Open textbooks, Covid-19 and the cost of living

An open book
An open book
Photo by Mikołaj on Unsplash

This is a guest post by Kathryn Drumm, written as part of her final assessment for EDM122 Digital Literacies and Open Practice 2022/23. Kathryn writes…

I was initially inspired to look the current use of open textbooks, how the pandemic accelerated their use, especially as a reaction to the changes in the prices of e-book licences supplied by major publishers, how they can help ease the effects on students of the cost of living crisis. Once I looked further into the area of open textbooks, and their relationship to other OERs (Open Educational Resources) I considered whether their use could also help to change how students create assessments.

In the spirit of openness, I wanted to see if I could research and write this essay using only resources that were openly available. I restricted my sources to those I could access via internet searches without going behind any paywalls. I used Google scholar and followed embedded links within references in journal articles. City Library’s website and catalogue is openly available, unlike some universities which only restrict access to their catalogue to registered users. It is also possible to add filters to restrict results to fully online and open access resources. When accessing the resources, I selected the option which directed me to a downloadable PDF or open access site, rather than accessing them via a journal which required me to sign in with an institutional login. I didn’t repeat the searches with the open access filter removed, and so I have no sense of whether I have been barred from accessing important sources. However, I may repeat the searches at a later date to compare the number and quality of resources returned.

The lockdowns of 2020 lead to universities closing their doors and, as with most of academia, pivoting to an online model. At City, the library sites were closed to students until a limited opening in July 2020. (City Library, 2020a) Instead, students were directed to online resources (City Library, 2020b).

As Anderson and McCauley (2022) note in their account of the #ebooksos movement, academic publishers initially responded to the crisis by making electronic books and journals available at no cost (Jisc, 2020). However, librarians soon noted that as the pandemic went on, this free access was withdrawn and in many cases, prices increased by 500%. (Fazackerley, 2021) Anderson and McCauley also noted the discrepancy between the cost of hard copy and e-book version of the same work, the e-book version beings as much as 4,000% more expensive. In what may be viewed as another form of openness, librarians collaborated online to share details of the usually confidential contracts, to expose the price rises and to lobby public bodies.

Having worked in the library, I was aware of the complex licensing arrangements that can govern access to e-books. There may be a limit on the number of times a book can be viewed or how many users can view it concurrently. It was a regular experience to be contacted by students who had had their access to an e-book terminated once the agreed number of views was reached, or for students to have to wait while another classmate used the book. Access to journals is often bundled and the terms of contracts can be changed with little or no warning.

While the physical constraints of the pandemic may not remain, many of the financial constraints on universities and students remain and may be increasing.The last Student Income and Expenditure Survey reported students spending around £500 per year on course materials. (Department of Education, 2018) In more recent commercial surveys, UK students report spending between £17 (Brown, 2022) and £35 (NatWest, 2022) a month on books and other course materials. As a survey commissioned by Universities UK found that two thirds of students were concerned about managing living costs, and that this may influence some to drop out of their studies (Universities UK, 2022) one could argue that this highlights how the idea of openness has always been tied to social justice and to opening education to all.

The start of the open access movement is often dated back to the early 2000s with the Budapest Open Access Initiative, the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, and the Bethesda Statement of Open Access Publishing (Mering & Hove 2020). It is interesting to note that much as the current move towards open textbooks was caused by the Covid crisis, the original OA movement was triggered by a series of crises in the cost to universities of accessing journals.

Open access publishing falls under the broader umbrella term of Open Educational Resources, defined by UNESCO “learning, teaching and research materials in any format and medium that reside in the public domain or are under copyright that have been released under an open license, that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others.” (UNESCO no date) Others have used the Five Rs definition by David Wiley of retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute. (Wiley, 2014)

However, there are still barriers to the uptake of open textbooks as OERS. Anderson (2013) notes the reluctance by some to include open access publishing in the same category as open learning objects, online videos, etc.

When viewing open textbooks through the prism of the five Rs of OERs, we may consider that using them to replace expensive commercially published e-books does not fully exploit their potential. Could revising and remixing the content of open textbooks create resources more closely aligned to individual courses. Harrison et all (2022) lament that the full potential of open textbooks has yet to be embraced and that they are still, “presented as a relatively static body of information, with the apparent intent that they be used in teaching in a manner similar to the traditional textbook.” They instead propose that educators and students co-create open textbooks. This would also incorporate another aspect of open education, by allowing for the content to be presented via multiple voices and viewpoints. In this way, students would also increase their digital literacy skills by having to assess the existing content within the textbook, and the content that they aim to add.

