What are Open Textbooks?

An open textbook is a textbook licensed under an open copyright license, and made available online to be used freely by students, teachers, and members of the public.

Open textbooks:

  • are created by educators;
  • are reviewed by educators;
  • contribute to successful learning outcomes.

What Makes Open Textbooks Different From a Traditional Textbook?

Traditionally published textbooks are produced under closed copyright, meaning they cannot be shared, re-used, or re-purposed. They are usually costly (hundreds of dollars each) with new editions published frequently, rendering texts that are only a year or two old out of date. Digital editions or e-textbooks from commercial publishers, though often slightly less expensive, are sold with digital rights management software that means the books only appear on a student’s e-reader for a short period of time (4-6 months), preventing them from keeping the book for future reference, or re-selling it to their fellow students.

In contrast to traditional textbooks, openly licensed textbooks give faculty the ability to use any portion of a textbook in their courses without requiring students to purchase an entire book. They can also make the content of a given textbook more pedagogically appropriate for their specific educational context. The open licensing of open textbooks also allows for collaborations on, and improvements to, textbooks from contributors around the world.

When an instructor uses an open textbook as an assigned reading, students typically have the option to access the digital edition for free through a website, or in a variety of downloadable formats including PDFs and EPUBs. Students can also frequently purchase a low-cost paper copy via print-on-demand services, or print out a copy themselves.

Why Use Open Textbooks?

Education is much more than the textbooks used to educate students. The quality of instruction, the entire post-secondary experience, and the learning environment all contribute to education. Post-secondary institutions do not ‘compete’ on the content of their textbooks or courses – rather an institution provides unique educational experiences. That is what makes a student choose one institution over another. Open textbooks can provide these unique educational experiences by adapting and personalizing content to meet learners’ needs.

Media Attributions

Why use open Textbooks? Benefits for students by BCcampus licensed under CC BY 2.0
Content adapted from “What are Open Textbooks” in the Ryerson Open Textbook Authoring Guide, which was adapted from the “Open Textbook FAQ” by BCcampus Open Textbook Project, each licensed under CC BY 4.0


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MacEwan Open Textbook Authoring Guide by MacEwan University Library is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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