January 22, 2017

What I learned from the Open Textbook Summit

Paul Stacey MC-ing the Open Textbook Summit

Paul Stacey MC-ing the Open Textbook Summit

BCcampus (2014) Five lessons learned at the Open Textbooks Summit Vancouver BC: BCcampus

BCcampus organized an open textbook summit again this year (the first one was last year). I attended, because I’m writing my own open textbook on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ BCcampus has published its own blog post on the lessons learned, but I came away with something different, from a potential author’s perspective.

1. Open textbooks are gaining momentum.

There were two Ministers of Advanced Education present, one from BC and one from Saskatchewan. This is because the three western Canadian provinces (BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan) have signed a New West Partnership which includes collaboration on and sharing of open textbooks (Saskatchewan’s participation interestingly was initially driven by pressure from students.)

Last year there were 30 participants at the Open Textbook Summit, this year 130, including David Wiley, representatives from Open Stax, librarians, Barbara Illowsky, an author of an open textbook on comparative statistics, and senior university administrators and faculty in BC who were incorporating open textbooks in their teaching.

Currently, BC has 19 open textbooks available for large enrollment courses, with another 28 being ready in September this year, and another 20 by September 2015. So the supply side is really ramping up in western Canada and government is getting behind it in a big way.

2. There is a clear need for open textbooks.

Kim Thanos from LumenLearning pointed out that textbook costs have increased by 6.8% compared with a cost of living increase of 3.8%. 60% of students at some point during their program do not buy a recommended textbook because of cost, and 31% of students avoid certain courses because of the high cost of textbooks. Open Stax with just 11 open textbooks in 18 months has reached 600 schools/institutions, almost 100,000 students and saved students  $9.3 million in textbook costs.

3. The supply and the demand from students is coming – but where is the adoption by faculty?

Adoption by faculty and instructors remains a major challenge. Diane Salter from Kwantlen Polytechnic University stated that there needs to be an institutional strategy for open textbooks and open educational resources, to raise awareness and get buy-in from faculty. Takashi Soto, an instructor also from Kwantlen, pointed out that with the ability to edit, remix and delete, he can move an open textbook that initially gives him 85% of what he wants to 95%.

But still many faculty are suspicious of the quality of open textbooks or are just not aware that there are suitable open textbooks available for their courses. Open textbooks do not have the marketing clout of commercial textbook publishers. But I also have to say that there is still a certain evangelicism around open textbooks and OERs which I think puts off many faculty. Faculty need to take some ownership of the process of selection, adaptation and implementation if open textbooks are to be adopted on a larger scale. (See Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani’s excellent post on some of the reasons for the slow adoption by faculty.)

4. Open textbooks have their own pedagogy.

Most open textbooks today remind me of the movies at the turn of the century. Movies then mainly looked like recorded music hall acts. Cinema needed a D.W. Griffith to recognize the potential of the medium. Most open textbooks look just like commercial printed textbooks; static, lots of print, some graphics, but no animation, video, audio, learner activities or feedback built in.

David Wiley, as always, was very interesting on this topic. He pointed out that opening up student activities beyond the classroom or campus and sharing and collaborating with students on the development and production of content enables quality improvements and more transparency in the teaching (which may explain some of the resistance by many faculty).

I am still struggling, as I write my own open textbook, with the issue of when an open textbook moves from being a ‘book’ to a ‘course’, as one builds in more opportunities for ‘expert’ and ‘student’ contributions to the content, and more links and activities around the content.

5. The technology is still crude

Because the current technology ‘model’ for open textbooks is still based on printed books, the functions that enable more open collaboration, remix and re-use are still very crude. PressBook is a useful adaptation of WordPress, but it lacks many features that I feel I need as an author.  BCcampus has developed a plug-in called PressBook Textbook that has or will have features such as enabling better quality tables and math equations to be easily incorporated, but I’m still trying to work out how to download/add it to my version of PressBook (this is probably due more my technological naivity). Trying to manipulate graphics or images is also very clunky. So all the features that an author needs to create an open textbook that goes beyond a simple text still need more work.

More fundamentally, I’m still struggling with how someone else can take what I’ve written and incorporate it in their own work in an easy and transparent manner, without destroying the integrity of the original. How do I track the changes and variations that others have made? How can I keep the book dynamic – even after I’m dead? How many versions of the book should there be, and how will readers be able to judge which is ‘authentic’ or reliable?

These are interesting questions that I will continue to explore as I develop my open textbook. In the meantime, the Open Textbook Summit was very helpful as I start out on this journey.


  1. Has github been looked at to provide the infrastructure for managing open textbooks? Paired with an author friendly front end, would seem ideal…

  2. Halfway through my semester in college I’ve noticed an increase in the amount of students buying used textbooks, I’m sure this is why – thank you for sharing the information.

  3. Don McCahill says:

    On #3. There is a need for champions of OER. Just today I spoke with the Statistics professor at my college (Lambton, in Sarnia, ON). Once I introduced him to the OpenStax book, he became very interested in adopting it and saving his students $200 each. It has been by going personally to various profs that I have developed some momentum for OER here (I am the instructional designer at the college). My personal goal is to see students save $100,000 in total this September through use of OER texts.

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