In my own role, the sessions that I run which introduce staff to Moodle, our virtual learning environment, emphasise the importance of abiding by copyright legislation when sharing resources (journal articles, book extracts, images) and working with the library to develop a reading list for students. Likewise, our online guidance on includes advice on using OERs and shares links of sources of OERs. However it does not contain guidance on how staff can make their own resources available as OERs, or revise them to suit their students. Educators know where their students need additional clarification and an open licence allows them to adapt the resource to support their specific students’ needs (Van Allen and Katz 2020) or can update them to keep them relevant. (Rolfe and Pitt, 2018 )

This leads also to the idea that open textbooks and other OERs could be adapted and revised by students as a means of assessment. After all, the current essay is most often a synthesis of previously published texts, with ideas and quotations remixed and reused by students. Could students create their own OERs, adapted from existing resources as an assessment? With the recent interest in the rise of AI generated essays and text, could this be combined with OERs to encourage student to learn how to adapt, improve and share existing texts?

The move towards authentic assessment as espoused by Boud and Falchikov (2006) proposes that students should be creating work in a way that mirrors the “real world”, whether we view that as the world of work or beyond. If we recognise that in future students will be working collaboratively, working with AI generated content and with openly available resources, then assessments which prepare them for this, and which build further the library of OERs may be the way forward. And what better way to demonstrate this than requiring that all such assignments are openly published on a blog under a creative commons licence which allows it to be further adapted and shared?


This blog is licensed under:
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License


Anderson, T. 2013, “Open Access Scholarly Publications as OER”, International review of research in open and distance learning, vol. 14, no. 2. Available at: (accessed 01/02/2023)

Anderson, Y. & McCauley, C. (2022) ‘How the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated an e-book crisis and the #ebooksos campaign for reform’, Insights the UKSG journal, vol. 35. Available at (Accessed 25/01/2023)

Brown, L. (2022)  Student Money Survey 2022 – Results, Save The Student!, Available at: (Accessed 31/01/2023)

Boud, D. & Falchikov, N. 2006, “Aligning assessment with long-term learning”, Assessment and evaluation in higher education, vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 399-413. Available at: (accessed 01/02/2023)

City, University of London Library (2020a) Limited Library Services on campus, Available at: (Accessed 01/02/23)

City, University of London Library (2020b) Accessing law e-books Available at: (Accessed 01/02/23)

Department For Education (2018) Student income and expenditure survey 2014 to 2015, Available at:  (Accessed 30/01/2023)

Fazackerley, A. (2021) ‘’Price gouging from Covid’: student ebooks costing up to 500% more than in print’ The Guardian, 29 January. Available at: (Accessed 15/01/2023)

Harrison, M., Paskevicius, M., Devries, I., & Morgan, T. (2022). ‘Crowdsourcing the (Un)Textbook: Rethinking and Future Thinking the Role of the Textbook in Open Pedagogy.’ The Open/Technology in Education, Society, and Scholarship Association Journal. Available at: (Accessed 01/02/2023)

Jisc (2020) Sector pulls together to deliver unprecedented amount of e-textbooks to minimise impact of COVID-19. Available at: (Accessed 31/01/2023)

Mering, M. & Hoeve, C.D. 2020, “A Brief History to the Future of Open Access”, Serials review, vol. 46, no. 4, pp. 300-304. Available at: (accessed 01/02/2023)

NatWest (2022) Student Living Index, Available at: (Accessed 29/01/2023)

Rimmer, W. 2020, “Responding to the Coronavirus with Open Educational Resources”, International Journal of TESOL Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 17-31. Available at: Accessed 01/02/2023

Rolfe, V. and Pitt, B., 2018. ‘Open textbooks – an untapped opportunity for universities, colleges and schools.’ Insights, 31, p.30. DOI:

UNESCO (no date) Open Educational Resources Available at: Accessed 01/02/2022

Universities UK (2022) Don’t overlook students in cost of living crisis, say university leaders Available at: (Accessed 31/01/2023)

Van Allen, J. and Katz, S. (2020), “Teaching with OER during pandemics and beyond”, Journal for Multicultural Education, Vol. 14 No. 3/4, pp. 209-218.

Wiley, D (2014)  The Access Compromise and the 5th R Available at: accessed 01/02/2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *