Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

Open Textbooks: Trends and Opportunities

by Pierre Gorissen

Since the introduction of affordable e-readers, and certainly since the arrival of tablets (in particular the iPad), it has become clear that electronic books are on the up and up. Discussion continues as to whether printed books will ever disappear entirely. What is clear is that e-books and e-textbooks are becoming increasingly important in education. This article considers the trends and opportunities for a particular category of electronic books, namely open textbooks. I define the concept, consider the relationship to “open educational resources” (OER), and look at the trends, developments, opportunities, and threats associated with open textbooks. It will become apparent that educational institutions have a steep learning curve ahead of them if they do not want to fall behind in this field.

Electronic books

In the 2011 edition of the Horizon Report (Johnon, 2011), electronic books were classed – along with “mobile” – as one of the technologies that would be adopted within the next year. It is therefore unsurprising that neither of these technologies is to be found in the 2012 edition (Johnon, 2012), which does, however, find space for “tablet computing”. It is in fact precisely tablets that are used most frequently in order to read electronic books.

Despite a great deal of experimentation with electronic books in education in the United States, researchers still do not always agree on whether they provide added value in the educational context (Martin, 2012). There is, however, agreement on the benefits. It is easier for a student to take along “a stack of books” on his or her tablet than a literal stack in a satchel. Students can also insert annotations and quickly look up relevant passages. Electronic books can also be provided with animations, audio, and videos.

Electronic books do have some problems, however. They are cheaper to purchase than printed books but they cannot be lent out or sold on,  meaning that the ultimate cost for students can turn out to be higher. Students also need to purchase an expensive tablet, which will often have insufficient space to store all the books that they need. Providers of electronic books often protect them with DRM (Digital Rights Management), a means of preventing them being copied. This means, however, that they cannot necessarily be read on all the available devices.

The linear nature of books also gives rise to discussion, namely as to whether modern education would not benefit more from flexible, dynamically composed, non-linear packages of multimedia materials that can be adapted to the needs of the reader.

Open textbooks

Open textbooks can remove at least some of the problems associated with electronic books. An open textbook is an electronic textbook, published under an open licence, that can be shared online by the author/authors or via a commercial or non-profit publisher. The open licence allows it to be downloaded, printed, or read online without additional payment (Keller).

The general assumption is that if the book is to meet the definition of “open textbook” users must at least be able to use it without paying to do so, to copy and distribute it for non-commercial use, and to convert it to a different format to the original. Rightholders also often permit content to be added or removed, thus making it possible to create new, d erivative works on the basis of the open textbook. Commercial use can also be permitted.

The various rights regarding open textbooks are regulated by means of a licence, with Creative Commons licences being frequently used. The freest type of licence, with only attribution being required (, allows the open textbook to be freely duplicated, printed, translated, combined with other source materials, and even used commercially. The sole condition with such a
licence is that the original creator is credited. Other Creative Commons licences used for open textbooks may require that the result only be shared subject to the same licence ( or that it only be used for non-commercial purposes (

Open textbooks and OER

Open textbooks are a logical consequence of the developments in OER and OCW (open courseware) that have been taking place worldwide since 2001. Instructors and educational institutions are increasingly making their educational resources available online for reuse. Expensive commercially published textbooks are being replaced by textbooks assembled on the basis of such open resources. Making textbooks openly
available makes education more broadly accessible because it removes financial barriers.

Open textbooks also make it possible to provide only those learning resources that are necessary for an optimum match with a specific educational situation. Materials can be taken from a variety of different sources so as to put together a tailor-made textbook. Instructors can correct errors and add tailor-made material to the open textbook. The use of open textbooks is not limited to digital books; if necessary, a paper version can be provided by means of “printing on demand” (POD).

Trend Report OER 2013

Trends and developments

The extent to which open textbooks can be used is closely related to the availability of open educational resources. As with OER and OCW, it is the United States that is pioneering the use of open textbooks. That is not only because of the wide availability of English-language educational resources but also because of the relatively high cost of commercially published textbooks. In 2009, for example, the latter consideration led to California deciding to make open textbooks available as a way of saving money (DeSantis).

Needless to say, the majority of publishers are not very happy about such initiatives and three of them have in fact initiated legal proceedings against a provider of open textbooks. The publisher concerned considered that the content of the open textbook was too similar to that of its own publications. An additional issue was that students could find the open textbooks using the titles of the commercially produced books. By contrast, other publishers, for example O’Reilly, are investigating whether to include open textbooks in their range.

