant to an individual’s environment and needs.”

When looking at the needs of emerging nations and those with poor literacy and educational opportunities, few would question the value and importance of OER.  However, in western countries, the educational systems are well-established with school boards, large publishing houses and the independence of faculty in the selection and use of teaching materials.


Rick Anderson

In Europe and now in the U.S., academic libraries and institutions are signing on to OA2020 commitments “to transform the current publishing system, with new models that ensure outputs are and that the costs behind their dissemination are transparent and economically feasible.” Will this impact the marketplace?  “I think it’s much more feasible for journals than for textbooks,” University of Utah’s Rick Anderson explains, “simply because a demonstrably sustainable funding model for OA journal publishing has emerged and is already deeply embedded in the publishing ecosystem. The same isn’t true for textbooks. That said, I think we should also be careful about exaggerating the degree of support for OA2020 in the US. As of right now, only ten U.S. institutions (out of a total population of roughly 4,500) have even signed on to the statement, and six of those are technically branches of a single institution (the University of California).”

SPARC and other groups have focused their positions on the rising costs of textbooks. However, as Rick Anderson believes, “SPARC (along with most other OER advocacy groups) is not particularly interested in questions of affordability. They don’t want textbooks to be more affordable; they want traditional textbooks to be replaced by OERs, which are, by definition, entirely free.”

“As for creating OERs,” Anderson continues, “sure, the academy could take on the cost of creating them. The question is what we’d have to give up in order to do so. And as you point out, it’s difficult to answer that question because the cost of creating OERs is highly variable and unpredictable. Tony Bates argues that an OER costs anywhere from $80,000 to $130,000 to develop. Academic institutions offer faculty members stipends of anywhere from $500 to $2,000 to develop OERs (sometimes more), so clearly there’s a range of views out there as to what it costs to develop an OER, and I’m sure the actual cost varies by discipline, among other factors. (And since libraries don’t typically have independent sources of funding, to suggest that the library take on OER development is really to suggest that the institution do it – because it’s the institution’s resources that the library is allocating to the OER project.)” And in an era of decreasing funding to higher education in general, and libraries stretching in new directions as well, making OER work – especially for textbooks – to replace existing publishers, is still an open question.


Last Summer, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new program that provides free tuition for  eligible students at two state university systems, which includes $8 million for the development and use of OER instructional materials. This makes New York the first state to offer free undergraduate education to citizens and the largest investment ear-marked for OER in the U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders noting that “what Gov. Cuomo is proposing is a revolutionary idea for higher education. And it’s an idea that is going to reverberate not only throughout the state of New York, but throughout this country.”

Free coverage of two-year colleges has already passed legislatures in Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, many other states are annually considering similar bills. As Cuomo noted in his announcement  “today, college is what high school was—it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it.”  In order to raise the educational levels in the U.S. and across the globe, OER shows potential value in making this goal a potential reality.

Last September, Congress began consideration of new “bicameral legislation designed to help students manage costs by making high quality textbooks easily accessible to students, professors, and the public for free” was introduced by three Democrats and one Independent legislator,  this Affordable College Textbook Act, “would create a competitive grant program to support the creation and expand the use of open college textbooks—textbooks that are available under an open license, allowing professors, students, researchers, and others to freely access the materials.”

This act expands on the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, “aimed to make more information available to students looking to manage college textbook costs. [Richard] Durbin introduced his bill after learning of troubling practices by the publishing industry to create new textbook editions with little new content to drive up costs and bundle additional and often unwanted materials to required texts at students’ expense. The 2008 law required textbook publishers to disclose to faculty the cost of a textbook to their students, required schools to publish textbook price information in course catalogues when practicable, and required publishers to offer unbundled supplemental materials so students had choices. The provisions took effect on July 1, 2010.”

In reaction, SPARC noted that “open educational resources are gaining traction as an alternative to costly textbooks.Many campuses across the country are already leveraging OER to increase access to course materials and reduce costs for students. Colleges and universities that partnered with OpenStax to boost the use of OER on campus are expected so save their students $8.2 million. The University of Maryland University College became the first major U.S. institution to replace all textbooks in undergraduate courses with free online resources.”

In May the California legislation began considering legislation (AB 2385) that would require “publishers to include more detailed descriptions on ways that newer, more expensive editions of textbooks differ from previous editions” and “pressure publishers to unbundle instructional materials like textbooks, CD-ROMs, and workbooks that are often sold together at high prices.”

At the multi-campus, multi-state Columbia College, a new program focuses on the needs of non-traditional students for textbook relief:  “[President Scott] Dalrymple said the school didn’t extend the offer to traditional students because they have access to financial help many non-traditional students don’t, such as scholarships and athletics. Columbia College has 1,852 evening-campus students and 5,102 online students who qualify. Another 12,000 graduate and Adult Higher Education program students also qualify for the new pricing. New students enrolling under Truition in the fall 2018 semester will pay $375 per credit hour, which includes all fees and books. For currently enrolled students eligible for the offer, tuition will increase from $305 per credit hour to $335 per credit hour.

