Education 2020 logo

Digital Books and Open Resources

Does the Future Include Textbooks?

Whether or not there will be printed textbooks in classrooms of 2020, is up for debate. As previously mentioned, in the future the authors of such printed and digital texts may not be the usual ones. With project-based learning and constructivist theory, students and teachers around the world may become the source of more and more open source learning materials. Students like those at High Tech High (see our Model School section) are already creating their own textbooks and students in Eric Marcos' California middle school ( see Kids Teaching Kids in our Sample Assignments section) are creating videos to explain difficult math problems. Learners of 2020, will continue to be involved in the creation and construction of their own learning as producers of content and learning materials.

Open Textbooks

Free the TextToday cash-strapped schools and students are having a difficult time paying the high cost of textbooks. Many times students go without a required textbook while valuable open information is available online. Students often complain that they are required to buy an expensive textbook and then the book is seldom referred to. More and more teachers are trying to find ways to either lower the costs or eliminate costs altogether by posting open materials. As publishers scramble to maintain markets, they offer lower cost digital versions of their books and some now allow teachers to customize those textbooks. Digital versions allow students to lease the online materials for a certain amount of time. What that means is that only a few years later students will have nothing to show for the money they spent on that information. A Gates Foundation study "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them" reports that the high cost of textbooks and materials is one of the reasons students drop out of college or decide not to go at all.

Open Textbooks Initiatives

More and more organizations are rising that offer alternatives to paid textbooks. One company that is attempting to offer free textbooks is Flat World Knowledge who publish customizable high school textbooks with instructor supplementary materials. Their business model offers all the online materials free to instructors and students. Students can choose to use only the online materials or have the books printed in black and white or colour at costs that are said to be lower than regularly published textbooks. Like a freemium model a large group has free access, while a smaller proportion chooses the premium printed alternative.

CK-12 is a non-profit organization whose aim is to provide online up-to-date, standards-aligned textbook content free to K-12 students in the U.S. and around the world. Their online system is designed to be collaborative. Content is customized and educators can self-publish the books known as Flexbooks. Their online books can be made up of content available from the company as well as from Wikipedia. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is a member of the advisory board. Currently they offer a number of math and science texts which include basic and advanced calculus, trigonometry, geometry biology, earth sciences, life science, and chemistry. Wikibooks also offers over 2400 open-content textbooks that can be editable by anyone.

For a registry of learning modules and textbooks that can be accessed, reused and distributed see Open Text Book run by the Open Knowledge Foundation. The site is participatory and is seeking more textbooks and materials for inclusion. The Open Knowledge Foundation is a collaborative effort who promotes open knowledge. Their main principles include

  1. Free and open access to the material
  2. Freedom to redistribute the material
  3. Freedom to reuse the material
  4. No restriction of the above based on who someone is (e.g. their nationality) or their field of endeavour (e.g. commercial or non-commercial)

Projects under development include CKAN- the Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network, a catalogue of knowledge resources; Open Shakespeare- the complete works of Shakespeare with notes and tools, Knowledge Forge that provides tools to work on open knowledge projects; and Public Domain Works that is a registry for artistic work in the public domain -includes mostly books and sound recordings. (Sourced from work previously posted on Cost of Free by the same author- K.Hamilton)

The California Open Source Textbook Project (COSTP) is a collaborative project that began in 2001 to advocate for free and open access content. The initial goals were to spread open resources, leverage already existing free resources, harness curriculum through intellectual capital of teachers and to deploy open licenses. According to,California has seen significant cost reductions and has increased the quality and range of its textbooks. They work with some of the organizations noted above- Flat World knowledge, CK-12, MIT Open Courseware, as well as Connections ISKME, CCCOTC and Merlot (A Learning Object Repository.)

Open Stax College
OpenStax College, an initiative of Rice University, offers free and open peer-reviewed college textbooks written by subject matter experts. Currently they offer textbooks for College Physics, Introduction to Sociology, Biology, Concepts of Biology, and Anatomy and Physiology. Professors can adopt a complete book, remove parts and add content. Digital copies are free and printed copies are available for a low printing fee.

BC Open Campus

From BC Open Campus Website

"It was on October 16, 2012 at the annual OpenEd conference in Vancouver that then British Columbia Minister of Advanced Education, John Yap, announced the creation of the B.C. Open Textbook Project.  The goal of the project was to make higher education more accessible by reducing student cost through the use of openly licensed textbooks. BCcampus was tasked with co-ordination of the project because of our 10-year experience funding open educational resources (OER) through the Online Program Development Fund.

Specifically, the project was asked to create a collection of open textbooks aligned with the top 40 highest-enrolled subject areas in the province. A second phase was announced in the spring of 2014 in which an additional 20 textbooks targeting trades, technology, and skills training would be developed."

The project includes college/university open texts from 40 of the most popular subject areas. Looks for texts at the link here.

The 2010 Horizon Report predicted that the use of digital books would be widespread in education within the next year.

E-Books vs Paper Books

Augmented Reality Textbooks




Next up, see Mobile Learning- Cloud Computing