How does openly-licensed content stack up against traditional textbooks?

There are still teachers and politicians leaning towards the old school textbook when choosing resources to use in the classroom. This is based on what I would call the «Gutenberg paradigm» where publishers control the decimation of knowledge together with an elite group of authors. The assumption is that «you get what you pay for».

At the same time there are constant discussions on whether open educational resources and EdTech in the classroom has any documented effect. One relevant question in this context is of course: how does traditional textbooks stack up against open educational resources and free, openly-licensed textbooks. Is the frase, «you get what you pay for» still true when it comes to textbooks?  

In fact,  researchers at Brigham Young University have found that this is not the case anymore.

A new multi-institutional study the researchers have been looking at the academic outcomes of students assigned free, openly-licensed textbooks versus those assigned traditionally-published textbooks. What the study finds is the opposite of what folk wisdom tells us: expensive textbooks are notsuperior to free ones. In fact, the results show a striking trend that students assigned free, open textbooks do as well or better than their peers in terms of grades, course completion, and other measures of academic success.

If traditional textbooks are not producing better outcomes, then what exactly arestudents paying for?

Here’s a breakdown of the results:

  • Course completion: In all of the courses studied, students who were assigned open textbooks were as likely or more likely to complete their course than those assigned traditional textbooks. In one course, the completion rate was remarkably 15 percentage points higher for students using open textbooks.
  • Grades: Students who were assigned open textbooks tended to have final grades equivalent to or better than those assigned traditional textbooks. In more than a quarter of the courses, students using open textbooks achieved higher grades, and only one course using open textbooks showed lower grades (which is at least partially explained by the course’s significantly higher completion rate, which includes the grades of students who would have otherwise dropped out).
  • Credit load: Students who were assigned open textbooks took approximately 2 credits more both in the semester of the study and in the following semester. This is a sign that students are reinvesting money saved on textbooks into more courses, which can accelerate graduation times and potentially reduce debt.
  • Overall success: Overall, students in more than half of the courses that used open textbooks did better according to at least one academic measure used in the study, and students in 93% of these courses did at least as well by all of the measures.

The study is based on more than 16,000 students across 10 institutions, and is the largest and most rigorous study of its kind. Naturally, there are some limitations, most notably that the researchers cannot conclusively claim that textbooks are the sole cause of differences in student outcomes, since uncontrolled factors such as variation in teaching methods may have played a role. However, more than a dozen other studies have been published over the last five years that find a similar correlation between open textbooks and as-good-or-better student outcomes, which shows a definitive trend.

In addition to results in these studies it is important to take in account other aspects of the open license like the possible translation into new languages and the the fact that it is possible to adapt an change books to meet local needs.


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This work by Christer Gundersen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on work of Nicole Allen available at

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