In a recent op-ed, the Washington Post noted that “a revolution in college course materials is raising questions about cost, access and fairness. Publishers say their high-tech courseware — electronic books glowing with videos and interactive study guides — can improve the quality of learning at a small fraction of the cost of traditional textbooks. But student advocates call for adoption of open-source textbooks that can be downloaded for free, and worry that the same companies that drove up the price of print textbooks are dominating the digital space and will ultimately introduce higher costs there.”

With all of the swirling changes and problems facing today’s academy, are universities and colleges truly able to take on Open Access publishing as they are currently funded and organized? Despite the optimistic goals of the Library Publishing Coalition, can academic libraries be expected to take on the selection, editing, publication, indexing and distribution of scholarly information for their institutions in addition to their current roles and responsibilities? These questions are yet to be answered.

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At an international level, OECDs Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) published a landmark study in 2006 titled Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources which provided “a comprehensive overview of the rapidly changing phenomenon of Open Educational Resources and the challenges it poses for higher education. It examines reasons for individuals and institutions to share resources for free, and looks at copyright issues, sustainability and business models as well as policy implications.”

This report noted:

“OER is not only a fascinating technological development and potentially a major educational tool. It accelerates the blurring of formal and informal learning, and of educational and broader cultural activities. It raises basic philosophical issues to do with the nature of ownership, with the validation of knowledge and with concepts such as altruism and collective goods. It reaches into issues of property and its distribution across the globe. It offers the prospect of a radically new approach to the sharing of knowledge, at a time when effective use of knowledge is seen more and more as the key to economic success, for both individuals and nations. How paradoxical this may turn out to be, and the form it will eventually take are entirely unforeseeable.”

Global progress has been significant.  As OECD’s webpage notes, OER is “rapidly becoming a major phenomenon in education across OECD countries and beyond.”

In May, Rwanda’s Minister for Education announced a national effort to fully adopt OER texts, noting that “the country has been spending over Rwf6 billion on textbooks and related materials every year. But I am assuring you that this cost will go down by at least a third when we start producing the books ourselves.” Dr. Mutimura went on to not that in adopting OER “textbooks are written by Rwandans, it guarantees us copyright which allows us to do the necessary edits any time the need arises, which has not been possible with private publishers.” Education experts from 111 countries met under the auspices of UNESCO last September at the second World Open Educational Resources (OER) Congress, setting a global agenda in the next 15 years and targeted support to “a new generation who will grow up as global citizens, appreciate other cultures and can build a more peaceful world.” This is seen as a key component of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, “an ambitious, aspirational and universal agenda to wipe out poverty through sustainable development by 2030. The UN sees great potential in OER to support their Education 2030 agenda.


Organizational structures have arisen to serve the growing interest in these free educational materials. The Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (IKME), “an independent, education nonprofit whose mission is to improve the practice of continuous learning, collaboration, and change in the education sector,” created the OER Commons, “a public digital library of open educational resources.. [to] explore, create, and collaborate with educators around the world to improve curriculum.” This group, and many others, are working to create an infrastructure for any educators interested in creating OER materials, and connect with other educators across the globe in this movement. This group, alone has posted over 50,000 freely available OER materials across the spectrum from K-12 to full university-level classes and open textbooks.

Jose Ferreira of Knewton, a company that “offers integrated adaptive courseware for colleges and universities across North America,” has noted that “OER represents a tectonic shift in education materials. Try typing “mitosis” into Google. Almost every search result on the first few pages is for OER exploring the process of cell division. The same is true for nearly any other concept you type in: “subject-verb agreement,” “supply and demand,” “Pythagorean theorem” — you name it. And what you can find today on the Internet is probably less than one tenth of one percent of the OER out there.”

In their 2015 book Reusing Open Resources: Learning in Open Networks for Work, Life and Education, Allison Littlejohn and Chris Pegler state that “the focus has moved from resource management to resource use and how social interactions around online, reusable learning resources can promote learning. The move towards open networks and open resources has shifted the pattern of sharing and, with it, users, towards a far more distributed and unpredictable model [authors’ emphasis].

In the book, University of Texas (Arlington)’s LINKlab is quoted as believing that “more than at any previous point in history, the learner is in control and openness is the driving agent. Clearly, we are entering, if not already in, a golden age of learning and learning opportunities.” However, not everyone would agree, believing instead that we are in a major era of disruption to the entire educational system in the Western world.

In the second part,  we will look at the commercial publishers and the issues they face in what the Washington Post describes as “a textbook example of technological change.”


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