Landing : Athabascau University

A multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post-secondary students

To complement a bookmark to an article about this paper I posted yesterday, here's a link to the paper itself, by Lane Fischer, John Hilton III, T. Jared Robinson, and David A. Wiley. I don't have much to add to the comments I made previously, save that a very large amount of the focus and discussion of the paper itself is on the merits of the low (typically neglible) cost of OERs and consequent effects on access. The authors speculate that the occasional relative benefits seen for courses with OERs may relate to the fact that all students actually used those OERs, whereas some of those on courses with expensive textbooks may not have been willing or able to get hold of them. For somewhere like Athabasca, where textbooks are provided whether they are free or not, this would not be an issue (though it sure costs the university a lot of money to avoid OERs).

I'd really like to see a study of instances where OERs are not simple substitutes for textbooks but where the really big advantage - the ability to make changes - is made full use of. It is possible that there may be a systemic advantage in that which would mean OERs are generally better than paid-for textbooks. Of course, it would still not tell us very much, because textbooks are usually only a small part (and, in a fair number of courses, including all of my own, a non-existent part) of what makes for a good learning experience. In fact, I find it a bit worrying that, according to this study, they appear to matter as much as they do. It makes me wonder what all those expensive teachers are doing and worry about what kind of course design relies so heavily on textbooks that it should make such a significant difference.


  • I would think that having materials focused on exactly what the course is about might help students do better on standardized tests. This is more likely with OER in that there is more instructor choice than with a textbook. On the other hand, I've learned a lot through browsing all the extraneous stuff that most textbooks offer, as I do looking around the Internet. As a learner, I like being immersed in a rich information field as long as there is clear guidance about the intended course outcomes.

    For deeper learning, it’s the extent to which the learners become actively involved with the concepts, tools, and products that relate to the topic—learning by doing. OER offer much more in that respect. Not only instructors, but learners also can retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute the materials, which has a huge potential for deep, transferable learning.

    In the end, your mantra of “It ain't what you do, it’s the way that you do it” always holds true, which makes strong educational research evidence so elusive. Maybe we need to look more closely at the “how” than the “what”.

    Mary Pringle November 15, 2015 - 9:39am

  • Thanks Mary - I agree entirely. It's an excellent idea to involve students in building OERs. There are some risks, I think, because it can be a bit intimidating for those that are not confident about their work to contribute to a public project, though (on the bright side) it is a great way of building confidence, so (if we can support students to get over the hump) it could be very empowering. I feel a bit guilty about defaulting student-generated wikis that follow this pattern in my own courses to have permissions set to the closed group, precisely because of this concern. The Landing makes it possible for them to share more widely if they wish, but that can make for an incohesive whole if some is hidden and some is not. Maybe I should be braver in the next revision, or at least build in a publication process so the good stuff can, with students' permission, be shared.

    And, yes, there is a big risk that greater efficiency could take away some of the richness of the experience, if not handled with sensitivity. Very much a case of 'how' mattering more than 'what' although one simple way to prevent it would be to avoid giving those standardized tests :-) Conversely, at least for the kinds of thing I teach, there tend to be lots of OERs available, which opens up the potential for exploring different ways of learning similar things, or at least seeing things in different ways. Without the cost constraints, OERs can support expansive as well as constrictive ways of learning.

    Jon Dron November 16, 2015 - 10:57am

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