OER | Spotlight

OpenStax Aims To Bring Free Digital Textbooks to High Schools

OpenStax, which provides free, peer-reviewed undergraduate textbooks and supporting materials for colleges and universities, has set its sights on K-12 education for the first time.

The non-profit organization, which operates out of Rice University in Texas, is launching a new effort to bring digital textbooks to high schools that are not only free but that are also designed to personalize learning.

It's estimated that states and districts spend roughly $5.5 billion on K-12 textbooks each year (as of 2012). While many schools are shifting to digital textbooks, the cost of the digital versions of those books remains essentially the same as their print counterparts and are typically restricted b digital rights management technologies.

But OpenStax's digital textbooks are free, funded through philanthropic organizations. The group's first seven books have saved $13 million in costs to date for "hundreds of thousands" of college and university students, according to the OpenStax. The books they produce are open source and free online but are also available in print for a fee. The free versions are available on the Web and in PDF, ePub and Bookshare (accessible) formats.

The K-12 effort, which is being fueled by a $9 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, will be different in one significant respect. Whereas in higher education, the objective was simply to provide access to high-quality digital textbooks, the K-12 effort will also include new technologies designed help students learn — to identify and even predict where students need assistance and to deliver lessons and exercises designed to help those students master the material at hand.

OpenStax leaders discuss the move to K-12 in the following video (supplied by Rice U).

"The same sort of algorithms that might predict which songs or books you'll like can be used to deliver a personalized experience to every child in a classroom," said OpenStax Founder Richard Baraniuk, Rice University's Victor E. Cameron Professor of Engineering, in a prepared statement. "We can improve outcomes in a number of ways. We can help teachers and administrators by tapping into metrics that they already collect — like which kind of homework and test questions a student tends to get correct or incorrect — as well as things that only the book would notice — like which examples a student clicks on, how long she stays on a particular illustration or which sections she goes back to reread."

"The technology is already here, in the sense that most of us use it online every day," said OpenStax Managing Director Daniel Williamson, also in a prepared statement. "However, the full potential of this technology has yet to be realized for education. The project will allow us to demonstrate that this technology is effective and can be used in the classroom to improve both students' and teachers' return on effort."

The project is expected to take two years and will result in two textbooks: one for AP Biology and one for high school physics.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 25-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).