It is no surprise that in the Netherlands, as in the US, it is mainly educational institutions that already use and provide OER which are among the first to make those materials available in the form of open textbooks. After all, they are already familiar with gathering OER, assessing their suitability for their own particular situation and students, and if necessary adapting or customising them. It is then only a relatively small step to combining these materials in open textbooks.

At research universities, providing materials in English is not a problem, and use can therefore be made of the wide range of materials available in that language. At universities of applied sciences and in other educational sectors, Dutch-language materials will also be needed, and these are far less readily available.

Open textbooks – certainly if they are also provided in printed form – currently stick to the familiar pattern of linear learning resources, primarily in the form of text, selected by the lecturer and presented to the students in a fixed structure and form. Electronic textbooks, however, can also utilise multimedia (audio, video, animations, etc.). Generally speaking, it is the instructor who selects the materials and provides
them to the students. This is in many cases necessary in order to check the quality of the source materials. Students can only do that for themselves if they have metadata available to help them. One can also expect students to increasingly demand OER in non-linear form, for example maths textbooks with a self-test function or supplementary content for those components that the student has not yet fully mastered.

Objections and obstacles

There are also certain problems associated with open textbooks. I have already referred to the struggles with some publishers regarding copyright. It is also no easy matter to draw up an effective business model for the long-term updating of open textbooks. Somebody will need to ensure that they are in fact updated and revised. A certain level of quality control is also necessary to guarantee that the information provided is correct and up to date.

The technology for producing, managing, and consuming open textbooks is still developing. The tools available to authors are certainly improving, but environments are also needed within which authors can collaborate on materials. Those environments need to make it easy to generate different formats and types of open textbooks, i.e. both electronic and printed.

Another requirement for the rapid development of open textbooks is a further reduction in the cost of the devices needed to read them. The iPad, specifically, would appear to be on the way to being almost universally available, but it has not yet reached that stage. In addition, the problem of the limited storage capacity of a device will become even greater with increased use of open textbooks. The additional multimedia that can add to the value of open textbooks also take up a lot of space.

Instructors, students, and publishers will need to get used to their new roles. If students demand more flexible educational resources, then instructors will need to know how they can provide them. Publishers can continue to play a role if they are able to respond to these changing demands. They can do so, for example, by assuming a support role in the production of open textbooks and abandoning the controlling role that they used to play.


The rise of open textbooks is a logical consequence of the online provision of open educational resources. They make it possible to reduce the cost of using textbooks. But developing open textbooks is not without its problems. The parties that have a stake in the current situation will attempt to maintain that situation. Other stakeholders, for example instructors and students, will not automatically know how to take full advantage of the new possibilities. As is often the case with new technological developments, there will initially be an “old wine in new bottles” situation. In other words, there will be substitution of the technology utilised – digital versus paper – rather than a transformation of the educational process. Open
textbooks would seem to represent an interim stage in the transition to open online learning resources that provide students with tailor-made support in their learning process. That is a stage that educational institutions cannot simply skip. It is in fact not only a technological interim stage but also a growth phase for the education sector on the way to a more flexible, customised educational resources.


• Johnson, L., et al., The 2011 Horizon Report. 2011, The New Media Consortium: Austin, Texas.

• Johnson, L., S. Adams, and M. Cummings, The NMC Horizon Report 2012 Higher Education Edition, The New Media Consortium: Austin, Texas.

• Martin, R. “The road ahead: eBooks, eTextbooks and publishers’ electronic resources”, ascilite. 2012. Wellington.

• Keller, J. “Publishers Criticize Federal Investment in Open Educational Resources”. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed at

• DeSantis, N. “3 Major Publishers Sue Open-Education Textbook Start-Up”. Accessed 8 October 2012.

Internet sources

• Wikipedia. “Open textbook”. Accessed 8 October 2012 at

• “Open Textbooks In California”. Accessed 8 October 2012 at


Pierre Gorissen ( is a senior ICT consultant with the Education and Research department at Fontys University of Applied Sciences. He has been involved in developing learning technology standards for the exchange of educational resources and the use of Web lectures. He is currently also engaged in developments in the field of electronic textbooks.


This article is from Trend report: open educational resources 2013, it describes trends in open educational resources (OER) and open education in the Netherlands and elsewhere, from the perspective of Dutch higher education. The report is published by the Open Educational Resources Special Interest Group (SIG OER) supported by SURF.


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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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