Build it and they might come

Some of you will have seen a report about a survey conducted on the use of Open Course Library (OCL) free, open textbooks. The findings were that use was "extremely limited". Over the 42 courses that could use the textbooks, this amounted to 98,130 possible students, but only 2,386 did, some 2.4%. All that is rather disappointing to say the least, and it left me a little puzzled. Why would uptake be so low? Given the question "do you want to buy this $100 textbook or have this free one?" one might expect more than 2.4% to go for free.

Tony Bates posted a very good response to it which captured much of my feelings. The survey itself raised a number of questions he suggests: 

  • who commissioned the survey? If it was the college stores, would students necessarily go through college stores to download free online materials? If it was the college stores, is not there a conflict of interest here? Who benefits from the sale of high-priced textbooks?

  • is this survey too soon to draw any real conclusions? How long were the materials available for instructors to review them? These kinds of decisions are likely to be taken several months before courses open, and it may take another year at least before instructors start to accommodate to these materials

  • since the report concluded: ‘the question remains as to why so few of the sections for these 42 OCL courses actually used any of the free or lower-priced materials’, why did the Chronicle of Education, when reporting this, NOT get a comment from the people running the project in Washington State?

 Let us for now, accept that the survey is a true reflection of the state of uptake (although I agree with Tony, using stores as a measure seems an odd way to approach it). This raises other questions about OER adoption. Simply existing is not sufficient for a number of reasons:

  • Faculty have established practices, if they are unaware of the resources, or see no reason to change, then why disrupt their curriculum? 
  • Existing publishers will not go quietly into the night and spend a good deal on marketing existing provision that open textbooks have to compete with. In online chat someone said Pearson had been on their campus 3 times that week.
  • Students will create a momentum if they are aware of the content and it is relevant. The question I posed at the start regarding cost becomes a no-brainer if the material performs the same function

What this mostly comes down to is awareness. Given time enough students may pass around knowledge about this material, but to really make an impact OERs have to be competing with large marketing budgets. This represents the next phase in this particular battle for open I would suggest. Having created the content, getting into the system is now the challenge.


  1. It’s interesting that report refers to new courses rather than existing ones, where you might actually expect the teachers to look to see what options are out there. I can see three big barriers – awareness (are teachers sent copies of the materials in the same way that they get inundated with textbooks from traditional textbook publishers?), possible quality of the material, and also the time taken to evaluate new materials (e.g. if you are fairly young lecturer you might just be tempted to use the textbook you yourself used as it takes less time than becoming familiar with something new).

  2. Steve_p_uk says:

    It’s not just a case of resources being relevant and available, they must also be usable and useful. And, although they may be free or cheap, they must be well designed.
    I’ve seen free offerings before where the content has been let down by bad design. Textbooks are great as textbooks but they don’t really lend themselves to online use. Online expectations are much higher.
    Students will create a momentum by word of mouth (or whatever the equivalent social media term is) if they find a resource useful. If this momentum isn’t there yet then the usefulness has to be questioned just as much as any lack of marketing.
    Design and user experience, along with relevance and availability, are key to winning any battle.

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