Researchers Explore Value of Open-Source Textbooks

Research team studies benefits of open educational resources for students of all ages

Seeking alternatives to costly traditional textbooks, Educational Inquiry, Measurement, and Evaluation (EIME) PhD student Jared Robinson and his team are investigating the use of low-cost open-source materials.

Robinson, who has been a teacher, said of his decision to pursue a doctorate degree at the McKay School, “I want to be part of the larger educational discourse, and a degree allows for that.” Robinson has found the chance to join significant educational discourse by participating in a team of five researchers who are exploring the value of open educational resources (OER).

The team’s research, as presented at the McKay School’s recent Three-Minute Thesis competition, is mainly concerned with the value of using open-source textbooks in classrooms. Because it is written under a Creative Commons License rather than traditional copyright, an open-source textbook can be publicly owned and edited.

Robinson pointed out that most open-source textbooks currently in use have been reviewed and edited extensively by professors, researchers, and textbook publishing companies. “There is always room for error,” said Robinson. “Having qualified individuals reviewing material in any case reduces the likelihood of finding inaccuracies.”

The research of Robinson’s team is focused on whether using open-source textbooks detracts from or enhances student learning. With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the team was able to compare the performance of high school students using open-source educational materials to those using traditional textbooks. The team found that chemistry students performed better using open-source textbooks; however no detectable change was noted among students in other subjects.

Now the team is examining textbook use among college and university students. Their research is focused mainly on two consortia: the Open Course Library in Washington State and Project Kaleidoscope, which is nationwide. The Open Course Library has OER materials for more than 80 subjects, and the most expensive textbooks cost $30.

Open-source textbooks offer a variety of benefits, according to Robinson. Students could save hundreds of dollars, which might contribute to funding future educational pursuits. Schools could also save money by avoiding fees required by textbook printing companies.

Ultimately, Robinson admitted, research shows that textbooks make only a small contribution to learning. While textbooks can be helpful educational materials, nothing can compensate for good teachers and supportive parents, as well as dedicated students. “Heading into the future, the idea of learning without any textbook is exciting,” said Robinson. “But for now, open-source textbooks empower teachers and students and allow them to participate in the process of gathering valuable knowledge.”

Contact Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922

Writer: Shazia Chiu