The urgent need for the UK Open Textbook pivot

Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

It seems that the online pivot may prove to be the point at which UK Higher education becomes interested in open textbooks. A few years ago we carried out some research on the UK Open textbook project. looking at differences between North America (where the idea of open textbooks had taken off to an extent) and the UK (where it hadn’t). There were some cultural differences which accounted for this, for instance the cost of textbooks in the UK did not form such a substantial percentage of an undergraduate’s overall expenditure, and UK academics tended to use a range of textbooks on reading lists, rather than specifying one. This lessened the financial motive for open textbook adoption, although academics expressed an interest in being able to modify the text.

This situation has changed significantly since the pandemic. The online pivot saw a greater demand for ebooks as students were no longer physically located near their library. Never ones to let a crisis not provide an opportunity, educational publishers increased the licensing costs of ebooks to libraries (as Jenny Rothschild puts it “ebooks for libraries are really, really, really expensive“). This has led to the well organised eBookSOS campaign. And then recently Pearson has announced a 500% hike in the average cost of their textbooks, causing much justifiable outrage from librarians on Twitter.

Of course, there’s no reason for ebooks to be so expensive. It’s a case of creating false scarcity. No reason apart from large profit margins that is. If we kick up a fuss they sometimes back down over pricing, but it’s clear that the relationship between educational publishers and education is not a mutually beneficial one any longer.

The mindset of the large commercial publishers seems more like a colonial one, seeking to plunder for maximum profits rather than a mutually beneficial partnership with those working in higher ed. Giving content to them is akin to supplying the arsonist outside your house with kindling.

In this context, Open Textbooks represent not so much a good price challenge to commercial textbooks, but a means of preserving some of the very point about the existence of textbooks in the first place – as a means to share knowledge and a vehicle for education. The online pivot has highlighted the fractured nature of our relationship with the large education publishers, and requires a second pivot – to open models of textbook production and adoption. The 2019 recommendations of our UK Open Textbook project seem even more pertinent now:

  • A nationally funded project can rapidly promote awareness of open textbooks, using the combination of targeted conferences and institutional workshops.
  • The open textbook model can be promoted by building on existing knowledge of open access
  • The use of the reading list represents an advantage in that it is relatively straightforward to make one item on a reading list an open textbook without requiring substantial change to a course. This present a lower threshold for staff to engage with open textbooks compared to adopting an
    open textbook for a complete course.
  • Librarians exhibited strong interest and are responsible for the budgets relating to textbook purchasing, and they represent a key stakeholder in open textbook adoption.

One Comment

  1. I am a strong supporter of open textbooks and have been using Bates (2015/2019) for some time.

    The British Columbia open textbook project was launched with a government grant of $1 million in 2012 and started with big 1st and 2nd year subjects. The editorial committee for each text had representatives from the departments which had big enrolments in those subjects, greatly increasing the likelihood of the texts being adopted by by those departments.

    Bates, A. W. (2019). Teaching in a digital age – second edition. Vancouver, B.C.

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