Open Access: How digital open textbooks could save students billions

Posted on November 28, 2018

The creation of digital open textbooks in higher education creates new opportunities that can facilitate curriculum transformation and the inclusion of student voices in open forms of content generation.

This is according to Dr Glenda Cox, Principal Investigator of the Digital Open Textbooks for Development project and Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching. She spoke recently on The Philosophy of Open during the University of Pretoria’s Open Access seminar series.

In addressing the current high cost of prescribed textbooks, Dr Cox stated that open approaches to authoring and publishing digital textbooks will not only provide free access to resources, but also enable new participatory ways of lecturers and students working together. Within this context, Dr Cox stated that students can be involved in “writing and working with textbooks and have their voices heard … (meaning that) other cultural and political dimensions will be accommodated in the textbooks”.

Many South African higher education institutions are currently attempting to address issues relating to the affordability of university education (including textbook costs) as well as issues relating to curriculum contestation in the postcolonial context. “Open textbooks offer a compelling solution to the problem, in that they are free to the user and provide a means to accommodate creative authoring strategies that include the voices of those typically marginalised in traditional textbook publishing processes,” Dr Cox said.

She highlighted the fact that former US President Barack Obama’s administration has supported open textbook development in the US, resulting in savings to students of over $1 billion (R13,8 billion) in the past five years.

She defined an open textbook as a teaching and learning resource, in either a traditional book format or online platform, combining a collection of resources licensed under an open licence (such as Creative Commons). Open textbooks are generally available online to be freely used by students, academics and the public. In certain instances they may incorporate audio, multimedia and other ancillary learning or assessment components. “There is, however, a need for research and advocacy work to address the policy-making agenda in this regard.”

Positioning open textbooks in the broader context of open educational resources, Dr Cox said that open education is a philosophy aimed at optimising the way people produce, share and build on knowledge. She added that proponents of open education believe everyone in the world should have access to high-quality educational experiences and resources, and that there were a number of international initiatives under way to promote this agenda.

Many proponents of digital open textbooks regard this innovation as a means of achieving greater social justice in higher education, particularly as relates to inclusivity and representation in content development. As with many other forms of open practice, open textbooks also provide opportunities for pedagogical innovation and the reuse of materials by other academics, departments and even other universities.

“While some academics may resist sharing their teaching materials due to a perceived lack of confidence or the skills required, there are modest means through which they can utilise emerging open digital textbook tools and technologies to start experimenting with new avenues for student interaction and innovative approaches to assessment by utilising embedded quizzes and videos,” Dr Cox said.

In outlining the activities of the new Digital Open Textbooks for Development project at UCT, she explained that the project is conducting a survey of intellectual property policies at South African universities as part of its research on models of open textbook provision. The project aims to engage interested academics and stakeholders from all South African higher education institutions in order to share findings and will ultimately develop an open textbook policy brief for government and institutional managers.

- Author Department of University Relations
Published by Primarashni Gower

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