Open Sesame: Unlocking the Potential of Open Textbooks in Irish Third-Level Education

By Tiziana Soverino

Traditionally, textbooks have been part and parcel of education across various levels, from primary level all the way up to higher education (third level). In primary school, I was occasionally given a book for rent, provided by my school for pupils who were not well-off (which was always, invariably out of date, or an older edition).  I can also vividly remember that every year, at the end of summer, I and my parents went to our local bookshop to purchase all the books on my school’s reading list for the upcoming academic year.

It was a yearly ritual, pregnant with expectations and a sense of purpose. Yet, it also imposed a substantial financial burden on my parents, who have never been rich. Moving on to college, I found myself buying some books —  brand new from the campus bookshop, but also second-hand, online and in quirky shops around Dublin. I also regularly borrowed books from the library (the Short-Term collection was great in that sense, for it secured a quick turnover of the books which were required reading in the courses I attended), made copies of relevant parts of books (many a happy hour I spent beside copying machines…. the feeling of accidentally copying your own hand into the book pages has no price!), and, in more recent years, got online access to relevant content.

Bob Marley

Bob Marley became a printer” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by amonfog

Now I am working for the National Institute for Digital Learning in DCU (my move from UCD to DCU came with an epic move from the Southside to the Northside of Dublin!), on a project exploring the potential of Open Textbooks in Irish higher education institutions. One thing is clear from a desktop research previously conducted by my colleagues: there is a dearth of research on textbooks in Irish universities. So, the first step is to fill this gap, by conducting focus groups with students and staff, and then a survey to be circulated more widely nationally, on the topic. The focus groups and surveys will also investigate awareness of Open Educational Resources among students and staff. The hope is that the project will act as a catalyst to encourage the creation and adoption of Open Textbooks in Irish universities.

Ali Baba

 Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves  (CC BY-SA 4.0) by Rena Xiaxiu

A paper, entitled ‘From Books to MOOCS and Back Again’, was nominated as a finalist for Best papers at the 27th EDEN Conference, held in Genoa, Italy, in June 2018. EDEN is the largest professional body for European educators with an interest in Distance and Digital Learning and our NIDL Director, Professor Mark Brown, serves on the Executive Committee.

Mark Brown Genova

Mark Brown (fourth from left) at the EDEN conference, June 2018.

In this research project we want to know if traditional textbooks are still central to the third-level student learning experience. More specifically our project aims to investigate the current and potential future usage of open digital textbooks in Irish higher education.

So far we have found that the mean cost of textbooks currently prescribed in DCU is (US) $56.67, corresponding at the time of writing to around €50.00. You can read a pre-print version of our paper “Textbook costs and accessibility: Could open textbooks play a role?” for more details of this research.

The world is changing and digital technologies have become pervasive in areas of our live. But to what extent are commercially produced (print) textbooks under threat of being replaced by Open Digital Textbooks? There is some evidence of displacement occurring in at least parts of the USA and Canada and commercial digital textbooks appear to be becoming more common alongside their print counterparts.

Is it possible that in the future Open Digital Textbooks will become the norm in Ireland? Apart from the obvious issue of reduced cost what would be the wider benefits to students? We are now conducting focus groups to gain insights into higher education students’ practices involving textbooks in Ireland. Some work has been done; there is much more to be done and in addition to student focus groups we are currently developing a survey of academic staff. Watch this space for more information.