Chapter Two: Literature Review

The literature review focuses on areas of interest for this research project: open education, open educational resources (OER), and open textbooks. Although the focus of this research was open textbooks, some general information about open education and open educational resources is included to better describe the context around open textbooks. OER and open textbooks are not separate phenomena.

It can be easy to lose your way in an exploration of openness in education. In 2010, Wiley parsed for us the meaning behind the adjective open and the “rolodex” of nouns: education, resources, technology, textbooks, and courseware (Wiley, 2010). In the discourse of higher education, open means that educational resources are provided using a copyright license that allows for the 4Rs:

1. Reuse – the right to reuse the content in its unaltered / verbatim form

2. Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself

3. Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other content to create something new

4. Redistribute – the right to make and share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others(Wiley, 2010)


In 2014, Wiley suggested a fifth “R” for retain, that provided the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (Wiley, 2014). In doing so, Wiley hoped to begin a conversation around the ownership of open education, as well as the task of academic labour. Wiley (2014) also emphasized the need for de-centralized repositories for OER that would ensure that students had a right to retain openly licensed material in perpetuity.

Many advocates promote OER as being free, but there is more to open than not costing money. With open licenses, such as the Creative Commons CC-BY license, individuals are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format; to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially” (Creative Commons, 2014). All that is required is that the user of the open resource gives appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate whether any changes have been made (Creative Commons, 2014). At the heart of the OER movement is a mission to provide access to learning materials or opportunities for those who may not otherwise be able to afford them (Downes, 2011). OER are easy to use and there is only one rule—you must share the originals and any remixes of them.

As Porter (2013) noted OER is not common practice in institutions,

“OERs are a potentially disruptive innovation in the higher education sector that may impinge upon core principles and practices of the academy that are associated with its culture and its mission to produce new knowledge” (p. 29).

Perhaps because OER has not become well established in institutions, there is very little known about the ability to re-use or remix the materials. In Porter’s investigation of practices around OER, the responses from a participant challenge the possibility alluded to in the third R, the ability to remix. While remixing is considered a pillar of open education, there is still a lack of tools that make remixing easy or accessible for most people. Collis and Strijker (2003) indicated that there “has been little success with bringing instructors close to an actual authoring process: instructors do not have the time, interest, or skills” (p. 5). Traditionally, learning development tends to happen as a package rather than a compilation of components that can be gathered from all corners of the web. Writers like Lamb (2009) and Petrides et al. (2008) have written of the need for additional support in the pillars of OER that include providing the resource in an open format.

The birth of open educational resources

D’Antoni (2009) described the convening of a group of academics from all over the world, and primarily from developing countries, with the aim of assessing a new project by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) called OpenCourseWare (OCW). The group, convened by UNESCO, coined the phrase “Open Educational Resources” to describe the resources created within the OCW project, and defined them as follows:

“The open provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies, for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes” (UNESCO, 2002).

Since the initial creation of the term OER, D’Antoni (2009) tracked the progress of the definition from a descriptor of materials to “include the tools needed to support OER, and eventually to a philosophy” (D’Antoni, 2009, p.3). Since the first definition generated at UNESCO-sponsored conference, composed primarily of academics from the developing world, many organizations from the developed world have also participated in refining the definition of OER.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has defined OER as:

“Teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits there free use or repurposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials or techniques used to support access to knowledge” (Atkins, Brown & Hammond, 2007, p. 4).

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2007) produced a report describing OER as including “learning content, software tools to develop, use and distribute content, and implementation resources such as open licenses.” They used the term OER to refer to “accumulated digital assets that can be adjusted and which provide benefits without restricting the possibilities for others to enjoy them” (OECD, 2007, p. 10). Elsewhere, Kanwar, Kodhandaraman, & Umar (2010) noted that OER are understood as free and freely available, and sustainable for all levels of education.

In October 2008, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE, 2008) announced that it would fund higher education institutions and JISC (formerly known as Joint Information Systems Committee), to develop open educational resources. Three phases of a joint program were funded for approximately £16 million, each with priorities reflecting the growing community of OER users and developers that the program inspired and supported.

