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Adopt an Open Textbook: Why?

A how-to guide on finding and adopting open textbooks for Northwestern University courses.

Open Textbook Collections

While there are many open textbook producers and databases, we recommend starting with one of the following two peer-reviewed sources.

College Textbook Affordability

College textbooks are expensive. A typical Northwestern student may spend upwards of $1,000 per year on textbooks. While tuition and fees are often non-negotiable, textbook costs vary student by student. Studies have shown that textbook affordability can hinder a student's learning experience. Results from national surveys have estimated that 65% of students have decided against buying a textbook because of the cost and 16% have opted for pirated copies from illegal file sharing websites.[1,2] For undergraduate courses, Open Educational Resources, such as Open Textbooks, have been developed and adopted to address this problem.[4]

Graph: United States Government Accountability Office. (2013). Figure 1: Estimated increases in new college textbook prices, college tuition and fees, and overall consumer price inflation, 2002 to 2012 [Graph]. In College textbooks: Students have greater access to textbook information. Washington DC. Retrieved from

Chart: Impact of Textbook Costs on Students

Source: "2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey: Results and Findings," Florida Virtual Campus Office of Distance Learning and Student Services

Open Educational Resources

According the Hewlett Foundation, Open Educational Resources (OER) are "high-quality teaching, learning, and research materials that are free for people everywhere to use and repurpose."[5] Common examples of OER include textbooks, online courses, lesson plans, software, text, audio, and video. With OER, you are free to download, print, share, and adapt without restrictions.

OER gives instructors the right to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute open textbooks.

  • Retain - the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  • Reuse - the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  • Revise - the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  • Remix - the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  • Redistribute - the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)[5]

Video: OpenOregon. (2015). OER basics [Video file]. Retrieved from

Are Open Textbooks Effective?

Yes. Numerous peer-reviewed studies have been published that compare the effectiveness of OER as teaching tools. Generally, the studies conclude that open textbooks contribute to higher test scores, lower failure rates, lower dropout rates, and that both students and faculty are satisfied with their experience using open textbooks.[6] 

Video: Research Shorts. (2016). A review of the effectiveness and perceptions of open educational resources as compared to textbooks [Video file]. Retrieved from

Works Cited

[1] Senak, E. (2014). Fixing the broken textbook market. Student Public Research Interest Group. Boston, MA. Retrieved from

[2] The Nielsen Company. (2016). Textbook trends: How U.S. college students source course materials. Insights (blog). Retrieved from

[3] Wiley, D., Bliss, T.j., and McEwen, M. (2013). Open educational resources: A review of the literature. In Specter, J.M. et al (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology (pp. 781-789). (New York, NY: Spinger). doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-3185-5_63

[4] This material was created by David Wiley and published freely under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license at

[5] William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. "Open Educational Resources: Overview." (2017) Retrieved from

[6] Hilton, J. (2016). Open educational resources and college textbook choices: A review of research on efficacy and perceptions. Educational Technology Research and Development, 64:4, 573-590. doi:10.1007/s11423-016-9434-9

Digital Publishing Services Librarian

Chris Diaz's picture
Chris Diaz
University Library
2 - East - Digital Scholarship Services
1970 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208


Lauren McKeen McDonald's picture
Lauren McKeen McDonald
Open Education Librarian
Northwestern University Libraries
Administrative Suite, 1392