Free Textbook Option

by blackspanielgallery

Free textbooks are being made available by several sources. Some of these are usable, others not so usable. These are digital textbooks written to reduce textbook cost.

I teach at a college where the free textbook option is being pushed. In fact, besides free textbooks, other free educational materials are plentiful, and some are finding their way into courses. This brings up some concerns. Are the free textbooks of equal educational value? And, can other free resources be integrated into a course with a positive impact?

The answer to these questions is not as simple as a single word. In fact, some free resources, known as Open Educational Resources, are quite good, others are dismal failures.

Are Open Educational Resources Really Free?

Many are, but that is for access to a link.  For permission to print a hard copy often has a charge, albeit minimal.  It is important to know of any options that may incur a charge when selecting the material for a course.

Are Free Textbooks Well Written?

I would look at the reputation of the publisher.  Some are published by a reputable university.  Those are likely to be of quality. 


We must ask how is the textbook being funded.  Authors put a considerable amount of work into writing a textbook, and need compensation.  Where is that money coming from?


One source is grants.  Government grants to fund a reduction in college cost is a possibility.  The concern being addressed is that textbooks have become so costly they are preventing many from access to a college education. 


Still, authors who write popular textbooks expect to have a revenue stream from royalties.  Writing an open educational resource textbook will not generate royalties, rather there will be a one-time payment.  Is this driving good authors away from writing textbooks?  Time will tell, but logic dictates there would likely be a reduction in good authors as writing becomes less lucrative.  Of course so there is an assurance of the payment is there regardless of whether anyone selects the book, so there is always a compensation, unlike a royalty undertaking.

Motivation Issue

One faculty member has astutely pointed out that when a student purchases a textbook the student has an investment in that course.  Once invested, that student will be less likely to fail to pass the course.  Such an investment is missing when free textbooks are used.  This may be a point worth considering.  Yes, tuition is an investment, but in a group of courses.  One course at a time can be failed and the student not notice a financial commitment being wasted.

Is It Fair to Authors?

On the surface it seems less than fair, but we must remember that the price of textbooks has escalated to unreasonable levels.  Something had to be done, and the reaction is to move away from textbook purchasing altogether.  The less dramatic approach of textbook rentals was inadequate, and also had high costs.


One problem with rising costs is that textbooks are usually rewritten every three to five years.  This is done under the guise of including new material, but often the real reason is to make sales.  When textbooks are changed the value of used books plummets, and more new books are sold. 


User Beware

I recently assigned a free textbook to a class.  The college is pushing free textbooks, and grants to have faculty write courses around free material are available.  So, I selected a book published by a university.  It was quite good, except the problems were not numbered.  This small oversight caused a problem when assigning work.  It is incumbent upon the faculty to review textbooks, but to look for things that are normally there was a surprise.  So, let me just say the scrutiny of a free textbook must be more extensive than for an expensive textbook.


Other Free Resources

Free material such as videos are available.  Here one has to be very careful.  Such support material might cover the topic, but with an approach inconsistent with the textbook.  In science several alternate notations might be found for the same variable, so consistency in notation for all resources used is needed.  The vigilance in the little things is important.  Of course this applies to purchased material as well, but consistency can be assumed if the textbook and other resources are matched by their source.

Video Errors

I was on a committee to hire someone who incorporated a video into a teaching demonstration.  The video was from a free source, reviewed by volunteers.  The error in what was said was quite serious.  But neither the person who developed the video, nor the volunteer reviewers, caught the error.



Using free material, or minimally priced material, is fine provided the source is credible, and the faculty member who will use it has done a thorough review of the material.  In one case I taught a course developed by another, and the students all went out and found alternate sources due to the lack of quality of the book associated with the course. 


To simply say “You get what you pay for” is inadequate, for if there was grant money someone paid on the students’ behalf.  So with due diligence good free material can be found.  The question is whether the person selecting the free material has done due diligence?  Certainly, students should not be put into the position for finding free material themselves, since there is a great chance the student will be less than qualified to detect subtle problems.


This article contains links to affiliate programs and Adsense advertising.  These must use cookies to allow for proper crediting. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


The introduction image is our own Zazzle product..

Updated: 12/12/2018, blackspanielgallery
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blackspanielgallery on 12/15/2018

I believe it is getting better with one source. As for the others, I am not certain.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/15/2018

blackspanielgallery, Thank you for the practicalities and products. What can be done to introduce permanent quality control? Do you see the situation as getting better or worse or somehow stabilizing?

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