There are a proliferation of open education and OER initiatives developing globally, but the concept of “open” varies. Those who consider openness as a synonym for modifiability argue that a move towards openness is a move towards providing free and easy access to educational resources. They state that materials that have restrictions on reuse and modification conflict with the philosophy of the open education movement (Wiley & Gurrell, 2009; Bissell, 2009; Baraniuk & Burrus, 2008). While a rigid definition of the philosophy of open would seem to run contrary to its own principles, because inflexibility is a trademark of closed, as things stand now multiple definitions of open mean that there is confusion about what makes education open—and also what types of education remain closed.  At the present time, the debate around OER continues with the discussion around such disruptive innovations as Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) increasingly dominating the conversation around open education and OER. This may be due to the ability of companies like Coursera to capture the public imagination. Coursera made MOOCs a mainstream concept, so much so that The New York Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC” (Pappano, 2012).

However, it was Cormier, an educator at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI), who suggested the name MOOC in 2008 (Cormier, 2008). The initial MOOC was an experiment in open courseware that Siemens (2008) and Downes (2006) designed at the University of Manitoba in 2008. The experiment was designed to expand the learning experience for a class of 25 students, by opening it up to over 1,500 online participants (Bady, 2013). However, despite the attention focused on MOOCs, whether they were based in theory of connectivism (cMOOC) proposed by Siemens and Downes (Siemens 2006; Downes 2008) or the professor-centric model (xMOOC) such as Coursera style MOOCs, these courses are not the entirety of the open education movement. In fact, it is primarily cMOOCs that use OER, with xMOOCs of the Coursera style using proprietary resources.

Open Textbooks as a solution to the rising costs of post secondary education

Senack (2014) reported on a survey of 2039 students from more than 150 campuses in the US by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs) that illustrated some disturbing trends in post-secondary education. The study found that 65% of students decided against buying a textbook for a class they were enrolled in because the textbook was too expensive, and 94% of those students felt that not having the material would hurt their grades (Senack, 2014). Here OERs, particularly open textbooks, may be a solution to addressing the rising costs of textbooks and provide both financial relief and educational support to students. Allen (2008; 2010) also highlighted the ability of open practices to provide open textbooks to students who may not otherwise be able to afford them.

Some initial research findings on OER indicate that the use of open textbooks has been promising. Hilton and Laman (2012, p. 270) reported lower attrition rates and improved final examination results when open textbooks were deployed in courses they examined. However, the results were preliminary and, “because of the relatively low adoption rate of open textbooks, only a small amount of research has investigated its educational impact,” (Hilton & Laman, 2012 p. 266). There remain some challenges around adoption; Wiley, Hilton and Ellington (2012) noted that, “the tenacious grip of bureaucratic adoption hurdles” remained an issue as did the need for educators to have access to “research data to support a decision to use or reject open textbooks.”

Research on open textbooks

As discussed, the definition of open, the meanings of the terms open education, and OER still vary. The same issues arise when discussing open textbooks. BCcampus (2014) defines open textbooks as, “a textbook licensed under an open copyright license, and made available online to be freely used by students, teachers and members of the public.” The definition is very close to the one offered by ISKME in 2008—the major difference being that ISKME highlighted that the open textbooks are from a wide range of disciplines.

An open textbook differs from an e-textbook because it is openly licensed. However, there is sometimes conflation between the idea of an e-textbook, eBook, and that of an open textbook. At a recent event to promote open textbooks, a university presenter wrote, “e-books, as they are better known, are open-source textbooks that have been written by professors and published using an open license” (Kareiva, 2009). This is of course, not true. Given the multiple definitions of open I addressed in the literature review however, I believe it is a common misunderstanding of the terms open-source or open textbook.

From my analysis of the review of the literature, I assembled Table 1 as a summary to outline key differences between open textbooks and e-textbooks.


Table 1: Differences Between Open Textbooks and E-Textbooks

Qualities Open Textbook E-Textbook
  • All are free to view online.
  • Some, such as Boundless Textbooks, are viewed with ads to subsidize costs (Lalonde, 2013).
  • Study of four textbook distribution models show some savings, but in some cases the difference is one dollar between print and digital. (Graydon & Urbach-Buholz, 2011)


  • Print on demand available for many publications providing a printed and bound copy for students at a low price (BCcampus 2013, Wiley & Hilton, 2012)


  • Available online or digitally
  • Open textbooks can use open source software that allows the material to be distributed in a variety of ways (Lalonde,  2014)

Open textbooks can be device neutral unlike books from a publisher that may use proprietary software (Allen, 2010)



  • Digital rights management and EPUB format make printing difficult or place restrictions on printing. (Graydon & Urbach-Buholz, 2011)



  • Available online
  • Digital Rights Management (DRM) often do not allow for printing or modification
  • May be accessible for a limited period of time (Wiley, 2014)
  • A loan agreement may be in place (Graydon & Urbach-Buholz, 2011)
  • Locked formats prevent adaptability and reusability
  • All material already compiled and edited


Much of the literature on open textbooks focuses on the cost of textbooks and the ways in which mitigating these costs may assist students (Baker, Thierstein, Fletcher, Kaur & Emmons 2009; Allen 2010; Hilton & Wiley 2011; Hilton, Wiley, Bliss 2012; Senack 2014).

