Online college is different from traditional college in several ways. Instead of a physical classroom on-campus, students learn and converse in a virtual classroom on the Web. Rather than having to stick to a rigid class schedule, students often complete coursework on their own schedule. One important similarity between traditional and online education is that both require the use of course material, such as textbooks, for students to read and learn from throughout the class. However, while students may still need to purchase textbooks for online courses, they may also be able to take advantage of course materials known as “open textbooks.”

The Difference between Open and Traditional Textbooks

Traditionally, textbooks are copyrighted materials, and students have to purchase the book, whether in print, e-book, audio book or other format. Textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars, and even used books can be expensive.

Open textbooks or open access textbooks are course materials that the authors choose to license under an open copyright license, which means that any member of the public – including students and instructors – can use them. Often, they can be downloaded as e-books or audio files for free, or purchased cheaply in print. The open copyright license allows the public to not only use the book, but to copy and distribute the material to others and to adapt it to fit their own educational needs. Instead of making money off the sale of the book, the authors of open textbooks may earn their living from grants, royalties from the sale of related materials and advertisers.

The Growing Popularity of Open Textbooks

Traditional textbooks are still the norm in many states and at many schools. However, colleges and universities are increasingly turning to open textbooks in several states, including Florida, California, Texas, Ohio and Washington. The use of open textbooks is growing partly as an effort to curb the cost of acquiring course materials, according to the Chico Enterprise-Record News. After all, The College Board reported that students often spend $1,200 to $1,300 or more on books and supplies per year. While open textbooks are much cheaper than traditional textbooks, or even free, they are not of lower quality than their expensive counterparts. Researchers found that open textbooks compare to traditional textbooks that cost as much as $300, the Chico Enterprise-Record News reported – and some open textbooks are better than costly traditional textbooks.

For college students whose instructors choose to use open textbooks, getting the textbooks for an online college course is easy. Their school or instructor can direct them to the course material they will need. Students who still need to purchase traditional textbooks for their courses, on the other hand, need to choose between a variety of formats and retailers. They, too, can cut the costs of their course materials, but they will need to shop around beyond their school bookstores for the best deal and consider alternatives like buying used books, choosing electronic versions rather than print versions, or renting their textbooks.