Open Menu Close Menu

Books | Feature

The Price is Right: 11 Excellent Sites for Free Digital Textbooks

If you're committed to shifting your curriculum to e-textbooks, consider trying free first. Here are the best sites for digital books that won't cost your students a dime.

Sure, there are plenty of options when you want students to try out digital textbooksCourseSmart, CourseLoad, Flat World Knowledge, Chegg,, Apple, Amazon, Google Play, eFollet, and an ever-growing number of other sources. But little in education trumps free. That's one of the findings in a recently released research report from Educause, Internet2, and McGraw-Hill, which examined the value of digital materials in higher ed. "Faculty and students were both clear and consistent in their criteria for adopting digital course material," the report's authors wrote. Little surprise: The most important factor turned out to be cost.

With that in mind, we have hunted down the top sources for digital textbooks — all free. What you and your students do with them on Android devices, iPads, and laptops is up to you.
Here's a source for free textbooks in PDF form that focus primarily on accounting, economics, engineering, IT, marketing, and management. The books are modest in size — most run from 50 to 100 pages — and provide "just the facts, ma'am" graphics.

How does the company stay in business? It sells advertising that appears in the books. A copy of 77-page Managing the Human Resource in the 21st century, for example, included half-page ads from consulting firms, the World MBA Tour, a manufacturing company, software companies, and universities — in other words, ads that ostensibly made sense for the intended e-book reader. Bookboon says it limits advertising to 15 percent of the content, and so they're fairly non-intrusive.

This startup follows an interesting publishing model. It pulls out material from public sites, such as Wikipedia or government Web sites, performs a "human curation and vetting," aligns the resulting content with big-selling college textbooks, and delivers the package in digital textbook format. The full book includes just key points, terms, and examples. The content can be highlighted and searched. The home page includes this testimonial from student "Sarah H" at Indiana University: "It is so simple and saved me tons of money. This site rocks and helped save my entire biology class from purchasing a new edition when one we had was very similar."

Registered users gain access to digital volumes on accounting, algebra, art history, biology, business, chemistry, communications, economics, finance, United States history, management, marketing, microbiology, physiology, political science, psychology, sociology, and writing.

As an example, Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Global History, 14th Edition, sells for $183.21 on Amazon. The paperback edition includes a chapter on ancient Greece that runs about 70 pages. The "Boundless alternative," as it's called, includes six main sections with 38 sub-sections. The text also comes with flashcards and quizzes. The challenge is that the book must be read online; there's no offline option.

Another challenge: A group of mainstream publishers has sued Boundless for stealing intellectual property. If you choose these books for your students, you may find yourself changing course midstream in the event it loses its legal battles.

California Learning Resource Network (CLRN)
The current compilation of open educational resources (OERs) on CLRN stands at 6,063. If you're teaching math, science, and history and social science, what you want to pay attention to under "Learning Resources" is the "free textbooks" link, where you'll find 30 books listed. This collection is intended for both K-12 and higher ed, and the book descriptions tell what kind of student each is intended for.

Want some examples? Light and Matter is an introductory 1,016-page textbook on physics published by Benjamin Crowell, a faculty member at Fullerton College in Southern California. The PDF is a whopping 80 Mb, full of graphics and color images. He makes an instructor's guide available for the text on his Web site. Linear Algebra is an introductory text with exercises that cover the topics of "a standard U.S. sophomore college course."

College Open Textbook Collaborative
This consortium of 29 education organizations uses the site to promote the adoption of open textbooks by community and two-year colleges. The textbooks are listed by subject, but just as important, the site provides a self-reported list of faculty members and what they've adopted out of the collection (organized, oddly enough, in alphabetic order by instructor first name) and reviews of the books when they exist.

Open textbooks are listed by subject at Be forewarned, some of these entries are less e-textbook and more online courses, lessons, and other assorted digital resources.

This site features Collaborative Statistics, one of the classics of the free digital textbook world. Written "over several years" by two faculty members at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA, this 726-page, 5.9 Mb volume focuses not on theory but on applications of statistical knowledge.

A cool feature of this resource is the use of "lenses," which is a selection of content. An "endorsement" lens references reviewed material, and an "affiliation" lens allows organizations to pull together the content their members have created. Rice University, for example, has 83 collections in its affiliated content.

Another interesting feature is the "Most Popular of All Time" list, which ranks the material by average visits per day. The topmost visited? A 10-page document titled, "Minor Keys and Scales."