The price of textbooks is a quantifiable issue. College textbook prices have increased by 82% in the past ten years (Allen, 2010) in addition to the cost of post-secondary rising 87% in the last two decades (Allen, 2010). As the costs of textbooks rise with no apex in sight, fewer students purchase the textbooks (Wiley & Gurrell, 2009), and demands for alternatives such as open textbooks are high (Frydenberg, Matkin & Center 2007, Matkin, 2009; Baker, Thierstein, Fletcher, Kaur & Emmons 2009; Hilton, Levi & Wiley, 2011).

Open textbooks are also gaining prominence through the introduction of policy and government initiatives to develop OER. The United States Department of Labor announced grants that could be used to fund open-textbook projects (Gonzalez, 2011). On September 30, 2012, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed into law a proposal that allowed students to download digital copies of textbooks for free (Garber, 2012). Most recently the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan (2014, March 13) produced a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to develop and share OER.

A study by Wiley, Hilton, Ellington, and Hall (2012) took place over two years with 20 middle and high school science teachers who adopted open textbooks. Collectively, they taught approximately 3,900 students. The study sought to compare the cost of the implementation of open textbooks in comparison to traditional textbooks. Researchers found that with both traditional and open texts, there was a significant effort put into “locating, vetting, and selecting” a text (Wiley, Hilton, Ellington, and Hall, 2012). However the time teachers spent modifying the textbooks was shown to vary (see Figure 1).

Table 1

Figure 1. Summary of Teacher Efforts to Modify Open Textbooks (Wiley, Ellington, & Hall 2010)

Figure 1 shows the relationship between modifying the book and the estimated cost. In some cases, drastic changes could be made—such as removing a chapter—without the participant spending a lot of time modifying the material. This suggests that the modification of a resource and cost is not a direct correlation. Overall, Wiley, Hilton, Ellington, & Hall (2012) stated that the majority of students and faculty reported a positive experience using open textbooks, and they appreciated the lower costs, and perceived the texts as being of high quality.

A report for the Student PIRGs by Allen (2010) identified different methods to save students money on textbooks. Out of all of the options examined by Allen: renting, e-textbooks, and e-reader textbooks combined, equaled a 34% savings (down to $598 per student) in a year (Allen, 2010, pp 5). Open textbooks, however could reduce the amount spent by 80% (down to $184 per student) in a year (Allen, 2010).

Flexibility of use on devices and a range of affordable options, including low cost printing, were the reason for the overwhelming savings potential for open textbooks (Allen, 2010). However, Allen also reported that the success of open textbooks depended entirely on the ability to develop sustainable publishing models.

Allen (2010) cited the development and progress of the Flat World Knowledge Society (FWKS) as a model for open textbooks. At the time, the company was attempting to use open license and open publishing as a part of its business model. FWKS was a company founded by two veterans of the publishing industry Shelstad and Frank (Seidel, 2009). Since the publication of the Student PIRGs report in 2010, FWKS has ceased to be free and has instead switched to a low-cost publishing model (Joyner, Feb. 2013). In discussing this shift, Joyner sought out a quote from experts in the open community, including Vuchic who said:

The key in open-source software is galvanizing a whole community to bear the cost of developing a product. But Flat World used a traditional approach to authorship, and it locked its content into its platform. I think in the short term, Flat World will get a bump in revenue. But my concern is that in the long term, it will be just another publisher. Every publisher is developing a platform to modify books now. And over the long term, the cost of books will drop, so that distinction will fade, too. (Vuchic 2013)


Allen (2010) also found that consideration of the needs of both faculty and students were necessary for the adoption of open textbooks. Faculty were important because they ultimately selected the text that would be used in their courses, while students could be advocates and could inform educators of the existence and apparent quality of open textbooks.

Petrides et al. (2011) explored the adoption of open textbooks through the Community College Open Textbook Project (CCOTP) and found that cost, content, quality, and ease of use were all factors that influenced the adoption of open textbooks for educators; however, for students the primary concerns were portability and cost (p. 43). Hilton & Laman (2012) also examined the adoption of an open textbook at Houston Community College, a large post-secondary institution with more than 70, 000 students. In their study, Hilton & Laman (2012) found empirical evidence that open textbooks improved student learning, as demonstrated by both final examination scores, and grade point averages.

