My writing is an open book

open textbookThe first time I thought about potentially authoring a textbook was in 2005. I was teaching as an adjunct at four different colleges and was using a different textbook for each. Each time I brought the correlating textbook for the correlating College Success class with the correlating handouts, assignments, quizzes, and other materials, it felt like a small victory. As I started to create my own content, I decided that if I ever was hired full time, I would write my own text. A few years later, I accepted a full-time tenure track faculty position at Grossmont College in San Diego and two years after that I began writing my first textbook.

I hadn’t heard of Open Educational Resources, more commonly known as OER, in 2009 when I started writing. During the writing process, I received two contract offers from commercial textbook publishers. Although I appreciated the opportunities, neither seemed like the right fit. One publisher wanted more content control than I was comfortable relinquishing and the other already had two similar titles and didn’t give me confidence with their marketing plan.  I passed on those, wondering if another offer would come along and if I would regret not signing.

As I reached the end of my writing, I found a university press who would do the formatting, binding, and cover. With the main goal at the time to be able to use the text in my classes, this seemed like a good option. I maintained the copyright and negotiated the price the book would be sold for and my royalty. I hired my own editor and the first text was published with a traditional copyright in 2014. The book was adopted locally with only word of mouth marketing and I was pleased.

Shortly thereafter, I started to learn about OER. Addressing textbook affordability was important to me. I teach in a lower socioeconomic area and some of our students struggle with food and housing insecurity.  I watched the bookstore raise the price of my text 67% in less than a year. I saw students wait for their financial aid or paycheck before purchasing their textbook. Students were agitated with textbook costs, digital access codes, and forced bundles. Many of them responded by not purchasing. They would try to pass classes without the textbook, see if it was on reserve, or find a used text, older edition, or pirated copy.  Some would take a picture of each page of a friends’ text. I worried about textbook prices adding to student loan debt. How could students be successful if they couldn’t afford the learning material?

I began looking into OER because I saw it as a potential solution to alleviate the increasing textbook cost, but I found freedom in pedagogy to be just as appealing. As an instructor, I always felt somewhat “locked into” the content that was in the textbook I had adopted, even if written by the most brilliant faculty. I used all of the content in those texts, not always because that was what I wanted to teach, nor because it always fit my course outline, but because I knew the student paid for the book. In other classes, I heard students complain that they bought a $200 textbook and their instructor only used one or two chapters. I too would be frustrated as a student in that scenario.

OER gives faculty the freedom to choose what content they want to use. When faculty find an OER they want, they have the ability (pending licensing) to add, delete, edit, remix, and customize as they see fit. They can design the learning material specifically for their course, rather than take a one size fits all approach to teaching.

As I was learning about OER, I had the same questions many faculty have. What about quality? What about sustainability? Accessibility? Articulation? Publishing? Print versions? And many other questions. And rightfully so. It took a while for me to develop a better understanding of what OER is and what it is not. I eventually found answers that satisfied my wanting to take a risk and try it. And I thought for a long time (and still do) about giving up the royalty and finding alternative compensation.

From an authors’ perspective, I can understand how this sounds crazy. Who in their right mind would give up intellectual property rights and royalties? But I have never (not yet at least) regretted my decision.

I was granted sabbatical leave (salary compensation) in 2016 for curating three College Success OER textbooks. Known as the Blueprint for Success in College OER texts, they all have a Creative Commons BY attribution license. For those interested in learning more about open licenses, Danielle Apfelbaum and Derek Stadler will be presenting A Crash Course in Creative Commons Licensing at the TAA Conference in Philadelphia in June.

I selected Pressbooks for the platform and The Rebus Community is my publisher.  It has been a wonderful experience working with both. They have both been supportive, consistent, and shared my vision from the beginning. One of my favorite aspects from that project was being able to identify existing openly licensed content that matched my colleges’ course outlines. I was able to take what I wanted from those resources, with proper attribution, of course, and “remix” them. This alleviated a tremendous amount of time, energy, and stress, as I was able to use high quality, peer reviewed content, edit the content, combine it with my own writing or another resource, and then put it all together. This also allowed me opportunities to reach out to those original authors and ask them questions or in a few cases create collaborations. Once I had all of the content sorted and edited, the texts went through peer review, a student review, and an accessibility review.

Future compensation came from grants that allowed for development of ancillaries. In addition to greater success and retention in my courses since I began using OER, the texts have been adopted wider and faster than my first text with the traditional copyright. This has led to speaking and consulting opportunities which have made up for some of the royalty loss.

Do I think all textbook authors should go OER? Absolutely not. Do I think it is an option worth exploring?  I do. Just as I believe there is space for traditional textbook publishing and OER publishing, I also believe future authors will choose to have some of their work under traditional copyright and some of their work under open licenses.

For anyone interested in exploring authoring tools for OER, I recommend Pressbooks, OER Commons, and LibreTexts.

Dillon and Scholarly Communication Librarian Jeanne Hoover presented a session at the 2019 TAA Conference titled Why I Chose to Publish OER, What I Learned, and Do I have Regrets.


Dave DillonDave Dillon is counseling faculty and a professor at Grossmont College in San Diego. He is a general counselor and teaches College Success courses. He has authored and curated College Success textbooks and is a TAA Council Member.  He is passionate about student success, textbook quality, access, and design.