Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Open Revolution: An Environmental Scan Of The Open Textbook Landscape

The Open Revolution: An Environmental Scan of the Open Textbook Landscape / North Carolina State University Library / Digital Scholarship & Publishing Center / Jordan Frith / August 10 2009

Table of Contents

Executive Summary
Open Textbooks Environmental Scan
Wikibooks and the Constructivist Classroom
Wikibooks Copyright
Connexions Copyright
Flat World Knowledge
The Global Text Project
Global Text Project Copyright
Textbook Media
Open Textbook Resources and Links

Executive Summary

The cost of textbooks has long been an area of concern for students, professors, and administrators. Students in higher education spend over $900 a year on textbooks, amounting to roughly 20% of the cost of attending a four year public institution (Zomer, 2007). Many students cannot afford the cost of textbooks, and are forced to decide between paying tuition and purchasing the necessary textbooks for a course. As Internet use skyrocketed, textbook publishers began developing electronic textbooks, which ideally would have decreased the cost of textbooks. Electronic books have not decreased costs significantly, however, and in some cases may increase costs for students. Over the last decade, the prices of textbooks have increased at roughly four times the rate of inflation and will likely continue to increase in the foreseeable future (Zomer, 2007).

Concerned individuals have recognized the problem of rising textbook costs and have actively developed new open textbooks. Open textbooks are textbooks in electronic form that are freely available and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. The open textbook landscape is not monolithic and fixed. There are many open textbooks published across an array of platforms and content continues to be developed. This white paper serves as a synchronic environmental scan of the current open textbook landscape, examining five open textbook platforms: (1) Wikibooks, (2) Connexions, (3) Flat World Knowledge, (4) The Global Text Project, and (5) Textbook Media. These five platforms share some features but are useful for different purposes
While this white paper analyzes these five platforms in depth, a few findings are worth pointing to in this summary:

Connexions and Flat World Knowledge both provide professors with high quality open textbook options. These two platforms follow very different models. Connexions uses a modular format where content is chunked into nonlinear modules and professors can combine modules to form collections that function as full textbooks.  Flat World Knowledge features full textbooks that are in final form, ready to be adopted for classroom use. These different models will appeal to different users. Professors interested in additional flexibility can draw from the wealth of Connexions modules and create flexible textbooks to match their courses; however, compiling collections will result in more up front work for professors. Flat World Knowledge provides full textbooks for professors interested in adopting a more traditional textbook format. These textbooks do not require the work necessary to compile a Connexions textbook, but they provide professors with less flexibility.

Wikibooks can be used as a valuable open textbook tool in a constructivist classroom. Professors can encourage students to actively construct their own knowledge by having them use the Wikibooks platform to create their own textbooks. Projects that have used this approach have found encouraging results.


The open textbook movement has grown quickly in the last decade and shows no sign of slowing down. The prices of textbooks have continued to increase even with the move to electronic textbooks, and as long as textbook cost remains too high for a significant number of students, interest in open textbooks will continue to grow. This paper has examined the current state of the open textbook movement, focusing on five open textbook platforms. The examination has not been comprehensive though, and there are numerous open textbook options that have not been addressed in this paper. Going forward, some of these platforms might become more prominent and some might fail. Also, new platforms will arise that provide new options for publishing open textbooks. The future is uncertain, but there is little doubt that the number of open textbooks will continue to increase.

While this paper has examined a few sources that provide open textbooks, it is important to stress that the movement is not yet where it needs to be. Some professors will be able to use the resources outlined above, and some will not. Certain disciplines, particularly business, have more open textbook resources available than others. Professors teaching more obscure courses will likely have to rely on textbooks published by traditional publishers. In the future, more high quality materials will be available for professors teaching in various disciplines. FWK’s catalog hopefully represents an overall increase in open textbook materials. FWK currently only has six textbooks available, but by February, 2010, there will be over 25 textbooks available on the site. Connexions also continues to grow quickly and currently has over 9,000 available modules.

These growing resources are important to highlight to remind reader that this paper is not an environmental scan of a static environment. During the research for this article countless Wikibooks were begun, over 500 new modules were deposited in Connexions, and three new books were published on FWK. As material continues to be developed, a few exemplar textbooks will hopefully show the viability of the movement and spur adoption and use. We can hope that the future of the textbook industry will be one of traditional textbooks competing with open options. Both professors and students will benefit from that competition.

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