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OpenStax's OER textbooks

Rice University

More and more instructors are choosing open educational resources over traditional textbooks, a survey of more than 2,700 faculty members reveals.

The "Opening the Textbook" survey, published by the Babson Survey Research Group today, reports that the number of faculty members at two- and four-year institutions using OER as textbooks has nearly doubled in the last year -- from 5 percent in 2015-16 to 9 percent in 2016-17.

Awareness of OER -- openly licensed and freely accessible teaching and learning materials -- has also increased. Twenty-nine percent of faculty described themselves as "aware" or "very aware" of OER this year, up from 25 percent last year and 20 percent the year before. The proportion that reported they had never heard of OER fell from 66 percent in 2014-15 to 56 percent this year.

But while increases in adoption and awareness have been significant, Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, points out that over all, awareness of OER is still low. He noted that many faculty members also continue to report significant barriers to wider adoption of OER, particularly finding and evaluating the quality of materials.

Fifty percent of respondents to the survey said it was too difficult to find the materials they need, and 47 percent said there were not enough resources available for their subject. These issues have been reported as the top barriers to wider adoption of OER for the past three years. Just under 30 percent of respondents said they were concerned OER materials might not be updated, and around the same proportion reported concerns that OER would not be high quality.

Raising Awareness

Nicole Allen, the director of open education for SPARC, a coalition that supports open policies and practices in education and research, said that over all the results in the survey were promising for OER. “New options are always judged against what has come before,” she said. “OER is new, and any innovation is going to face an uphill battle. Change doesn’t happen overnight.”

Allen said it was not surprising that faculty members would report that OER is hard to find compared with more established offerings from commercial publishers. “A sales rep isn’t going to call or mail you the latest OER offering,” she said. Allen predicted that librarians would play an increasingly important role in helping faculty members find and evaluate OER content.

Asked why more people hadn’t heard of OER, David Wiley, chief academic officer of Lumen Learning, a company that provides OER resources and tools, said that many faculty members were incentivized to publish research rather than adopt pedagogical innovations like OER. “At institutions where faculty are promoted and tenured primarily on their teaching, awareness and adoption of OER seems to be moving faster,” he said.

He agreed with Allen that the results of the survey were positive for OER. “More faculty state that they will definitely use OER in the next three years (7 percent) than those who say they are definitely not interested in using OER over the same period (6 percent). The remainder are still persuadable,” he said, adding, “these trends all seem to be pointing in the right direction.”

OER and Open Licensing

OER materials such as text, media and other digital assets are openly licensed, meaning that they can be freely shared and modified. OER advocates argue that open licensing offers a big advantage over using copyrighted commercial materials, as instructors are free to customize the content. While the survey found awareness of Creative Commons licensing is increasing, with 47 percent of faculty reporting they are “aware” or “very aware” of the term (up from 38 percent last year), Allen and Wiley acknowledge there is still some way to go to increase understanding of this issue. However, both said they were pleased at the speed at which awareness of OER and Creative Commons licensing is increasing.

Seaman suggested that some faculty members might be using OER textbooks or materials without realizing that they are free to modify the materials. Some 16 percent of faculty members who had assigned digital textbooks to their students said that they did not know how the material was licensed. One anonymous faculty member quoted in the survey remarked, "I may have used OER, but don't know them by that name."

Lynn Nagle, an instructor in education and psychology at Penn State Altoona, said that she believed it was likely some faculty could be using OER content without realizing. Nagle started using Barnes & Noble Education’s OER courseware in fall 2016 and said she found charts and materials included in the courseware, which she had seen before but had not realized were OER. Nagle said she appreciated that Barnes & Noble had “prepackaged” this content, removing any ambiguity and saving her valuable time in finding OER resources, which she described as “a bit obscure.”

Barnes & Noble Education, like other companies such as Cengage and Knewton, has started offering curated OER through its proprietary platform for a per-student fee. Though these offerings are typically cheaper than buying an equivalent commercial textbook, they have been criticized by some OER advocates who say that all OER materials should be accessed for free.

OER Versus Commercial Textbooks

Cost was found in the survey to be a key driving factor for faculty members when selecting course materials. Faculty members reported that their required textbooks cost an average of $97, with just 22 percent saying that they were “very satisfied” with the cost. Just over a third of faculty reported that 90 percent or more of their students had purchased the required textbook, and 87 percent of faculty reported that cost was “important” or “very important” when making their selection.

Among faculty members who recently chose a new textbook for a large-enrollment introductory-level course, 16.5 percent said they had adopted a textbook from OpenStax, a leading nonprofit provider of OER course materials. Last year, the rate of adoption of OpenStax textbooks was 10.8 percent. The survey suggests that faculty members are now choosing OpenStax textbooks for large-enrollment introductory courses at roughly the same rate as commercial textbooks.

Faculty who did not select an OpenStax textbook for their introductory-level course reported an average cost of $125 for commercial textbooks, whereas those who had selected an OpenStax text reported an average cost of $31. While print copies of OpenStax textbooks can be ordered for a fee, like most OER, the content can be accessed digitally for free.

The survey noted that adoption of OpenStax textbooks in these courses was primarily among faculty who reported a greater willingness to move away from traditional teaching styles and a higher appreciation for digital materials. “It is unclear if faculty with more traditional approaches, or greater reliance on associated materials, will follow in the same numbers,” the survey said.

Richard Baraniuk, founder and director of OpenStax, said that it was clear that OER providers need to make discoverability a priority. He also highlighted the need to develop more supplemental materials to attract more faculty members to OER. OpenStax already provides simple PowerPoint slides and test banks, but has also launched OpenStax Hubs as a forum for faculty members to develop and publish additional resources, a resource he expects will “flourish.”

“We’ve crossed the threshold into mainstream,” said Baraniuk, but this doesn’t mean that OpenStax will rest on its laurels. “With this unprecedented growth, we have a responsibility to take the next step to improve learning, while continuing to increase access for all and preserving choice for faculty.”

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