Unity in Diversity: Findings from the Open Textbooks in Australia project

This post was written by Frank Ponte, Manager Library Services (Teaching) at RMIT University.

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash.
Image caption: The phrase “Unity in Diversity” graffitied on a wall.

This post summarises the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE) at Deakin University Seminar Series panel session titled “Open Textbooks in Australia: updated, localised, inclusive.” The session was facilitated by Helen Partridge (Pro-Vice Chancellor – Teaching and Learning, Deakin University) with research findings presented by Chief Investigator Dr Sarah Lambert (RMIT University). Observations were contributed by panel members Fiona Salisbury (University Librarian – La Trobe University), Dr Johanna Funk (Lecturer – Charles Darwin University) and Professor Kevin Ashford-Rowe (Queensland University of Technology).

A recording of the session is available on YouTube.

Why open textbooks?

Open textbooks are relatively new to the Australian context but are gaining prominence alongside their commercial equivalents. An open textbook provides the ability to modify content to suit your context. An appetite for customised content is increasing, but it becomes a question of time and funds for the creator to support the publication process. There are emerging local institutional investments in the creation of open textbooks at La Trobe, USQ and Sydney University Press to name a few.  

Findings of the National Scoping Study

The overarching research question of the Open Textbook in Australia project is: “What extent do open textbooks have the potential to act as social justice initiatives in Australian Higher Education as they do overseas?” The project applied a social justice framework which, when applied to open textbooks, demonstrates that prescribing free materials widens the access to learners from lower socio-economic backgrounds (see Lambert, 2018). The inclusion of case studies, images, indigenous and marginalised narratives in open textbooks provides recognition of diverse views and experiences and the ability for those marginalised voices to express their stories for themselves rather than be recounted by others.

Both staff and students in the study expressed that commercial textbooks demonstrated a lack of recognition when it came to marginalised groups. Commercial textbooks ignored narratives associated with women, LGBT, and indigenous people and were often voiced through a Eurocentric point of view. Inclusive texts were framed as exceptions and interviews with participants were layered with emotion as people articulated negative experiences due to a lived experience of racism.

Belonging and cultural inclusion are important themes in higher education. A lack of belonging can increase feelings of anxiety and depression and hinder study. Consequently, if commercial textbooks lack marginalised narratives and diverse viewpoints, one can draw parallels. The results also demonstrated that students were irritated at the restrictive nature of digital access to commercial texts, the inability to get digital copies and the requirement to employ complex workarounds for alternatives. Textbook costs were also an issue but there was more angst expressed on the digital restrictions.

Unity in Diversity – Open textbooks to the rescue

The survey results showed that 80-90% of teaching staff were open to using open educational resources in teaching with institutional support. 73% were interested in modifying an open textbook and making it relevant to the Australian context and 67% would modify the textbook to make it more representative of marginalised groups.

Staff felt that diversified texts provided a wider variety of perspectives and would better prepare students for the world and workplace. Students who had experienced diversified open access readings agreed.

The research clearly demonstrated that there were social justice benefits to the modification of open texts especially for the underrepresented. The use of open textbooks in curriculum also provided several general benefits, including free access for all, seamless integration into the LMS, and up to date knowledge for better graduate outcomes preparing them for their professions and a diverse workforce.

What’s required?

Institutional support is important in the form of time and grants, particularly for large scale projects. Support from expert staff such as librarians, graphic designers, copy editors, peer reviewers, and proof-readers are all important aspects of textbook creation.


  1. Reframe OER projects and broaden the scope to both social inclusion and economic benefits
  2. Reframe OER projects as strategic digital innovation linking digital delivery + curriculum renewal + equity/accessibility policies
  3. Push for continued open access publishing for research
  4. Reframe OER as legitimate works and address workload, probation, promotion and publishing outputs
  5. Reframe grant-funding to ensure that OER support strategic curriculum renewal; equity inclusion; focus on 1st year foundation subjects; recognition of indigenous knowledges; improve gender representation

How do we do it?

To get to where we need to be will require a lot of capacity building across the sector. This could be achieved through:

  • The production of targeted support guides and training workshops
  • Using OER metafinders and aggregators
  • Cross promoting Australian OER resources
  • Training staff in OER curation and creative commons
  • Co-creating with students, staff, community through ethical partnerships
  • Amplifying marginalised voices in your creation
  • Supporting staff to diversify curriculum

The OER movement should tailor development of open resources to fit into the policy and strategic directions established locally at each institution, rather than wait for funding from government legislators.

Policy options

Universities could:

  1. Consider using an OER textbook before a commercial one in new courses
  2. Consider an alternative if there is restricted or no digital access to a textbook
  3. Use OER textbooks for open book exams
  4. Ensure there are targets and timelines for implementation
  5. Have acceptable use guidelines for commercial textbook platforms
  6. Develop strategic sector wide collaboration focusing on high intake, foundation courses that are taught across the sector  

Find out more

This was a fascinating session that is well worth watching, especially for the insightful panel session that followed the summary of the research findings. Findings from Sarah’s research will inform the CAUL OER projects so sign up to the blog to keep up-to-date!

Reference: Lambert, S. R. (2018). Changing our (Dis)Course: A Distinctive Social Justice Aligned Definition of Open Education. Journal of Learning for Development, 5(3), 225–244. https://jl4d.org/index.php/ejl4d/article/view/290/334

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *