Free Textbooks Are Only a Click Away
Where To Find the Best Open Educational Resources (OER)
When I began my career as an educator in the early 2000s, I thought textbooks were on their way out.
Laptops and desktops had already become ubiquitous. PDFs of every textbook were almost as easy to download as songs on Napster. Since at least 2009 we weren’t paying $10 for a Metallica CD anymore. By then, we’d click on YouTube and listen instantly for free.
If not even Metallica could stop the digital revolution, why did textbook publishers think they’d have any chance at keeping us in a brick and mortar store paying for their overpriced textbooks?
Besides, who would still want to lug around a heavy calculus textbook once we could carry a “free” (or at least easily stolen) electronic version of every textbook ever written?
Prices would fall. They’d have to. Okay, maybe they wouldn’t go all the way to zero, but this is the 21st century. The days of exorbitant price gauging to a captive audience were surely over!
…except that’s not what happened.
20 years later, it turns out that my expectations could not have been more wrong.
According to market statistics published on Zippia.com, the book industry posted $25.93 billion in revenue during 2022.
$22.6 billion of that came from print, while only a little over $2 billion came from eBooks.
Moreover, in 2019 textbook publishers charged an average of $84 per textbook and raked in revenues of $8.38 billion.
Not only is the commercial textbook industry as powerful as ever, but the prices in recent decades have risen much faster than inflation, even outpacing housing prices.
The good news is that this trend towards artificial scarcity can be reversed. There’s no legitimate reason a subject like Algebra or Shakespeare needs to be updated every three years. Many disciplines are like this. Textbooks in many subjects are considered “obsolete” purely because of legally binding agreements, not technical necessity. Captive audiences can therefore be freed from unnecessarily expensive textbooks by using Open Educational Resources (OER), which are high-quality, peer-reviewed, free, legal competitors to traditional textbooks.
The bad news is that we’ve got a very, very long way to go before that becomes the norm. Here’s what the situation looks like so far according to Google Trends.
That nearly flat line at the bottom? That is search interest in topics like “open educational resources”. In yellow is one of the most popular examples of it, MIT OpenCourseWare. To say that we’re David in a fight against Goliath is putting it generously. If you think of it in terms of popular awareness and internet search traffic, the OER movement is less like David vs Goliath, and more like an ant crawling on David’s arm vs Goliath.
But even so, slowly, quietly, yet steadily, there are teachers switching to open source content. They’re saving their students thousands of dollars in the process, and collectively, instructors who are part of this movement are saving students billions of dollars.
This article’s main purpose is to empower both teachers and students who want to switch over and find better alternatives in the OER movement. I’ll be providing the best and most useful free resources that I know of, even if they’re not strictly speaking what we’d call “OER”.
This article is also an invitation to contribute. If there’s a free educational resource of any kind that you absolutely love using, please put a note about it in the comments so that I can examine it and add it to the list — including if you’ve made it yourself.
One last point before we dive in. It’s common in Higher Ed for us to talk about “lifelong learning”, but I know from personal experience that it’s all too easy to become comfortable and complacent with what we already know. So lastly, this article serves as a call to action. What new skill are you actively engaged in teaching yourself right now? Perhaps there’s no better way to learn it than by teaching it — by studying free content of others and then remixing it to create new OER, adding to the pool of humanity’s freely accessible knowledge!
I don’t want to give the impression that the fight for a better future is being waged purely by rag-tag underdog rebels against an evil empire of powerful institutions.
Many institutional providers like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford have generously created platforms and hosted a wide array of free courses.
Often their free resources may not technically be “OER” because you are not always free to remix and reuse the content. Still, despite limitations these Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are amazing. They give enormous opportunity to millions of people, and I absolutely love them. For anyone who wants to understand computers, I strongly recommend David Malan’s CS50. That’s probably my favorite course so far.
That said, there is also institutional support directly for actual OER resources that you can incorporate into your instruction if you’re a teacher. One form this takes is when librarians compile the best collections of OER content. University of Pittsburgh has a real treasure trove on their site, for example. Take your time and comb through this list!
Guides: OER — Open Educational Resources: Big List of Resources
Skip to Main Content It looks like you’re using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern…
One of the best OER resources out there is an institutional product called OpenStax, courtesy of Rice University.
OpenStax | Free Textbooks Online with No Catch
OpenStax offers free college textbooks for all types of students, making education accessible & affordable for…
Are you assigned to read one of the classics? Buying anthologies and collections of books — most of which you’ll never read — is an unnecessarily expensive thing to do. Instead, conveniently get instant free access to most of humanity’s classics by going to Project Gutenberg.
Choose among free epub and Kindle eBooks, download them or read them online. You will find the world's great literature…
You can also get the audio versions, read by volunteers, by going to Librivox.
LibriVox | free public domain audiobooks
LibriVox audiobooks are free for anyone to listen to, on their computers, iPods or other mobile device, or to burn onto…
For open source textbooks on pretty much any subject, there are some amazing resources offered by OER Commons.
Open Author helps you build and publish Open Educational Resources for you and for the benefit of educators and…
Khan Academy is legendary for helping millions of students. It’s just as helpful as ever, with a very full library of videos and practice problems to help you with a wide range of subjects.
Khan Academy | Free Online Courses, Lessons & Practice
Learn for free about math, art, computer programming, economics, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, finance…
Apps That Your Students Are Using To Cheat
There are some free “resources” out there that may have educational value if used properly, but which I’ve also seen students use as a crutch to the point where it ultimately cripples their growth. If they’re getting 100% on homework problems and somehow still flunking tests, this is how.
