Research

Open textbooks and social justice: A national scoping study

Dr Sarah Lambert1, Ms Habiba Fadel1

Executive summary

This study investigated the potential for open textbooks to assist with improving the experience and outcomes of under-represented higher education students in the Australian context.

Open textbooks are a recent innovation in free, digital texts that can be: distributed at no cost; printed at cost price; and modified for local needs, such as to respond to gender, socio-cultural and Indigenous underrepresentations in the curriculum. They are an alternative to commercially produced textbooks and a form of Open Educational Resources (OER).

The Project

This project builds on international research showing that while all students can benefit, underrepresented students benefit the most from having access to unrestricted copies of course materials from the first day of semester. The benefits reported from research conducted overseas include improving grades, retention, and course progress rates. This study replicates aspects of a UK national scoping study with equity-focussed additions. It uses a social justice framework to test the potential within the Australian context of achieving redistributive justice (costs to access), recognitive and representational justice (fair representation within the textbook contents).

Forty-three staff from a broad range of areas and disciplines from five universities were interviewed as part of the research: Deakin, La Trobe, RMIT, Charles Darwin and QUT. Nineteen students were also interviewed; they were enrolled in either a post-graduate business program or an undergraduate arts and education foundation unit. In addition, 131 participants completed an online survey open to any Australian university staff member with teaching responsibilities.

Key findings

Similar to research findings from the USA and UK, commercial textbook sales have declined and costs have increased, with many students unwilling and/or unable to purchase. However, in Australia (as in the UK) there is less reliance on a single specified textbook for a unit. Weekly or topic-based online reading lists are common which may include a number of textbook chapters. While Australia’s unique legislative context has ensured a strong role for university libraries to provide no-cost loans of reading materials, this is challenged by the rise in complex digital textbook and online platform licencing deals. New publisher arrangements tend to target individual students and can deny library access. Australian students are increasingly impacted by restrictive and/or costly access to digital readings.

Social justice principles relating to the cost and contents of textbooks and readings matter to Australian students and staff. OER texts can be a transformative strategy to address digital access, learning material costs and inclusive experiences for higher education students. Australian staff are beginning to use OER and open access reading lists to address the injustices of uneven resourcing and negative racial, gender and disability stereotyping in the curriculum. Staff utilise institutional support and services to adopt and author OER. Common motivations include offering students free e-texts that are more up to date than commercial offerings. Students who have experienced diversified reading lists with multiple knowledge perspectives believe that they are better prepared for their intended future professions. Similarly, staff consider more representative curricula can enhance graduate outcomes for all students.

Redistributive justice or economic dimension: justice for students in the Australian context relies on sustainable funding of university libraries and increased bargaining power of libraries to negotiate digital access contracts with publishers that reasonably meet their needs. Expanding the adoption of OER texts is increasingly being identified by university libraries as a strategy to mitigate the cost and digital access risks associated with commercial textbook provision in the digital age. Institutional support is recommended for increasing authorship of new, local OER texts and for improved searching and adoption of existing OER texts.

Recognitive justice dimension: this dimension provides the most opportunity for individual academic involvement through the diversification of readings and curriculum. Many Australian Universities have policies or strategies to indigenise curriculum and increase female participation in STEMM courses. Justice for students can be served by intentionally highlighting women’s, First Nations’ and multi-cultural leadership and expertise in each field through provision of positive examples and case studies in lectures and learning materials. OER texts provide opportunities for Australian academics to modify or create more socio-culturally inclusive texts including texts which better represent women in the professions. While such inclusive texts are important for under-represented students to develop a sense of belonging to the profession and the course, this study finds that incorporating diverse cultural viewpoints and knowledges into the curriculum benefits all students by ensuring their knowledge base is up to date and they are prepared for contemporary workplaces and roles.

  • Interviewee and survey data suggest academic awareness and motivation is low but on the rise for implementing recognitive justice through diversification of reading lists and authoring diversified open textbooks.
  • Surface approaches to recognition were identified as common practice in evaluating and selecting textbooks (e.g. seeking gender and socio-cultural balance in the pictures and names used), which is a useful first step to avoid obvious exclusion of students. However, a lack of damaging exclusion does not amount to a positive inclusion in the curriculum. Consultation phase and staff interviews found that staff will need support and time to move from a surface to a deeper approach to authorship of learning materials that recognise the expertise and contribution to knowledge made by women and culturally diverse people in the fields.
  • The research also found that there is a degree of anxiety from non-Indigenous academics who do not feel equipped to write about Indigenous knowledges in any way, let alone in a respectful and positive way. Institutions could develop professional development programs based on amplification or allyship strategies to encourage non-Indigenous academics to locate and amplify the voices of Indigenous experts as a first step. These strategies would also assist in helping heterosexual and non-disabled academics to recognise LGBTQI+ and disability expertise in their curriculum and learning materials.

Representational dimension: Many staff and student interviewees saw a strong link between recognitive and representational justice strategies and used the term representation to talk about both. Participants felt that improving representational justice (of who gets to author learning materials) can increase and improve recognition of under-represented learners and communities. The research finds three important ways to improve positive representation of diverse points of view in the curriculum in reading lists.

  • Firstly, to encourage and support citation of diverse sources and authors.
  • Secondly to encourage, fund and support Indigenous, female and non-white staff to author open texts including re-purposing open access research outputs.
  • Thirdly, students as partners is a trend that could incorporate representational justice dimensions by giving socio-culturally diverse students a voice and role in authoring learning materials through assessment design or extra-curricular projects.

Read the full report, Open textbooks and social justice: A national scoping study.


This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.


1Deakin University

Posted 3 February 2022 By ncsehe