Frequently Asked Questions

About Open Textbooks

(also see NC State University FAQs)

What is an open textbook?

Covering a wide range of disciplines, open textbooks are freely available, under an unrestricted license, to download and print in various file formats from several web sites and OER (open educational resources) repositories.  Many organizations provide access to open textbooks through their websites. Several file formats are made available for open textbooks; typical formats are: HTML, Adobe PDF, and plain text.

An open textbook is a body of educational content that is openly available over the web, by mail, or in a book store with a copyright that allows copying and distribution or, with the most open copyrights, allows modification of the content and even sale.

Why should I adopt an open textbook?

Open textbooks are more affordable than commercially available textbooks; this permits student education budgets to stretch further, thus giving students greater flexibility in their education choices. Furthermore, faculty can readily customize open textbooks to better meet their local teaching and learning needs. Open textbooks provide pricing, flexibility and customization advantages that commercially available textbooks currently do not provide, customize and update open textbooks.

How can I find high quality open textbooks?

High quality open textbooks are accessed from OER repositories on the Internet. Many such repositories exist. To download an open textbook, locate one from an OER repository or web site. For examples, see:

What is the quality of open textbooks?

There is essentially no difference in the faculty vetting process carried out for open textbooks, compared to commercially published textbooks. As with all textbooks, open textbooks vary in quality. Faculty selection of open textbooks, as in the selection of commercial textbooks, is often a collaborative process driven by departmental faculty. Quality of a particular open textbook can be determined in several ways: 1) recommendations by faculty who have used the open textbook, 2) vetting by faculty reviewers, and 3) faculty use of review guidelines created to standardize the open textbook review process.  Some OER sites (e.g., Connexions) have a review system built in.

How can my students get a copy of the open textbook that I adopt?

Most open textbooks are available for viewing on a computer via the Internet or as a document that can be downloaded for off line viewing or printing by students. Faculty can provide their students with the webpage address where students can access the open textbook.  Alternatively, several print-on-demand services are available via the Internet that will provide students printed copies for a minimal fee. Additionally, campus bookstores and print-shops can provide printed copies of the open textbook for sale. Print-on-demand services will soon be available as well.

How can I develop my own open textbook?

Open textbook authors are no different than commercial textbook authors, with one exception. Open textbook authors share their knowledge with students freely in order to increase accessibility, and significantly reduce cost to the student.

“Open textbook projects rely on volunteers who are committed to a vision of providing high-quality, freely available textbooks to the worldwide community of educators and learners. Most of the projects mentioned in this module have information on their site on how you can participate in their project.” (from OER Commons Tutorial)

Some open textbooks were originally commercial books whose copyright has run out or whose copyright was returned to the author who has put it under an open copyright.  Some authors were hired by a school or foundation to write open textbooks for some particular reason or group of students.  Any author writing an open textbook should consult Creative Commons.  Most authors use their attribution only or attribution-share-alike license.

How will the adoption of open textbooks impact faculty authors of textbooks that are for sale?

Overall, introduction of open textbooks can create more opportunity for faculty who wish to publish commercial material, because faculty who wish to write commercial (for sale) material will be able to leverage open content by providing commercial (for sale) addendums to that open content.

If the textbooks that are available for sale have a reasonable price, there will be little impact.  However, if you can buy a printed version of an open textbook for $20 when the equivalent commercial version sells for $120, it will cause people to change.

Availability of open content and textbooks can potentially increase class enrollments by providing students with free (online) or low cost (print-on-demand) open content. Thus, students who have traditionally not been able to enroll in a course because the textbook cost is too high, will no longer encounter that barrier.

What will my students think about using an open textbook?

Students traditionally have a fair amount of discretion in using textbooks that are assigned to them by faculty; open textbooks do not change that equation.  Open textbooks will provide the same quality and variety of content as commercially available textbooks, with the additional advantage that open textbooks will be more easily customized by faculty (to meet localized education needs), more accessible to physically challenged populations, and available for sale to students for significantly less cost (free, or as low cost print versions) than commercially published textbooks.

It will make students think you care about their financial burden.  Several systems will allow the students to either use the open books in print form or on-line, giving much more flexibility.

Will my course transfer to other colleges and universities if I use an open textbook?

Articulation agreements between community colleges and universities generally do not include specific requirements about textbooks except to specify that the title or samples of the textbook should be included in the course outline.  Check with your campus articulation officer to determine if your articulation agreements prohibit the use of open textbooks or require only publishers’ textbooks. As open textbooks proliferate, colleges and universities will seamlessly include them in articulation agreements.

 How will the adoption of open textbooks impact my campus bookstore?

Campus bookstores can profit from obtaining print copies of open textbooks and selling them just as they do for of publishers’ textbooks. Campus bookstores can profit from obtaining print copies of open textbooks
and selling them just as they do for of publishers’ textbooks but only if the open access copyright allows commercialization.  
Many campus bookstores are already engaged in efforts to lower the cost of publishers’ textbook with rental programs and other innovative strategies. 

What are the disadvantages to using open textbooks?

Some disadvantages of OER include:

  • Quality of available OER materials is inconsistent. However, this is also true of commercial textbooks, which vary widely in quality. As the number of open textbooks increases, there will be a concomitant increase in overall quality.
  • Materials may not meet Section 508 ADA accessibility requirements and must be modify to bring into compliance. In fact, this is true of many commercial textbooks. Open textbooks will ultimately meet and exceed Section ADA accessibility requirements, as currently fulfilled on commercially available textbooks.
  • Faculty need to check for accuracy of content of open content, just as they do with commercially available content.
  • Customization may be necessary to match departmental and/or college curriculum requirements. However, customization of content will ultimately be more flexible in open content than it currently is in commercially available content.
  • Technical requirements to access the content vary. Interoperability standards that permit transportability across many technology platforms are now in the making.

How will copyright/fair use be determined?  Who will be responsible?

Authors of OER make their own decisions about open licensing of their content. Several different open licensing options are available such as from Creative Commons and GNU General Public License Version 3. Ultimately, individual faculty members are responsible for understanding the guidelines for fair use. In general, the best practice is to use content that is either public domain or provided under an open license rather than relying on fair use provisions. By virtue of their open licenses, all OER and open textbooks are available without the need to be concerned about fair use.  See Faculty Essentials for more information about copyright and fair use.

It appears that anyone may post as an author on the website?  How will credentials be determined and the validity of the material be guaranteed?

The CCCOER website is not a repository for OER or open textbooks.  One webpage of the CCCOER website lists links to open textbooks that have not yet been vetted for quality. However, a separate website is currently under design which will provide faculty with two-click links to existing open textbooks that have been vetted by faculty reviewers. We are in the process of developing vetting standards for the review of open textbooks based on criteria such as accuracy, cultural relevance, authority, accessibility, and interoperability.  When the new website is launched and the review standards are posted, faculty will be invited to submit open textbooks for full vetting by CCCOER review team with expertise in the discipline.

Who will fund the project since it was created under a grant that has now expired?

The Community College Open Textbook Project was funded by the Hewlett Foundation as a one-year feasibility study to examine various sustainability and business models for supporting OER and open textbooks. This Project is funded from April 2008 – March 2009.

How will the website address ADA compliance?

An important component of the Community College Open Textbook Project is to determine appropriate accessibility standards for OER and open textbooks. Once these standards have been established, they will be posted to the Community College Open Textbook Project website and applied during the Open Textbook vetting process.

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