Open Textbooks vs Digital Textbooks: How to Make Higher Education More Accessible in Manitoba

Carley McDougallBlogs

Open textbooks are a type of open educational resource, commonly referred to as OER, which are educational materials published under an open license, such as Creative Commons.

Making higher education more accessible is the goal of the Manitoba Open Textbook Initiative. At Campus Manitoba, we’re working to reduce students’ costs through the use of open textbooks at post-secondary institutions across the province.

So, what exactly is an open textbook, and how does it differ from other formats? In this blog, we’ll explore the many examples of open educational resources (OERs) and what motivates Campus Manitoba to save learners money.

What is an open textbook?

Open textbooks are one type of OER which also includes educational materials such as videos, lecture notes, or assignments, which are published under an open license like Creative Commons. To help understand what makes a resource “open”, Dr. David Wiley, a leader in the open content movement, has defined the five R’s of open education as such:

  1. Retain: You are able to download and keep copies of the materials.
  2. Reuse: You are free to use the materials in a variety of ways, such as in a class, in a study group, or in a video.
  3. Revise: You have the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or in any way alter the materials. Examples of this could be translating the content into another language or modifying the materials to make them more relevant to specific groups of students.
  4. Remix: You are allowed to combine the materials with other content to create something new.
  5. Redistribute: You are free to share the materials with others so that they too can reuse, remix, or improve upon the work.

Open education is driven by the belief that everyone has the right to be educated, and as proponents of this worldwide movement, Campus Manitoba partnered with BCcampus to build OpenEd Manitoba, a website that allows students and faculty to browse, view, and download free textbooks online for use in their courses.

Why choose an open textbook instead of a digital textbook?

Traditional digital textbooks must be purchased by students via a subscription code, which only gives them access to the text for a finite period of time, whereas open textbooks are always freely available. Additionally, some digital textbooks have ancillary materials or tools that professors use to assign and collect homework. However, if the student does not purchase the required upgrade to access those items, they are not able to properly submit their homework. This again creates another financial burden on students.

The successful adoption of open textbooks in other Canadian provinces shows how this movement can make education more affordable and accessible for students. In British Columbia, BCcampus is a key leader in the open education movement, saving students $10 million in education expenses since the B.C. Open Textbook Project was launched in 2012. In Ontario, eCampus Ontario has shown savings of $2.2 million since launching the initiative in 2017.

Students and teachers also tend to be more engaged in the education process when they use adapted content, according to Campus Manitoba’s special projects coordinator Carley McDougall, in her wrap-up of OpenEd18. “The teachers I spoke to shared stories of their efforts to create or adapt these open resources; there was an altruism evident in the work they were doing,” explained McDougall. “They have a sincere desire to improve education and make it more accessible.”

Digital textbooks do not give educators the same freedom to adapt the content.

Open textbooks in action

The Ontario Council of University Libraries published a white paper on open educational resources. It included the following observation on how open textbooks fulfill an emerging need of post-secondary education (PSE) leaders:

PSEs have been focusing on student-centred learning, moving from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side” and the “meddler in the middle.” This has taken form in many ways, from understanding effective pedagogical practices in lesson planning to re-framing flexible programming of courses, such as online, hybrid, and traditional face-to-face formats.

The “flipped classroom” is a concept that also allows students to engage with rich resources like podcasts and videos before the class in order to create a more engaging way to interact with content, minimizing class time spent on information delivery. This also supports those who have accessibility needs, allowing students to engage with content in their own time.

A 2018 study from Kwantlen Polytechnic University has also shown that students assigned an open textbook perform either no differently from or better than those assigned a commercial one (whether it’s a digital textbook or the print version).

Hundreds of free textbooks are already available to view online or to download (in a variety of formats) through the OpenEd Manitoba website, all of which have been created, reviewed, or adapted by faculty at post-secondary institutions in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario. We encourage you to browse the open textbook collection today to find materials to adopt in your upcoming courses. If you’re a faculty member working in Manitoba and want to review a textbook in the collection, apply today. You’ll receive an honorarium of $250 for completing a review, which will be published under a CC-BY-ND license alongside the textbook in our collection.


Campus Manitoba is a consortium of Manitoba’s public post-secondary institutions. Through collaborative projects and shared services, we facilitate student mobility and expand access to post-secondary programs for students in Manitoba. In addition to campusmanitoba.ca, our websites include ecoursesmb.casetyourcourse.ca, and openedmb.ca.