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Open Educational Resources

Best Sources for Free Digital Textbooks and More

To help your students reduce the cost of their education, begin with open educational resources. Many of these textbooks won't cost them anything.

college student working on laptop surrounded by stacks of books

"Open" has become a definite thing. According to the latest public accounting, there were nearly 1.5 billion Creative Commons-licensed works in the world available for use in teaching and learning, including whole courses, textbooks, images, videos, quizzes, syllabi, lectures, homework assignments, labs, games and simulations. Given that abundance of materials, it would be no surprise if you were to feel overwhelmed and unsure about where to start your search for free curriculum to use in the courses under your care. To help out, Campus Technology has developed this list of the best sites for obtaining free (and low-cost) digital textbooks.

4 Major Players

This one ought to be called the OER Mothership, since you couldn't do much better than to begin your OER content search here. A program begun by the California State University system, MERLOT has grown beyond its roots as a portfolio of learning materials (almost 84,000 different items, all of it highly filterable) to encompass OER communities; a content builder platform (with hosting); and an assemblage of 23,000 "bookmark collections" set up by users who gather resources from the collection organized by theme, topic or label.

What we like: Filter by "Open (Access) Textbook" and you'll find nearly 7,000 options culled from recognizable sources (OpenSTAX and Amazon) as well as individual authors who have contributed their work. What's nifty is that the content often includes an "editor review" and a "user rating" — from zero to five stars.

Lumen Learning
Content from Lumen comes in three forms: Candela, which offers "extremely affordable" digital books with text, video, interactives and other types of content, covering 37 courses at last count — each of which can be edited to allow the instructor "to shape the content" to fit learning outcomes, term length, student needs and other preferences. (Cost: $10 per enrolled student.) Waymaker has 22 courses for personalized study and interactive activities to encourage students to practice and apply their learning. And Online Homework Manager (OHM) is a homework "engine" for math and other quantitative subjects, with text, video, adaptive assessments, machine grading and "immediate feedback" for the students.

What we like: These resources are designed to replace costly packages of course materials with less expensive options that fit faculty needs for the whole caboodle — not just the content but also the extra stuff too.

MIT Open Courseware
This Massachusetts Institute of Technology site features whole courses, but also dedicates a page to its online textbook offerings, consisting of open-licensed electronic editions of print books along with self-published online books and course notes that are "so thorough" they could serve as alternatives to conventional textbooks.

What we like: You could, arguably, find the most extensive set of electrical engineering and computer science texts right here.

This Rice University initiative advertises "free books, no catch." Subjects of the 47 textbooks currently available cover the basics: math, science, social sciences, humanities, business and Advanced Placement. Each is developed by a crew of experts in the field and undergoes a "rigorous peer review process." This nonprofit just keeps cranking out the content, saving some $600 million dollars for students since 2012, when its textbooks first appeared.

What we like: OpenStax CNX is an offshoot that serves as an online repository for user-submitted content, encouraging educators to share their work while still retaining recognition and attribution for their efforts. Content on the site can be organized into mix-and-match textbooks or used as additional curriculum. So far, the community-created content library has 20,000 learning objects, including some 2,100 "books," groups of pages on a given topic.

Searching for Open Licensed Content

Wondering how to search in Google for content that uses an open license? Easy! Follow these three steps:

  1. Do a search in Google on the topic you're trying to hunt down.
  2. In the results page, choose Settings | Advanced search.
  3. Scroll down to "usage rights" and pick one of the "free to use" options, depending on your needs.

Other Sites Worth Perusing

Achieving the Dream's OER Degree Initiative
This catalog contains OER materials contributed by 26 of the community colleges that are participating in a project focused on removing textbook affordability and access as obstacles to student success. The organization is doing that by using grant funding to engage faculty and their institutions in redesigning their courses and degree programs to use OER instead of proprietary textbooks.

What we like: Everything has been through a content and licensing review by Lumen Learning, which hosts the textbooks.

BCcampus OpenEd
This project kicked off in 2013 to gather open textbooks aligned with the top 40 highest-enrolled subject areas in the province of British Columbia. In 2014, the effort expanded to add 20 other textbooks focused on the trades (such as mining and oil and gas), technology and skills training. Now the site puts out "calls for help" to identify and fill in missing subjects. Currently, the collection has 277 textbooks.

What we like: A two-volume Greek and Latin Roots textbook developed by the late Professor Peter Smith at the University of Victoria. You had us at "fascinum."

