February Office Hours Recap & Video: Barriers to Open Textbook Adoption: Common Questions and Concerns Explained

Are you a faculty, staff member, or librarian hoping to encourage the adoption of Open Textbooks? Speakers in this month’s Office Hours on Barriers to Open Textbook Adoption explained their strategies to overcome obstacles to textbook adoption. Watch the video recording, or read a summary below.

Open textbooks reduce the costs of attending college and increase access to knowledge. Still, they have their (vocal) detractors. In this session, experts dissect common arguments for and against using open textbooks, and discuss ways to overcome these objections in the higher ed landscape.

This session featured guest speakers Jasmine Roberts, Strategic Communication Lecturer at The Ohio State University and Sarah Cohen, Managing Director at Open Textbook Network.

Watch a recap of the session, or read the full summary below.

Sarah Cohen, a guest speaker who is also the managing director of Office Hours co-sponsor Open Textbook Network (OTN), kicked things off. She introduced the Open Textbook Network, “an alliance of higher ed institutions committed to access, affordability and student academic success through the use of open textbooks.” Sarah said their focus has been on faculty adoptions but is expanding to open textbook creation.

Sarah introduced Jasmine Roberts, a faculty member at the Ohio State University who is an OER research fellow and an open textbook author who created the open textbook Writing for Strategic Communication Industries.

Sarah then talked about the typical obstacles she has seen to faculty adoption of open textbooks. These included discovery and lack of awareness, which she said were less common, or at least, more solvable, now. She said she was increasingly having conversations with faculty, in which the key objections were quality and the time it takes to switch to a new textbook (especially if they’ve built their course around another).

“I think that it’s important that we are empathetic to the struggles of trying to find the time to change your course. It’s a huge lift for faculty and not something for us to take lightly in having those conversations,” Sarah said. “However, the tack that I take is that all faculty at some point are going to have to look at their textbook anew.”

Jasmine jumped in to discuss some of the objections she had heard from faculty as she evangelized about OER. “A lot of faculty members think that this is purely an altruistic thing that you are doing for your students,” she said. Jasmine said she’s heard things like, “‘That’s very, very lofty of you to do, Jasmine,’” from her colleagues, followed by, “‘We still don’t see the professional advantage of doing something like that.’” (The impact of doing an open textbook on tenure and promotion was discussed later in the session.)

She talked about three major issues:

  • the stigmatization of OER;
  • the departmental kickbacks that faculty or their departments receive when they adopt a textbook from some traditional publishers; and
  • the ancillary materials that often accompany a textbook and make teaching easier.

She said it’s helpful for faculty to have top-down support or departmental support for creating OER.

Jasmine also mentioned distorted faculty perceptions of the need for college affordability. Some faculty, she said, see buying textbooks as a student’s responsibility, ahead of the technology they take to the classroom, or perceived luxuries like their coffee.

Sarah added that it was important not to conflate the issue of the high cost of a textbook versus students not reading the text. “That cost of the book is something that we, as faculty, can do something about.”

The session proceeded into Q&A, moderated by Liz Mays, of the Rebus Community, which coordinates the event with OTN.

Liz read a question from the chat, asking for more clarification on departmental kickbacks.

Jasmine explained that some publishers give the faculty member’s department funds they can use for professional development when they adopt a textbook. “And of course, departments want that funding for research conference, conferences, for teaching conferences.” Sarah added that the “kickbacks” could be more subtle – food that gets dropped off, a box of chocolates at the holidays. “And I also know campuses where there is no such thing,” she said.

Next, Liz read a question from Michelle Reed, at University of Texas at Arlington, who mentioned a workshop she had been to that took a “tough love” approach to the costs of college. “The argument was essentially, yes, maybe students are struggling with the costs, but it’s teaching them financial literacy and budgeting skills,” Liz read from the chat: “Michelle said her opinion is that there are better ways to teach students these types of lessons.”

Other chat participants referenced the “beer” and “Starbucks” arguments: “If students save money on textbooks, they’ll spend it on beer.”

“And I think that the argument that we make at the OTN, really is around that might be true for some students, but you don’t know in the classroom which students that applies to,” Sarah responded. “And we’re talking about trying to support all students.”

Jasmine said she didn’t think it was her business to judge how the students spend their money.

“I just don’t think it’s my role as an instructor to be my students’ financial planner, and to be their parent,” Jasmine added. “But it’s my job as an educator to make sure that my students are successful and to prepare in that fashion. And so, if I’m assigning a textbook that’s $150, am I really setting my students up for success?”

Sarah clarified: “It’s so important to recognize that just as we’re saying that we don’t want faculty members essentially to blame students in those situations, how important it is that we don’t blame faculty in those situations…we’re not going to bring more faculty to open textbooks by yelling at them that that’s a ridiculous argument.”

Sarah also added that this is an argument you don’t hear as much in community colleges, because food insecurity is a more prevalent issue in that environment.

Other questions from the chat centered around peer review. Jasmine said she found it important to have her book peer reviewed and be able to state that. Liz mentioned that Rebus Community has a working group around peer review. And Sarah said that OTN library does not require books to have a formal peer review process.

The conversation then moved on to “inclusive access” and similar services traditional publishers are offering that put textbooks, sometimes including OER, and sometimes even course tests, behind a digital access code for a reduced price.

Sarah said this was a hot topic that had been written about by David Wiley and Inside Higher Ed recently. She said it was important to assess if the platforms offered faculty the flexibility they need and students what they need to succeed academically. Jasmine said this is why it’s important not to just use cost-savings arguments around OER, because the big publishers can use them too, but to bring in pedagogical arguments.

Ethan Senack said, “My concern with inclusive access programs are that there’s even less accountability for publishers. With print textbooks students could opt out, or look for alternatives. With inclusive access students take their tests through the platform, and they have no way to opt out.”

Cheryl Cuillier added, “These inclusive access programs cut out the used book market, and the rental book market.”

Other attendees mentioned the potential marketing challenges and brand confusion when bigger publishers put OER behind a proprietary platform and paywall.

“I think it’s kind of a great thing that in open education we actually are having an impact and that the publishers are taking notice,” Jasmine said. “But I have to be honest with you, it’s sad to see all these publishers getting in on what they call OER, when it’s really not OER.”

Sarah said it was important to spread the OER-enabled pedagogy messaging from faculty to other faculty.

Liz asked Jasmine how she has those conversations, particularly with tenured faculty.

Jasmine said in her experience, tenured faculty hadn’t been as eager to create open textbooks.

But Sarah said she was aware of campuses where tenured faculty were the most likely ones to be leading open textbook projects.

“So, I think [this] again brings back [the fact that] every institution is different. And the culture at your institution might be that your tenured faculty could be the ones that are going to be your coalition of the willing,” she said. “While at other campuses, it might be adjunct faculty, or newer faculty to the profession, that or the discipline, that might be your best inroads. So, that’s I think the thing that we have to ask ourselves. Who are my allies going to be on my campus?”

Cheryl added that it is helpful when promoting OER to be involved in faculty senate and advocate for textbook affordability in policies, resolutions and the like. She said another strategy is to partner with instructional designers when a course is being redesigned.

Join us for the next Office Hours session, on Tracking Open Textbooks Adaptations and Adoptions, on April 4 at 12 p.m. PST / 3 p.m. EST.


A raw transcript of this session is available.

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