Textbooks | Feature

Hunting the Whole Enchilada: 6 Excellent Sites for Free Digital Textbooks

It's time to try out K-12 textbooks that won't gather dust on your classroom shelves. Here are the best sites for digital books that won't cost you a dime.

Plug "digital resources for k12" into Google and you'll get a bazillion results (or maybe it just seems that way). Head to any resource site for teachers and you'll lose yourself in a miasma of links. Thinkfinity will link you to Smithsonian, which will direct you to HippoCampus, and onto Kahn Academy, and over to Curriki, and off to — well, you get the picture.

As wonderful as those sites are, sometimes you don't want to spend all your planning time piecing together a school year's worth of lessons from a multitude of online sites. You just want the whole enchilada delivered in textbook form from which you can select the content you'll assign to your students. To that end we have hunted down the top sources for digital textbooks — all free. What you and your students do with them on the iPads and Chromebooks in your classroom is up to you.

California Learning Resource Network (CLRN)
The current compilation of open educational resources (OERs) on CLRN stands at 6,063. If you're teaching high school-level math, science, history or social science, what you want to pay attention to is the free textbooks link, of which there are 30. The site counts up standards met for many of the textbooks; but since they're being compared to California education standards, that metric may or may not be of use to you, depending on what state you're teaching in.

As an example, Light and Matter is an introductory 1,016-page textbook on physics published by Benjamin Crowell, a faculty member at Fullerton College in Southern California. The PDF is a whopping 80Mb, full of graphics and color images. He makes an instructor's guide available for the text on his Web site.

The site also includes an ample number of non-textbook OER resources for grades K-12 that meet Common Core standards. You can filter results by subject, grade level, and type of resource.

CK-12 Foundation
This pioneer in the field of OER has a simple student interface. Go to the home page, pick a topic, and choose a "FlexBook" from what's listed. English has three offerings (one a teacher's edition), history has two, math has five (all for middle school), and earth science has five. This is one of the few resources that actually allows reviewing. For example, CK-12 Earth Science Concepts for High School gets 11 thumbs up, no thumbs down, and two reviews, both positive. FlexBooks can be downloaded in three forms: PDF (for most computing devices), mobi (for Kindle), and ePub (for iPad and Android devices).

Users have to sign in for access to the textbooks but you can use your Google, Facebook, or Twitter account for that. Once you've provided that, you'll receive a confirmation email that will guide you back to the site for your downloads. The earth sciences textbook referenced above, for example, written by science writer Dana Desonie, runs 1,208 pages in PDF format.

The Apple App Store
Apple doesn't make it easy to hunt down digital books created with iBook Author that might be relevant to K-12 teachers. But we uncovered a few offerings worth a mention. First, you'll find all of the CK-12 textbooks in the App Store for easy download. Next, consider these. (If you've uncovered more, add a comment to this article to share your knowledge.)

Technically intended for college, this organization offers books on topics that younger students care about too. Current books cover biology, chemistry, statistics, United States history, physics, and other subjects.

The digital textbooks are intended to be customized by the instructors who use them in class. Sections can be rearranged, modified, and enhanced with examples. The offerings are available in PDF and ePub format, or they can simply be read online in a browser, which, because each section is given its own page, can call for a bit of tedious clicking. Best, OpenStax also provides links to other resources that the teacher might want to use for specific assignments. For example, teachers can download a set of PowerPoint slides to use with the biology book; they're unavailable to students.

Open Education Group
This research group at Brigham Young University has compiled six freely downloadable science texts for grades 7 through 12, all available as PDF files:

Compared to the competition, these textbooks are modestly sized; Biology runs 142 pages and 27Mb currently. Because they were initially developed as part of a larger research project on the use of OER, there's been academic scrutiny of the Utah classes where they've been used. Results — once they're made public — could be impressive. As the researchers state, "We're still analyzing last year's outcomes data, but here's a preview: students using open textbooks outperformed their peers using traditional textbook on state standardized tests."

Project Gutenberg
If you're a teacher in the humanities, you might notice a dearth of offerings in that category from the resources already listed. Not to worry. This "first producer of free e-books" probably offers any classic you might need for your students. They come in multiple versions — ePub with or without images, HTML, Kindle, plain text, and some we've never heard of.

Plus, don't miss out on the "Similar Books" feature at the bottom of the "Bibrec" view, which provides links to files that readers of your title also downloaded — just like Amazon. Downloading William Strunk's The Elements of Style will lead you right to Joseph Devlin's How to Speak and Write Correctly, which will take you to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and onto Pride and Prejudice and — well, you get the idea.