More Students Using Open Textbooks This Fall

By Catherine Groux
Posted September 04, 2012 04:00 PM

This fall, thousands of students will save money by using open textbooks.
This fall, thousands of students will save money by using open textbooks.
When many students go back to school this fall, they will be greeted by an entirely new way of accessing their textbooks, potentially saving them hundreds of dollars. This semester, about 225,000 students at more than 1,000 colleges will use open textbooks by Flat World Knowledge, the world's largest publisher of free and open postsecondary materials.

As open textbooks by Flat World Knowledge and other publishing companies - including Lulu, O'Reilly and Textbook Media - continue to grow in popularity, students should prepare to join this growing movement.

What are open textbooks?

Open textbooks are materials published under an open license, which means that unlike traditional texts, students can access these materials online, download them or sometimes even print them for little to no cost.

"The key with open textbooks is the license that is attached to them. That's what really makes them open," said Jeff Shelstad, co-founder and chief executive officer of Flat World Knowledge. "Most publishers' content is put out under a very common, restrictive, all-rights-reserved license and doesn't really give the learner access to that other than through a purchase. An open textbook is, number one, online and freely available to the world and number two, has a license that allows the user to interact with it in ways that are different than a book that is under all rights reserved."

Are open textbooks of the same quality as those created by traditional publishers?

The quality of open textbooks largely depends on where they come from. Shelstad explained that some websites are simply repositories, meaning they are a place where academic content is hosted. While many of these repositories boast government or university sponsorship, some do not and, therefore, many not directly monitor the quality of the content being posted on their site.

Other publishers, however, strive to ensure their open content is of the same quality as that coming from a traditional publisher. At Flat World Knowledge, for example, content is written by experts across a variety of fields, much like it would be for textbooks published by companies like McGraw Hill and Prentice Hall.

"They are getting a textbook that is of the same quality as any other publisher," Shelstad said. "That is what is unique about Flat World. We attract faculty to use our content and faculty are picky."

How much money can open texts save students?

The average college student now spends about $655 each year on required course materials like textbooks, according to a July survey by OnCampus Research. For students whose professors have chosen open texts, however, this figure can be drastically lower.

Through Flat World Knowledge, for example, everyone is given free, lifetime access to a color web version of each textbook. While about 60% of students who use these open texts rely solely on this free version, about 40% choose to take advantage of the publisher's other affordable options. In many cases, students can purchase an interactive e-book or a color or black-and-white print textbook for under $50. 

Why are more professors choosing open textbooks?

Today, thousands of professors across the country are choosing open textbooks over traditional materials, and each have their own reasons for doing so. Maria Ballesteros-Sola, an adjunct professor in the Martin V. Smith School of Business & Economics at California State University, Channel Islands, has chosen Flat World Knowledge's Principles of Marketing open textbook for the past two years. Before switching to this model, the professor required her students to purchase a traditional text that often cost over $200.

"I just couldn't bring myself to ask my students for that money, especially in an introductory class," Ballesteros-Sola said. "I learned that at the end of the day, students were not buying the book based on the cost. That was two or three years ago, so I decided to find an alternative."

Still, aside from the lower cost, open textbooks also give professors more control over what exactly their students are learning. When picking the ideal open textbook for their classes, instructors can customize their content by choosing bits and pieces from a wide array of books, articles, videos and audio recordings, depending on which publisher they choose. In this way, they can ensure the books they provide their students contain the most relevant information for the course. 

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