However, to the student and teacher, the isolated cost was indeed zero. Compare this to the approximately $1,200 in costs students regularly face each year for books and supplies (College Board, 2015). Watson (2017) assessed the impact of OpenStax, the provider of the book I used, and among 1299 students surveyed:
"it was found that students greatly value the quality, attributes, and the cost of the OpenStax Biology textbook, though minor concerns were raised about its online format. Faculty adoption of a free textbook provides unique opportunities for course redesign and improvement, and the approach employed in this course transformation context resulted in clearly articulated learning outcomes, a fully realized structure in the course’s learning management system, and improvements to instructional practice. The student, faculty, and course benefits of this study offer a compelling argument for the adoption of high quality open education resources (OER) in public higher education contexts."
The book I used for two of my intro-level economics classes was Principles of Economics (2nd Edition) by S. Greenlaw, D. Shapiro, and T. Taylor (2017). OpenStax, a product of Rice University’s nonprofit educational initiative, says their mission is:
“…to give every student the tools they need to be successful in the classroom through our partnerships with philanthropic foundations and our alliance with other educational resource companies.”
The reason I decided to use the book was:
In the continuing effort to flip my classes, I needed a flexible and updated textbook that contained the necessary economic theory alongside interesting anecdotes, stories, and data that students would find valuable. While not all modern textbooks lack these attributes, it seems to me that OpenStax checks all these boxes and more.
When I first visited the OpenStax website I was impressed by the sheer amount of textbook offerings. From math to the humanities, they offer a respectable cross-section of the American college curriculum and they are growing. For the book I selected, the free offerings included the textbook, enhanced PPT slides, supplemental test items, the test bank, and much more.
I tend to operate my classes and my life as paperless as possible. I scan hundreds of pages every month into the cloud and get great satisfaction from throwing away scanned documents or, even better, not printing documents at all (shout out to the folks at Evernote and to David Sparks for helping me manage all this data). Thus, I was naturally attracted to the online availability of OpenStax books. In fact, they are available in iBooks, Kindle, and PDF versions. If a student does not own Apple products, they still have complete access to a version of the book through Kindle or as a basic PDF. The iBooks version was my preference because it allowed for dynamic usability of the book, easy extraction of tables/figures, and most importantly, the ability to highlight and view highlights across cloud-linked devices. The Kindle version allows for the same dynamism.
Regarding content, I can say the authors wrote with students in mind. While the prose was not always to my liking, they managed to capture complicated theories with aplomb as well as nicely integrate real-world examples, graphs, and other supporting elements. The supplemental materials also came in handy. I utilized the PPT slides and test bank which I uploaded to our university’s Moodle learning management system in order to deploy quizzes, homework, and other assessments.
Overall, the experience was positive and I look forward to using the book again in future semesters. I did not formally assess the impact on grades and student performance, but I can certainly say I had fewer problems with students acquiring the book, which probably lead to more students reading and engaging the material. (Remember the quote above by Watson on the impact of OpenStax generally.) While no textbook is perfect, with OpenStax you can save students significant money while providing them a quality, mobile product they can use as a reference forever.
Free online textbooks will probably not replace traditional ones any time soon and that’s fine. There are excellent textbooks out there and hard-working authors deserve compensation. At least now, though, we have a strong set of free vs. higher priced options.
For additional resources on Open Educational Resources, see the noteworthy set of podcasts offered by Teaching in Higher Ed.