Some of the barriers to OER adoption cited in the literature include a lack of access to hardware, software and the Internet—especially in developing countries (Wiley & Gurrelle, 2009). Other problems concerned a lack of understanding about OER by institutions and educators, and these factors stemmed from an absence of guidelines about OER creation, lack of technical skills by educators, and a lack of transparency around educational practices (Atkins et al, 2007).

The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) conducted a survey of 1,203 faculties from 12 community college districts and 28 colleges across the United States about their attitudes and practices with regard to open educational resources. The findings indicated a large gap between those who expressed interest for using OER in their classes, 91%, and those who have actively been using OER, 34% (Baker et al., 2008).

Baker et al. (2008) explained that the reasons for the implementation gap in the study were twofold: there was difficulty in finding high-quality OER, and difficultly in finding material that targeted community college level material.


Open textbook projects

Worldwide, there are many examples of open textbook development, and development of textbooks using open practices such as CC licensing. is a nonprofit company in Washington D.C that developed educational materials so that they would be open to the public because the founder, Saylor, believed that education should be free (Saylor, n.d). Flat World Knowledge is a commercial textbook company that used Creative Commons (CC By-NC-SA) licensing for their materials in its initial business model. OpenStax College (Rice University, 2013) has shown the potential of open textbooks and other OER in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM).

While there are a number of studies centered on saving students money, or other benefits of implementing open textbooks, there remains a research and information gap in exploring educators’ lived experiences in adopting open textbooks. That is not to say that no one has noted the concerns that educators have identified about open textbooks including, “a lack of ancillary materials such as test banks, homework assignment managers, and study guides that are often available from commercial textbook publishers” (Daly, 2011). Additionally, since Daly’s findings there has been greater awareness of existing initiatives, such as Learning Pod that have been developed to gather ancillary material and reusable learning objects (Mogharreban & Guggenheim 2008).  In fact, Pitt (2014) of the OER Research Hub and OpenStax College, in her preliminary research results found that the top three challenges for instructors were: difficulty in finding sufficiently high-quality products, knowing where to find OER, and not having enough time to look for suitable resources. And, there was also a gap in the existence of rich textual descriptions about these issues.

Publishing and open textbooks

At times, it may seem that educators and developers may not know or have forgotten that the use digital educational resources are not uncharted territory. Many students and teachers have already shifted their own practice online from print and are active consumers of digital information sources. It is a new channel for education.

To illustrate the need for additional focus in the provision of digital educational resources, O’Leary (2012) provoked publishers and educational material developers with the statement, “open up your API, I contend, or someone else will”. We already exist in a world where people hack systems, remix content and redistribute context—often without permissions. With open textbooks, the barriers of digital rights management (DRM) are removed. We find educators concerned with whether students prefer print or digital while seeming to forget the question is not important as long as we can provide both.

Companies like Amazon have moved to a “lean consumption” (Womack & Jones, 2005) model by “streamlining their systems for providing goods and services, and by making it easier for customers to buy and use those products and services, a growing number of companies are actually lowering costs while saving everyone time” (Womack & Jones, 2005).

As McGuire noted (2012), it is not that quality of freely available materials is what is preventing people from reading online; it is that it has taken a while to find devices that readers like to use to access books. Now with Kindles and Kobos, iPhones and Androids, all with digital ink and backlighting that spare our computer-strained eyes, we can consume media is a way that is comfortable and convenient.

At the same time with open textbooks educators do not have to fight many of the barriers that have prevented people from reading online, such as publishers locking down their content with digital-rights management which limits interactivity with the text.

This means that a lot of the things we take for granted on most websites are just not possible with books. Copy/paste, sharing passages, and generally moving files from one place to another is much harder with e-books than with other digital goods, because of a combination of constraints in the EPUB format, digital rights management, and device/platform lock-in” (McGuire, 2012).

Educators do not need to lock down materials when they use those that are openly licensed. Therefore, many of the barriers that have presented themselves to publishers trying to move their content online do not exist in open education.

Open textbooks are not a spoke on a wheel of OER, though that metaphor is very tempting, it is more accurate to say that open textbooks and OER operate as an ecology, a community of knowledge. They are part of a holistic concept, not an individual feature. With educator’s skills and technological information sharing advances both making progress, there are increasingly more resources available. As online publishing matures and the trust for OER grows the remaining barriers to OER, such as the need for tools to assist in remixing and sharing resources, are coming to light.

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