More Professors Know About Free Textbook Options, but Adoption Remains Low

July 26, 2016

Awareness of free or openly licensed educational resources, including textbooks and other teaching materials, has increased slightly over the past year, but according to a large-scale survey released on Tuesday, still only 6.6 percent of faculty members are "very aware" of them.

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The survey and an accompanying report, "Opening the Textbook: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2015-16," includes results from a nationally representative sample of more than 3,000 full-time and part-time professors and was conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group.

The survey shows a mixed picture for open educational resources, commonly referred to as OER, according to Jeff Seaman, a co-director of the group and a co-author of the report, and it highlights some "serious disconnects."

For example, of the professors who had recently chosen the assigned books or other materials for one of their courses, 87 percent said the cost to the students had been important or very important to them. But the survey also found that only about 5 percent of those professors had assigned a free or openly licensed textbook.

"They say it’s important, but they’re really not acting on it," said Mr. Seaman in an interview.

Many professors said they had been deterred from adopting open resources because they perceived barriers to using the materials: 49 percent said "there are not enough resources for my subject"; 48 percent said it is "too hard to find what I need"; and 45 percent said "there is no comprehensive catalog of resources."

But the survey also found that professors who teach large-enrollment introductory courses were adopting openly licensed materials at twice the rate of the general faculty population, which means such materials are beginning to reach more students, said Mr. Seaman.

A number of colleges and systems, including the University of Maryland University College, the Virginia community-college system, and the California community-college system, have recently taken steps to expand their use of openly licensed textbooks and other course materials as part of a Zero Cost Degree or similar program, although advocates for OER say colleges should do more to advance their use.

The survey also examined which textbooks professors were assigning, and found that when professors were interested in additional features, such as the availability of sample tests, they tended to choose products from commercial publishers.

But the survey did find significant rates of adoption for the open-source books created by OpenStax, a publishing venture run by Rice University. As the report on the survey notes, that adoption rate, while lower than for commercial publishers, was "surprising given the newness of their offerings and the lack of commercial marketing weight behind them."

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.

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