I must create a new module (first time to do from scratch). In the past, I've had either existing course descriptions, textbooks, etc. as a base on which to structure a module which is new for me. This time, I have nothing (blank canvas).

My thought is to use an open access textbook and some initial looking makes me believe I can find something either usable as-is or that will allow me to mix-and-match the chapters into something suitable.

I'm concerned about what, if any, dangers might not be obvious to me at this stage but might cause significant problems for the students, myself, or the department later (say, after the semester begins).

After reading this question, I still find myself wondering.

If anyone has designed a course using an open access textbook in the past, what are the key considerations which should be considered for first-timers?

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    Why do you expect other dangers than if you would use closed-access textbooks?
    – Raphael
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 19:31
  • @Raphael I don't expect anything. I just don't want to be blindsided mid-semester.
    – earthling
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 23:45

2 Answers 2


It's important to check the license used by the author to make sure that it's compatible with your use of the open access textbook.

Issues to check include:

  1. Does the license allows you to redistribute the book to your students (e.g. by putting it on your course web site) or whether students have to get it from the author's web site. I would not be willing to use any material that I couldn't distribute to my students, because the author might pull it from the web at any time.

  2. Does the license allow you to modify the work (e.g. fix typos or more broadly edit the work)? How are you required to describe any modifications?

  3. If there are any restrictions on "commercial use", does your course constitute commercial use? Some people have argued that for-profit higher educational institutions can't use Creative Commons NC (CC-NC) licensed materials in courses.

Many open access educational resources are licensed under the Creative Commons license with varying options (CC-BY, CC-NC, CC-ND, etc.) The Creative Commons web site has clear explanations of how those licenses work. Many other resources have been put up on the web with no specified license. If there's no license specified you should contact the author and ask for permission to use the material.

  • 5
    And, of course, read through the book to make sure there aren't typos, misstatements, misleading phrases, or anything else that you will need to warn the students about, or that might cause you to select another book. (He says, after having been technical proofreader on a book that he wouldn't subject any student to.)
    – keshlam
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 17:53
  • Determining whether the open educational resource is of adequate quality is very important, but not something that I discussed in my answer. Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 18:33
  • 5
    FWIW, @keshlam's advice applies to any material you make students read. (Yes, also your own. Especially your own.)
    – Raphael
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 19:32
  • @Brian, you said that some people have argued that some institutions shouldn't be able to use works licensed under CC-NC. Were those arguments compelling? Is there some class of schools that I might not be considering?
    – daveloyall
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 21:03
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    The general issue is that there's no easy dividing line between "commercial" and "non-commercial" use of materials. There are gradations between public universities, private non-profit universities, and private for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix in the US. It has certainly been argued by some that the private for-profit schools like University of Phoenix should not be able to use CC-NC materials. Ultimately, that's something that would have to be decided by the courts. I am not a lawyer, but it's hard for me to draw a line. Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 21:37

I think Brian's answer is perfect, but let me be a bit more clear: the answer is none. As others have said better, one crucial quality for material course is quality: if you had an excellent "closed" textbook and a mediocre open access one, you should choose the better one, for the sake of your students. But in this case I don't think you can actually choose, and this is for the better: you can start off with an open access textbook, and you probably can make it better. "Openness" of things boils down to their license. They are often (as said) Creative Commons:

  • CC-BY-SA allows you to do whatever you want with the original material, and create your own derivative works without even asking, provided that you release your material with the same license. For example, Wikipedia articles have this license: everyone builds on the previous version of the page, the license persists, the article (often) gets better.
  • CC-BY-NC allows you to do everything without even asking, provided that you do not have a commercial purpose. Brian's response hints that this is maybe tricky, but I'll come to that.
  • CC-BY-ND is rare, but CC-BY-NC-ND is common: it is the strictest version of Creative Commons, and in practice you can use and share the material, but not have commercial purpose and create derivative work without asking.

This is important: you can't do it without asking.

Of course, you can directly ask the author, and I doubt very much you can't negotiate a way to use the material as you want. It is possible you'd have to pay, but this is the norm with closed textbooks. Creative Commons are licensed used to share our creative works: the open access-open knowledge movement advocates for a more flexible copyright system in which people are allowed to share and build things together.

The only thing you should pay attention, thus, are the different licenses of the different materials involved: if you want to create a new textbook, for example, you should check them and ask/negotiate permission if needed. Copyright-wise, things can't get worse than with closed-access content.

Hope this clears a little.

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