The one gap in connexions is that while it denotes with an icon in search results whether a particular entry is a "knowledge chunk," or a "collection" of modules, some of which are full textbooks, it doesn't provide a way to sort specifically on type of material, such as "textbook." With 1,340 collections in the repository, you could spend a lot of time sifting through to find the whole enchilada.

The Global Text Project
This source for digital texts makes them available in Chinese, English, and Spanish — though not all titles are available in every one of those languages. Subjects encompass business, computing, education, health, science, and social science. The books are divided between those available in HTML format and those available as PDFs.

This organization offers 13 books on these topics:

  • Anatomy and physiology;
  • Biology;
  • Chemistry;
  • Economics, as well as micro- and macro-economics;
  • Psychology;
  • Physics;
  • Pre-calculus;
  • Sociology;
  • Statistics; and
  • U.S. history.

The digital textbooks are intended to be customized by the instructors who use them in class. Sections can be rearranged, modified, and enhanced with examples. The offerings are available in PDF and ePub format, or they can simply be read online in a browser (which, because each section is given its own page, can call for a bit of tedious clicking). Best, OpenStax also provides links to other resources that the instructor might want to use for specific assignments. For example, you can download a set of PowerPoint slides (unavailable to students) to use with the biology book.

Open Education Group
This research group at Brigham Young University has compiled six freely downloadable science texts intended for middle and high schools, but useful for community colleges too. Available as PDF files, the pertinent ones include:

Compared to the competition, these textbooks are modestly sized; Biology runs 142 pages and 27 Mb currently. Because they were initially developed as part of a larger research project on the use of OER, there's been academic scrutiny of the Utah classes where they're used. Results — once they're made public — could be impressive. As the researchers state, "We're still analyzing last year's outcomes data, but here's a preview: students using open textbooks outperformed their peers using traditional textbooks..."

Project Gutenberg
If you're a faculty member in the humanities who prefers to use source material in your courses, here's the jackpot. Project Gutenberg, the "first producer of free e-books," probably offers any classic you might need for your students. The books come in multiple versions — ePub with or without images, HTML, Kindle, plain text, and some we've never heard of.

Plus, don't miss out on the "Similar Books" feature at the bottom of the "Bibrec" view, which provides links to files that readers of your title also downloaded — just like Amazon. Downloading William Strunk's The Elements of Style will lead you right to Joseph Devlin's How to Speak and Write Correctly, which will take you to The Prince, and onto Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, and — well, you get the idea.
Saylor provides free online courses — although not in the manner of MOOCs. Unlike massive, open online courses, these are asynchronous; you don't have to show up at a specific time. Its "bookshelf" features dozens of e-textbooks created to work with its classes. Some are available only in PDF format; others are available in multiple file types, including doc, ePub, HTML, iBooks, and TEX/LaTeX.

What's unique about Saylor is that it runs continuous "open textbook challenges" to encourage people to create textbooks for use with its courses. The first challenge was won by Kenneth Kuttler, a professor at Brigham Young University, who teaches using the digital books he submitted. He informed Saylor that he wanted his $20,000 challenge award to be given to an organization that encourages development of openly licensed textbooks.

University of Minnesota Open Academics
Although the books in this catalog aren't necessarily published by U Minnesota, we include it because it explicitly brings together digital textbooks appropriate to post-secondary education from multiple sources and in an easily searchable format. Every book is written by a faculty member somewhere. Subjects cover accounting and finance, business and management, computer science, economics, general ed, humanities, law, math and statistics, natural and physical sciences, and social sciences.

The 143 offerings currently available are openly licensed, complete, and suitable for adoption outside of the institution where they were written. The books also come with a paid option to get a print edition too.

Extra Credit

Other Sites Worth Noting

Apple doesn't make it easy to hunt down digital textbook books created with iBook Author that might be relevant to college instructors. But at some point, we'd hope to see this to evolve into an iTunes U bibliotecha.

CK-12 Foundation
This pioneer in the field of OER has a simple interface. Go to the home page, pick a topic, and choose a "FlexBook" from what's listed. Right now the open educational resources here focus on middle and high school offerings; in the future, who knows? (Besides, maybe one of those will fit your needs now.)

MERLOT, the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching
This collection of materials includes 2,523 open textbooks. Why not include it as a listing like the others in this article? Because MERLOT uses a loose definition for "textbook" and many of those "textbooks" are actually lessons available online.


comments powered by Disqus