In four years of college, the average student nationally is asked to spend $4800 on textbooks. What if those costs were eliminated?

Research from a trio of BYU professors, which is referred to as the most rigorous study of its kind, has examined the effectiveness of open textbooks, which are free, vs. traditional textbooks, which are not. Over the span of multiple studies, the researchers found that 85 percent of both students and instructors believed open textbooks were as good or better than traditional textbooks. The results also show that students learn the same amount, or more, from open textbooks when compared with traditional textbooks.

Open textbooks are available digitally, legally licensed in a way that allows for customization and enable free sharing with others.

"In an introductory class like College Algebra, the textbook isn't there to entertain, it's there to teach a topic," said Lane Fischer, one of the BYU researchers who worked on the study, "and Algebra hasn't changed a lot in the past 50 years, so you don't need the latest, most expensive book to teach it well. There are comparable free resources available, and students really appreciate saving money."

One of the most recent studies focused locally in Utah on the adoption of open science textbooks in the Nebo School District, grades K-12. The study was published in Education Researcher. In addition to taxpayers saving money on textbook costs, the 4,000 students who used open textbooks scored slightly higher on end-of-year state standardized science tests than students using traditional textbooks.

Another recent study, published in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education, focused on more than 15,000 students at 10 colleges and universities across the United States. Again, in addition to saving significant amounts of money, students using open textbooks in 14 of the 15 classes studied, received the same or higher grades than their peers in sections using traditional textbooks.

Along with Fischer, David Wiley, John Hilton III and recently-graduated Ph.D. student T. Jared Robinson were the other researchers involved in the studies.

"The research findings cut across disciplines, geography and grade level," said Wiley, who is also an education fellow at Creative Commons. "Open educational resources like open textbooks provide the same or better learning outcomes at drastically reduced costs."

The shift to open textbooks is about more than just cutting costs. Although the savings to students and school boards are significant, the effect on the content within the books themselves may be even more important. The open licenses allow instructors to integrate new content and materials into the books themselves, customizing them for their students. Faculty can even assign students to create updates and improvements for the textbooks.

Ivy League and other prestigious schools originally led the move toward open educational resources, with initiatives like the OpenCourseWare projects at MIT and Johns Hopkins launching in the early 2000s. More than a decade later, many institutions are beginning to better understand the benefits for faculty and students.

While open educational resources appeal to students because of the cost, or lack thereof, there are still some considerations for educators. Educators must be aware of the permissions that are available, which specific Creative Commons licenses are used and how attribution is to be provided.

"Given the present research," Hilton said, "policy makers, researchers and educators need to carefully examine the ethics of requiring students to purchase traditional textbooks when high-quality openly licensed alternatives are freely available."