OpenStax: Free Online Textbooks

The world of Open Educational Resources (OERs) is quite vast and can be difficult to navigate.  In the webinar I listened to a few weeks back, the folks at Inside Higher Education’s annual survey of faculty and administrator attitudes toward technology found that faculty tended to be interested in learning more about OERs, but appeared unsure of how and where to start.  Certainly, there are many free resources available, but like any other resource found on the Internet, the quality can be questionable. Enter in OpenStax for college textbooks.

OpenStax is a site dedicated to the creation, sharing, and adapting of college level textbooks.  Most of these books are for the lower-level introductory courses and have books for topics in physics, mathematics, psychology, sociology, economics, and biology to name just a few.  OpenStax was created by a faculty member of Rice University and the content that is shared on this site are vetted and peer-reviewed and are under the creative commons license. It is supported by grants from several foundations

These books are customizeable for individual courses and instructors are allowed to customize the books using their online platform.  When I attempted to play with the customization, I was not able to because of a registration error as of the time of this blog posting, but it may be worth one’s time if you wish to have a book tailored to your particular course’s needs.

When briefly reviewing the Intro to Pyschology book available, I’d say that the content is pretty comparable to most other books available commercially.  The modules did include a few links to some hands-on activities and videos and there are a few review questions at the end.  Unlike the books available by commercial publishers, the end of module questions are not scored and not exactly interactive (user simply clicks to reveal the answer, they do not select the answer they think in correct).

This difference is likley going to be the major difference between freely available textbooks like those in OpenStax and those developed by the commercial publishers.  The creation of the interactive content and integration with scoring and course management systems requires more developers, programmers, and has a cost associated with it. In my opinion, this is likley what users are actually paying for now with commercial textbooks.  With the availability of free textbooks online, the content is out there and some of it vetted likley as well as a commercially available textbook.  But the inclusion of embedded activities, quizzes, and videos along with scoring and tracking systems is what currently sets the commercially available textbooks apart.

In the end, the decision of whether to use an OER like OpenStax for your electronic textbook (if you choose the electronic book) or to use an online book from a commercial publisher will lie in how you and your students will choose to use the book. If the use of embedded activities and student tracking is important, the commercial book may be more appropriate. If you simply want the content and some activities from the reading available without the tracking then the lower cost (free) option may work.