Do you really care about the “quality” of your textbooks?

When faculty cite concerns about “quality” as one of the reasons they don’t adopt open textbooks, it comes with the assumptions that, a) the quality of the textbook is what determines student learning, rather than the quality of the instruction or motivation, and 2) that there is any significant difference in learning outcomes when using a traditional commercial textbook.  Both of these assumptions are demonstrably false, according to a number of recent studies (Hilton III, J.,2016).

While the quality of open textbooks does vary, these texts are, if anything, more available for faculty review and evaluation than most commercial textbooks. Sites like the Open Textbook Library and the OER Commons include both ratings and formal reviews, and the entire text is freely available to read before adopting. More importantly, all of these texts are openly licensed for adapting, remixing, and reusing in whole or in part, so whatever is lacking in terms of coverage, depth, or “quality” can be addressed by those who use the materials.

Complaints about the quality of open textbooks (and OER in general) also tend to overlook the serious limitations of traditional textbooks as pedagogical tools:

  1. That they represent a static form of knowledge, built around a table of contents and organizational structure that often dictate how courses are organized and taught, regardless of whether this structure is consistent with an instructor’s philosophy or style of teaching. As John D. Belshaw (Jhangiani, Green, & Belshaw, 2016) notes, this tends to reinforce the “master narrative” tradition in many disciplines, which frames scholarship within predictable, inflexible, and biased structures of knowing.
  2. Updates to these textbooks are slow and beyond the control of those teaching the material. In dynamic, rapidly-changing fields like the sciences and social sciences, they are almost always out of date by the time the textbooks reach the classroom, and even in the humanities, they rarely reflect current or evolving discussions in the field.
  3. New editions are expensive, often not noticeably better, and require revising syllabi and even course structure each time a course is taught with a new text.  What’s more, libraries can’t afford to provide copies of new textbook editions on a regular basis and bookstores can’t resell outdated texts, so the cost burden is shared by everyone involved.
  4. Print textbooks can’t integrate multimedia materials unless they’re included in a supplemental format that also increases the cost. These materials aren’t tailored to the course or under the control of the instructors, and access is often restricted to a set period of time.
  5. Print textbooks are difficult for distance students to obtain and even more expensive for them to purchase because shipping fees are added to the cost. We know that many of these students simply forego buying a textbook altogether.
  6. Textbook publishers usually maintain copyright over these materials indefinitely, restricting their use even by the authors of the content. That makes modifying, remixing, or sharing that content virtually impossible for those who are actually using it.
  7. As a result, there’s little opportunity for students to engage in the process of creating or evaluating content on their own—the kind of active learning that has a proven pedagogical impact. 

All this lack of control—over content, access, dissemination, and cost—means that instructors and students have little say over how they teach and learn with traditional textbooks. They’re at the mercy of third-party authors, publishers, or administrators who determine what materials they can access and how they’re used. Regardless of the “quality” of the texts chosen, they often fail to meet the central demand of pedagogy: to facilitate learning.

Open textbooks are, by nature, collaborative, creative, and flexible in ways that traditional textbooks are not. So, even if the content is deemed inferior to that of commercial textbooks (a fact still not in evidence), their pedagogical value may be much higher, if used conscientiously and to their full potential.  At the very least, they won’t produce worse learning outcomes than traditional textbooks, and they’ll reduce the cost burdens to students and libraries. Ask yourself what you’re really getting, and giving up, when you choose a “quality” commercial textbook.