Use of Free Textbooks Is Rising, but Barriers Remain

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Author: Beth McMurtrie
Date: Jan. 5, 2018
From: The Chronicle of Higher Education(Vol. 64, Issue 17)
Publisher: Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 471 words

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A growing number of professors are replacing the traditional textbook with an openly licensed one, according to a survey released in December. But their overall numbers remain small--and widespread adoption of the practice could remain out of reach unless key barriers are overcome.

"Opening the Textbook: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2017," surveyed 2,700 full- and part-time faculty members to measure, among other things, their use of open educational resources, commonly called OER. It is the third such survey produced by the Babson Survey Research Group in recent years.

The share of faculty members adopting open-licensed textbooks rose from 5 percent in 2015 to 9 percent today, with a higher rate of use in large introductory-level classes. Familiarity with openly licensed materials is also growing: About 30 percent of respondents said they were aware or very aware of open educational resources. And nearly 90 percent of faculty members said that cost to the student was a key factor in how they select required course material.

Jeff Seaman, co-director of the group and co-author of the report, describes the findings as "one of those glass half-empty, half-full kind of things." On the one hand, it's clear that open educational resources are here to stay. The conversation, he says, has shifted from "what is this?" to "how do we make this sustainable?" The problem, he says, is that people haven't yet figured that out.

About half of the faculty members surveyed, for example, said that there are not enough open educational resources for their subject and that it is difficult to find what they need. About 30 percent said they have concerns about quality and about how to update the material.

Certainly, many academics, nonprofit providers, foundations, and companies have been wrestling with those challenges, albeit from different vantage points. Ventures like Lumen Learning, an open-access company, and OpenStax, a nonprofit publisher based at Rice University, have been creating new pathways and products to bring open courseware to college classrooms.

The problems created by costly textbooks are one of the main drivers of interest in OER. A survey by U.S. PIRG, a consumer-advocacy group, found that 65 percent of students said they had not bought a textbook because of its high price. Only one-third of faculty members in the Babson survey said that 90 percent or more of their students purchased the required textbook.

A number of states and university systems have been promoting the use of openly licensed resources as a way to bring down textbook costs. Maryland's initiative has led to the switch to open educational resources in 66 new courses at 14 institutions across the state. New York has provided $8 million toward the adoption of OER in public colleges. And in 2016 the California Legislature ponied up $5 million to create zero-textbook-cost degrees at the state's community colleges.

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