GALILEO Open Learning Materials
This abundance of learning materials was compiled from the University System of Georgia. Choosing an academic subject leads the user to links for open textbooks along with ancillary materials and something called "grants collections," which can be downloaded in Word versions for quick revision. Textbooks number about 60.

What we like: This project has drawn contributions from instructors in 29 of Georgia's institutions — almost 16 percent of the state's total.

This project specializes in a single topic — psychology — but, oh, how much there is to say (105 modules' worth). Psychologists from around the world have developed the content, which is available in textbook format and can be customized from there by the instructor.

What we like: Unlike the jammed OER sites that try to cover it all, the single-minded focus of this resource makes finding relevant content almost therapeutic.

OER Commons
Among the 51,000 OER resources referenced on this site, higher ed-specific textbooks number about 1,350, including content from professional associations, science centers and the government.

What we like: The organization offers "hubs" where a network of users can create and share branded collections pulled from OER Commons. For example, the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education set up its own National Science Digital Library, specifically to emphasize STEM.

Open SUNY Textbooks
The 23 textbooks provided here were all written and curated by faculty from the State University of New York. A statistics page shares running tallies for each title by format (PDF vs. epub). So far, the most popular book is titled, The Missing Link: An Introduction to Web Development and Programming, downloaded an average of 289 times a day.

What we like: You don't come across many textbooks on making movies, but you will in the SUNY set.

Open Textbook Library
To be included in this collection, overseen by the University of Minnesota, the content has to fit specific criteria: It must be openly licensed; it must be a complete textbook; it must be in use at multiple higher education institutions; and it must be original.

What we like: Linguistics is a big topic here. Among the new textbooks listed in the collection are numerous volumes dedicated to the grammar of languages spoken in small corners of the world, including Yauyos, Yakkha, Papuan Malay, Palula and Rapa Nui.

The Orange Grove
Florida's OER repository covers higher ed as well as K-12. The former offers 2,200 "learning units" (including textbooks) all compiled by Florida Virtual Campus, a state-funded provider of K-20 courses. Resources include rich descriptions and come mostly from the state's 40 colleges and universities.

What we like: The social sciences selection includes 52 resources covering economics, a topic designated by Priceonomics as the most expensive college subject for buying textbooks.

Project Gutenberg
You'll find 58,000 free digital books here, including the "world's great literature," along with other works considered less great but whose copyrights have expired. A continually updated list of the top 100 books downloaded during the previous day reels off titles like a freshman's reading list.

What we like: The site uses volunteer "distributed proofreaders" who get a single page of scanned text to compare to a corresponding OCR-created version of the same page; eventually, after they've proofed the new page, made corrections and returned it to a "post-processor," the completed pages are reassembled into a digital book format.

Saylor Academy Open Textbooks
The nonprofit behind this project works with institutions to provide free college-credit pathways for students, to accelerate their degree attainment. Textbooks focus on a broad array of subjects, from accounting to writing and communication.

What we like: Each chapter in the Saylor texts opens with "learning objectives" and concludes with "key takeaways" and "exercises," allowing instructors to quickly identify relevant topics from the books and slipstream those segments into their own curriculum.

Skills Commons
The old days of OER focusing on English and math subjects is long gone. This digital library specifically addresses the need for workforce training materials. The content is developed in partnership with local industries, reviewed by subject-matter experts and free for anybody to use.

What we like: Where else would you find textbooks covering such diverse topics as agricultural data management, healthcare reporting and landscape lake sampling?

Like its fatter cousin, Wikipedia, much of the content in this collection of 3,051 books is work in progress. The advantage of the site is that it includes arcane subjects that might not appear elsewhere but are still easily findable.

What we like: The organization of the site allows you to quickly drill down from the home page subject headings to subsections and onto specific "shelves," listing completed books, those nearing completion, those "half-finished," and so on.

Finding an OER Community

These organizations have made it their business to help members understand how to work with OER in the classroom:

  • Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, a community of practice that offers webinars, conferences and an active community e-mail list, to raise awareness of open education and its benefits.
  • LibOER, an online and phone discussion group of library professionals working with open education, hosted by SPARC.
  • Open Education Consortium, a global network for open education, which helps organize an annual event each year in early March to raise awareness and showcase the impact of OER on teaching and learning.
  • Rebus Community, a global community of open textbook creators that allows people to start their own projects or contribute to others.
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