June 17, 2020

OpenStax: A Textbook Revolution

Covid-19 [1], and labour strikes, [2] have caused considerable disruption to University education here in the UK. This has caused a vast number of students to miss around 25% of their face to face teaching hours. Students nationwide, are catching up on missed lectures and self teaching themselves key topics. I myself am one of those students.

At the start of the academic year, fortunately I had the finances avaliable to purchase the recommended texts. Yet what about my peers who can’t afford them? Where should students turn to if they can not afford the recommended reading material? Where should a student turn to should, Halliday or Stroud’s explanations not fit your style of learning? Thankfully here in the modern day we have other sources avaliable. From Khan Academy to Gerard t Hooft’s guide to becoming a good theoretical physicist, the information is out there. Yet how can you be certain this information is correct and complete? How about using a set of open source, free to use, textbooks? Textbooks that have been created in collaboration with a respected institute of higher education and peer reviewed.

OpenStax, today, in 2020, provides high quality textbooks, that are accurate and indepth. They contain a wide range of questions on every topic, both conceptual and practical to test your knowledge. PDFs, an app, even low cost printing for those who do not have regular access to technology are some of the ways these textbooks can be accessed. (Although if the latter is an issue, for the cost of less than one paperback textbook [3] it is possible to purchase a Kindle Fire 7 in Amazon’s frequent sale. Onto that you can load all that OpenStax has to offer, to carry to and from University.) The true value of these textbooks is immeasurable. So, why are they not being used as much as you would expect ?

Last year almost 3 million students used OpenStax textbooks [4], yet a large number didn’t (19.9 million students attend college in the US as of 2019 [5]), particularly outside of the US. Instead of OpenStax University Physics 1 and 2 I used Halliday’s Principle’s of Physics. Instead of OpenStax Calculus and Linear Algebra textbooks, I used Jordan’s Mathematical Techniques. Two months into using OpenStax textbooks to review and self study the first year of a physics undergraduate degree. Are the textbooks that cost money any better than the equivalent OpenStax book? Plain and simple, no. They teach the same content in an equivalent way. So why are professors still recommending textbooks such as the Principles of Physics? I searched for answers but I found questions; questions I decided to answer.

These questions were found in an article wrote and published on the site, PCmag [6].

Why are they better than traditional textbooks?

They are regularly updated which is an advantage of an online medium. It allows for editing errors and then feeding the revised book directly to the users which of course isn’t possible in the printed form.

Where to find them?


How to tailor them to their courses?

The license used by Openstax for these textbooks allows educators to cut, copy and blend these textbooks into a perfect teaching resource for their course. Removing the parts that are not required and providing an easy to follow textbook that matches the course exactly.

The following syllabus was the one followed by the University that I attend. As an example, for this particular class (Maths for Physics 181: Calculus), I will show how everything covered in our first semester of calculus can be learnt from OpenStax textbooks. This shows how simply course leaders can move their classes away from using paid for textbooks, such as Mathematical techniques, to Openstax open source textbooks.

Maths for physics 181: Winter semester - Calculus

As you can see it is possible to build a class around OpenStax textbooks. Whether you study at a University for a degree, or if you study independently of an institution for personal growth, it is worth considering and using these resources. Fingers crossed, that the uptake of using open source learning materials in classes will continue increasing.

[1] who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

[2] https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10408/UCU-announces-eight-days-of-strikes-starting-this-month-at-60-universities



[5] https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372#:~:text=About%2056.6%20million%20students%20will,million%20students%20in%20private%20schools