A Beginner’s Guide to Open Textbooks

What is an “open textbook”?

As we know, all truly great essays begin with “Webster’s defines X as…” By way of variation, however, I will begin thus: Wikipedia defines an open textbook as:

a textbook licensed under an open copyright license, and made available online to be freely used by students, teachers and members of the public.

The ideal open textbook can be retained, reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed (see David Wiley’s definition of “open content”).

Standard licenses include the suite of Creative Commons licenses. You can read more about these and other licenses at the Saylor Academy’s “Licensing Information” page.

Where to find open textbooks

This list is probably not exhaustive. Titles can generally be browsed within one click. If I have missed something, please contact me. Entries look like this:

Site Name (Related Entity, if applicable)
License type(s)*
Description & commentary

BCcampus OpenEd Resources (BCcampus)
Various Creative Commons licenses
BCcampus’ OER page supports students and educators in finding, adopting, and modifying open textbooks. As of April 2014, the site listed nearly fifty titles in .pdf, .epub, and html, across more than twenty categories. Many books have been vetted and reviewed by faculty. BCcampus is a publicly-funded organization that joins post-secondary institutions in Canada’s British Columbia.
CC BY-SA 3.0
Boundless provides free-to-read online and cost-bearing editions of textbooks in a couple dozen subjects. Indications of alignment to popular high school and college textbooks are also given.
CK-12 in a non-profit focusing on producing flexible STEM content, with additional supports for teachers and students. Concepts are arranged into “flex books” — users can create their own — that can be downloaded in pdf, mobi, and epub formats.
Open SUNY Textbooks (State University of New York)
Open SUNY has five titles across disciplines, generally available in .pdf and sometimes .epub as well. These textbooks are authored “in house” by faculty, hence the relatively few entries. Forthcoming titles are indicated.
College Open Textbooks (Open Doors Group)
Various licenses
COT lists scores or hundreds of open textbooks as alphabetical lists arranged by subject, as well as a subset of featured textbooks. Formats vary and certain items stretch the definition of “textbook”, but in my experience this is a very good discovery engine. Licenses are generally indicated.OER Commons (ISKME)
Various licenses
OER Commons is a repository for all kinds of open educational resources, including textbooks. An OER authoring tool is provided (see under “Tools” below).OpenStax (Rice University)
OpenStax has nine complete titles across disciplines with several more in production. Production quality is high. Books are free to read in web and downloadable digital formats (donations are welcomed) and printed copies are affordable.Open Textbook Minnesota (University of Minnesota)
Various licenses
This easy-to-browse collection combines dozens of textbooks from multiples sites, including pioneering titles as well as brand-new ones.

The Orange Grove (Florida Virtual Campus)
Various licenses
The Orange Grove is a digital repository built and maintained by Florida Virtual Campus. The link displays and “Open Textbooks” collection within the larger repository holdings.

The Saylor Academy Bookshelf (The Constitution Foundation)
Various licenses
Disclosure: I am employed by the Constitution Academy. This is an alphabetical list of approximately one hundred books across academic disciplines. Most of the books are versions of titles originally offered under open license by an academic publisher. Several books derive from the Saylor Academy’s now-retired Open Textbook Challenge, which offered a reward for releasing new and revised textbooks under open license. Titles are most typically available as .pdf and .docx files.

Textbook Equity
Various licenses
Dozens of titles across many disciplines. Free-to-read and download pdf copies are available, with affordable print versions often available as well.

2012 Book Archive (lardbucket)
These books are the same as many at The Saylor Academy Bookshelf although the titles are not identical; however, they are available in browser-friendly HTML and in .zip downloads containing the HTML and related files.

*License information provided on this page is only a general indication. Always check licensing of individual resources carefully before using.

Problems with open textbooks

There are a few issues with many — if not most — open textbooks that mount a serious argument against the “open” attribution, especially under Wiley’s third and fourth R’s: revision and remixing. Many open texbooks are hobbled by:
  • restricted file formats
  • bad formatting and semantic structure
  • non-standard or missing metadata
  • rights issues for included content
  • relatively restrictive licenses
  • low adoption/awareness
  • difficulty of re-authoring
  • obsolescence of information
  • no truly comprehensive catalogs

Tools for remixing and re-authoring Open Textbooks

Open Author (OER Commons)
Open Author is a browser-based tool that, in the words of the site, allow users to “write, describe, and submit”. Users write or pull content into the editor/compiler, then add metadata, and finally submit the document to the OER Commons repository. The process is clean and simple, although more suited for shorter (i.e. chapter-length) creations than for a full textbook in one go.

The community of minds behind OERPUB are creating two tools, a Textbook Editor and an OER Importer. Both tools are available on GitHub and can be tried out online.

Resources for learning more about open textbooks

California Open Source Textbook Project
Creative Commons – “open textbooks” tag
Open Education Consortium (formerly OCW Consortium)
Student PIRGs

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