The purpose of this study was to gather the lived experiences of educators who had been involved with open textbooks. What became apparent from an analysis of the data were the varying ways that people became involved in open education. Commonly, there was an individual who influenced them and whose views had resonated with their beliefs and values. At the same time, despite people being interested in open textbooks, open education, or OER, some of the participants conflated free or freely available with open. This indicates remaining confusion between the concepts of free and open educational resources. As Porter (2013) noted, OER is a recent innovation that has not yet become integrated in mainstream educational practice. He also noted that there were existing cultural issues and norms within the academy that hindered the adoption of open education and its practices in higher education.
Interpretive phenomenological analysis worked well for this study because it allowed space for the researcher to reflect on her ideas about open education and open textbooks while also reflecting on the lived experiences of others. However, IPA is a complex philosophy with specific crossover and variances to other types of phenomenology that were being learned while the study was underway. One way that I improved upon with practice was the pacing and flexibility in the questions. Although never rigid with the flow of conversation, the finals interviews more closely resembled relaxed conversation without my having to return to my notes. On reflection, I could have asked participants during the interview to feel free to email anything else they had not thought to say. While I did ask when sending the transcripts, some time had passed since the initial conversations.
With open textbooks in particular, there remained some question about what constituted a textbook—especially when looking at an all-digital resource. Furthermore, there was a clear parallel between Pitt’s (2014) key findings concerning educators having trouble finding sufficiently high-quality open products, knowing where to find OER, and not having enough time to look for suitable resources. Although it is worth noting that Pitt’s research is in the preliminary stages, these finding were congruent with statements made by the participants of this study.
Not surprisingly, each individual spoke about the academic culture of their institutions or organization. Academic culture and self-determination—academic freedom—are all a part of what makes up the experiences of an educator trying to adopt or create an open textbook.
Community played a large role in the decision of most of the participants to engage with open textbooks or other forms of OER. In some cases, the communities described were small groups of people working together to create an open textbook. In other cases, participants experienced community by attending conferences and listening to well-known voices in the open education movement. Several participants identified individuals and specific projects that encouraged them to explore OER in greater detail.
Open textbooks may not be a worldwide solution to lowering costs in education as the two participants outside of the US and Canada indicated. In their experience, textbooks were rarely used in the teaching and learning processes in which they have participated.
A comparison between the themes in the literature and the themes that emerged from the data analysis revealed some overlap as well as some ideas that had not been detected or explored in great depth. There were concerns about quality and sustainability of open textbooks as well as concerns about the lack of ancillary material; this was identified both in the review of the literature and in the data gathered by participants. However, given the formative nature of open textbooks, trust and experience were not yet integrated into the way the participants had been thinking about the phenomenon.
The definition of “quality” for an open textbook seemed to differ in the participant’s viewpoints and experience. Another theme that regularly surfaced was that open textbook implementation did not happen in isolation to other elements of open practice or OER.
Despite concerns for the students being raised by all participants, there was only one mention, by F1, on the possibility of student voice helping to bring focus to open textbooks. Overall, the tendency to talk for student concerns, and without student input, illuminated the notion that traditional thinking about the student-teacher model was still common among the majority of the participants.
This research provided an exploratory perspective on the lived experiences of educators using open textbooks. Due to the qualitative nature of this investigation, it was not possible to generalize the study participants’ experiences with open textbooks to other instructor’s experiences with open textbooks, and further research would be required to ascertain if these experiences are common for other individuals who have worked with open textbooks in other settings. Each experience the participants offered was unique and deeply contextualized to their own workplace, organizational culture, teaching philosophy, and personal outlook. The findings should be read in this context.
Participants often mentioned resistance from other instructors as a barrier to widespread adoption within their institutions. Much of the resistance was based on concerns around the quality of material as well as unfamiliarity around the practice of adopting open educational resources. The ability to reach out to colleagues and address concerns is likely to be integral to the success of open textbooks. Additionally, the window of impact for open textbooks is small. Most courses are static after development. As demonstrated in the interviews, most educators began to think of adding new resources on a three to five year schedule—based on the cycle of their textbook editions. During this time the efforts of librarians, personal learning networks, and presentations or conferences were most successful in reaching the educators.
It appears that there are many reasons an educator may decide to implement an open textbook. The preliminary study shows that educators are rarely focused on only open textbooks, and like traditional textbooks, the availability of ancillary materials make adopting these resources more appealing. The study also underscores the varied definition or interpretation of what constitutes open by the participants. Further research is required to discover the role that definition plays in a culture of openness, either through academic or open-source communities.
However, the varying definitions indicate that open textbooks or OER have not yet become mainstream. The fluidity of definition points to discussions of open education, as well as praxis, still being formative. In order for the saturation of open education into the mainstream to occur, continual outreach to educators, carefully targeted training programs, better search and storage tools, and support for the communities of practice implementing open textbooks—all issues raised by the participants—would assist in creating awareness and willingness to use open textbooks or other OER.
The inductive character of IPA requires that the theories discussed are derived from the data, rather than the other way around. By looking at the data and attempting to see open textbooks from the viewpoint of the interview participant, I believe that more questions than answers emerged. As I reflect on the research, I am cognizant of the complexities experienced by educators in higher education. As I mentioned in the literature review, open textbooks and OER operate as an ecology. They are part of a holistic concept, not an individual feature. Despite OER use being strongly correlated to the rise of accessible technology, merely focusing on technology reduces a nuanced phenomenon to technological determinism. There was much to be gleaned from speaking to the individual educators working on individual projects. For me, the most notable takeaway was that for a novice to open education there is more of a concern for the quality than a concern for the community—but the community of open education is greatly influential in determining whether an educator will become involved with OER. With that in mind, I have come to believe that distributed communities of practice where members are involved in open education will greatly contribute to the use of open textbooks, and other OER in higher education.