Probably the most notorious are Photomath and MathWay.
Math explained, step-by-step
Our step-by-step explanations help you master math from arithmetic to calculus, so you can continue building on your…
All students have to do is take a picture of their assignment and copy all the steps that Photomath displays. No thought and no effort required.
I personally use WolframAlpha to check my work and to get ideas on how to integrate challenging problems, so as a user of these kinds of services I don’t mean to be hypocritical. That’s why I won’t go so far as to say that there’s no potential educational value at all to these kinds of sites.
But they can easily be abused.
Educators, you have to be very careful with how much weight you’re giving to homework. Learners, you should be cautious that you aren’t overusing these tools.
Having Photomath do your homework is like using a crane in the gym to do your bench-pressing. Don’t expect to get stronger that way. You’re just wasting everyone’s time (and your own money) if that’s your approach to college. A degree is just a piece of paper and a GPA is just a number, at the end of the day. What matters is the knowledge, skills, and trusted relationships that you gain along the way.
Opensource Free Sites & Software You Should Know
Opensource alternative to graphing calculators like TI-84 or Casio: desmos
Desmos | Let's learn together.
Desmos offers best-in-class calculators, digital math activities, and curriculum to help every student love math and…
Opensource alternative to MyMathLab: MyOpenMath
Free and Open Students Are you a student looking to study mathematics on your own, and want to do exercises with…
For podcasting, art, or really just creative activity of any kind
Opensource video editor: OpenShot
OpenShot Video Editor | Free, Open, and Award-Winning Video Editor for Linux, Mac, and Windows!
Please check out the latest release of OpenShot! Lots of bugs and regressions fixed, and vastly improved language…
Opensource recording software: OBS Studio
Open Broadcaster Software | OBS
OBS Studio is equipped with a powerful API, enabling plugins and scripts to provide further customization and…
Opensource Photoshop: GIMP
This is the official website of the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP). GIMP is a cross-platform image editor…
Opensource Image Repository: Pixabay
Free design software that works in your browser: Canva
(it isn’t technically Opensource, but you can easily produce great content with it and use that in your OER contributions)
To Learn Programming
There’s been a lot of talk over the years about gamifying education, but I’ve never seen anyone pull it off as well as Codingames. They have hundreds of high quality user-created challenges like building a Star Wars-style Podracing AI, or Landing on Mars. The games are so fun and engaging, and you can learn any of almost 30 different computer languages by studying the solutions of your competitors after the round, which most people volunteer. Everyone is helping everyone else to improve. I’ve rapidly learned to use Python in recent months thanks in very large part to the free platform Codingames.
freeCodeCamp is a comprehensive boot camp that takes you step by step, leaving nothing out. You follow directions and code up very complex, real world projects, getting instant feedback along the way.
Coding Games and Programming Challenges to Code Better
Learn new concepts by solving fun challenges in 25+ languages addressing all the hot programming topics. In a matter of…
Although these for-profit solutions aren’t technically “OER”, you might save money by using them instead of doing whatever your current strategy is (i.e. paying for tutors, buying books at full price). If you’re going to use tutoring and worked-out problems, CourseHero and Chegg provide lots of value for a pretty low monthly fee (usually around $10–20), at least compared to textbook costs and private tutors. If you can’t afford a monthly subscription like that, you can also contribute your own study materials in order to get “free” access in exchange.
Course Hero | Make every study hour count
Instant access to millions of Study Resources, Course Notes, Test Prep, 24/7 Homework Help, Tutors, and more. Learn…
Chegg — Get 24/7 Homework Help | Rent Textbooks
Get step-by-step Textbook Solutions or ask homework questions to get expert answers, plus textbook rentals, writing &…
I often find sites like those in this article by using Similarweb. It isn’t OER, but it will help you find alternatives to pretty much anything — including OERs.
Website Traffic — Check and Analyze Any Website | Similarweb
All in one Website analytics & competitive traffic intelligence platform — Compare website traffic and performance…
I think of it as being like a skeleton key to opens the treasure chest of the internet, because it directs you to a list of competitors and similar sites to whatever you look up, so you never have to feel boxed in to one option because of a lack of knowing about others.
In this digital age, we’re either going to live in a world of artificial scarcity that’s gatekept by ultra-wealthy corporations, or we’re going to live in a world of shared abundance thanks to open-source materials. What I love about OER is that by creating, compiling, incorporating into curriculums, or even just talking about OER to raise awareness, we are nudging humanity ever so slightly towards an open world of access and equity, rather than one of exploitation and exclusivity that’s enjoyed only by the fortunate.
The ripple effects of what we do as educators are potentially immense. When you create an OER, or even just remix someone else’s work to improve it, you’re not just saving your students money. You’re potentially helping to unlock a brighter future for generations of learners, in countries all over the globe.
And if you think of yourself as “just” a learner rather than an educator, I can tell you from experience that there’s no better way to learn than to teach. By creating a formula sheet, or a how-to video, sharing a copy of your notecards, or whatever else you upload into the world… you’re learning when you make the materials, but you’re also giving others something important. However small it seems, it’s important. More important than you think.
Despite my enthusiasm for OER, I don’t think everyone should only work for free all the time, as if our labor has no value. Although I’ve chosen not to put this particular article behind a paywall, I do also make paid content. A lot of premium work that’s written by myself and other authors on Medium is subscription-only. You can get access and support our work for the cost of a cup of coffee each month by clicking here.