Using Grant Funding to Promote Open Textbooks

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Key Takeaways

  • A key advantage of open educational resources is the price benefit to faculty and especially students, who appreciate not having to pay for textbooks.

  • To encourage faculty use of open textbooks, Fort Hays State University set up a small grant funding program supporting the creation or adaptation of open textbooks by faculty.

  • This case study describes the grant program, how it worked in practice, lessons learned, and recommendations for campuses interested in starting similar initiatives.

In this, the "Year of Open," it's important for higher ed IT professionals to be familiar with and provide support for openly licensed course materials, with all of their advantages. Every student has access to them on day one, and it's impossible to leave them at home because they are online. E-texts that allow derivative works can be customized to cover only the topics the instructor is interested in; edited to add examples relevant to the students' experiences; and updated by the original author, the instructor, or anyone on the Internet without waiting for a new edition. There is also open pedagogy — the ability for students to interact with course materials in new ways — and open principles — the belief that everyone should have access to knowledge. And of course, there's the price benefit. In an OER survey we sent out last spring, the primary advantage faculty identified to using OERs was the price, and faculty using OERs reported that the number-one piece of feedback they received from students was that they appreciated not having to pay for textbooks.

About Open Educational Resources

OERs are course materials (e.g. textbooks, slide sets, videos, interactive modules, etc.) that are available for free under an open license. At a minimum, an open license allows the user(s) to legally make, retain, and redistribute copies of the OER. It may also allow the user(s) to reuse the content in other formats and contexts, revise the content, and remix the content with portions of other works to create a new work. David Wiley refers to these five rights (retain, redistribute, reuse, revise, and remix) as the "5 Rs of Openness." The most common type of open license used on educational resources is a Creative Commons license. There are seven types of Creative Commons licenses, including the CC-zero license, which releases a work into the public domain, removing all copyright-related legal restrictions from its use. The other six licenses include, in various combinations, four possible restrictions:

  1. Attribution: You can use it, but you have to provide credit to the creator

  2. ShareAlike: You can re-post it, but you have to use the same license it was originally under

  3. NonCommercial: You can use it, but you can't profit from it

  4. No Derivatives: You can use it, but you can't revise or remix it

During a project FHSU's Forsyth Library did for Open Education Week in 2016, we asked some of our students what they wanted their instructors to know about the cost of course materials. Here are some of the things they had to say:

"I could not afford my textbooks this year."

"Keep the number of books for one class at 2 or less. The prices add up real fast."

"It takes a lot of searching to find cost-efficient material!"

"Open resources are as informational as other paid materials."

There are barriers to implementing OERs in the classroom, however. In our faculty survey, the top disadvantage faculty identified to using OERs was potential quality issues, followed by the amount of time required to implement them in the classroom. On an open-ended question about what support they would like for using OERs, several faculty expressed a desire for funding, and faculty strongly agreed with the statement, "Creators should be paid for authoring OERs."

Funding OER projects solves several of these issues: it allows faculty to edit OERs to improve the quality, gives them an incentive to budget time for implementation, and fulfills their desire to be paid for authoring and editing.

Many institutional OER grant programs focus on open textbooks rather than on other types of OERs. They do not advertise the reasoning behind this choice, but it makes sense for several reasons. Faculty are familiar with textbooks. It is much easier to convince a faculty member to replace one textbook with another (that just happens to be free and openly licensed) than to convince them to restructure their course around a hodgepodge of miscellaneous OERs scattered around the Internet. Open textbooks are relatively easy to discover and are becoming more mainstream. The Open Textbook Library, one of the best-known open textbook repositories, receives an average of 65,000 visits a month. OpenStax, another large open textbook platform, has 1.6 million students using its books as of June 2016.1 It is also relatively easy to measure the cost savings to students when a course replaces a traditionally copyrighted textbook with an open one — much easier than trying to measure the financial impact of implementing a mixture of alternative course materials with various copyright statuses, costs, and licenses.

Therefore, when Dean Deborah Ludwig of Forsyth Library at Fort Hays State University (FHSU) went to the FHSU Foundation for help finding a donor to fund an OER grant program in 2015, she proposed using the funding for an open textbook program. The foundation successfully found a donor willing to contribute $10,000 (and, after the first round of grants, additional funding), and the FHSU Open Textbook Grant Program was born. However, we did make some mistakes, especially during the first round of funding, that we would like to share in the hopes that other institutions will not repeat them.


In the spring of 2016, FHSU's OER Committee drafted a call for proposals from faculty. The OER Committee is a Provost's Standing Committee, and it has at least one member from each of FHSU's five colleges as well representatives from the library, Teaching Innovation and Learning Technologies, Faculty Senate, Student Affairs, and, theoretically, Student Government, although there was no student member serving in 2015/16 or 2016/17. Members serve three-year terms.

Before writing the first draft, we looked at CFPs from other universities as well as at statewide OER initiatives and at other grants for writing textbooks and scholarly monographs. We also reached out to librarians working on open textbook grant initiatives at two of our peer institutions. We drafted five versions of the CFP before we had one we were willing to post. It was eight pages long and is still available on our library website []. Some of the debates we had in the process are described next.

How Much Money Is Enough?

During the first round of grants, we only had $10,000 (although we have since received additional funding from the same donors). Other universities with open textbook grant programs were providing faculty members with up to $5,000 to write open textbooks, but of course we wanted to stretch our funding to provide grants to as many faculty members as possible. To keep the grants smaller, we decided that we would only solicit proposals from faculty members who wanted to adapt and/or create supplementary materials for an existing open textbook. Grants of $500–$1,000 would be available for minor revision and supplemental creation projects, and grants of $1,001–$2,000 would be available for major projects. We also decided that we would not fund faculty members who merely wanted to adopt an existing open textbook as it was — they had to create something new to be eligible for grant funding. We need not have worried, since we had several faculty members express interest in writing an entirely new open textbook regardless of the small amount of funding offered, and we ended up funding one of them for $2,000.

Does Revising an Open Textbook "Count" for Promotion and Tenure?

A good portion of the debate was about how to incentivize faculty to work on open textbook projects.2 Many of the faculty members on the OER Committee were skeptical that anyone would want to write or edit an open textbook. Working on a traditionally published textbook, they reasoned, would earn faculty members more money and counted as scholarship for promotion and tenure purposes. We spent a lot of time talking about this issue and ultimately decided simply to ignore it as something the committee had no control over. Faculty members would be willing to work on a project for the amount of funding we had available, or they would not. Individual departments would accept open textbook projects as a form of scholarship, or they would not.

How Do We Ensure the Quality of the End Product?

We also talked extensively about peer review. FHSU does not have a university press, so we did not have the existing connections to experts at other universities necessary to provide external peer review, and we could not guarantee that we would have the necessary expertise to review every possible project internally. Therefore, in the CFP we included a list of OER repositories that provide peer review (MERLOT and the Open Textbook Library are two of the major ones) and strongly recommended that successful applicants submit their finished product to one of them in addition to the FHSU Scholars Repository.

What Support Can We Provide for the Writing Process?

When the OER Committee was brainstorming obstacles that might come up, we thought about the different types of help faculty might need while adapting an open textbook — technical help, graphic design help, organizational help — and debated how we might be able to provide this help. Could we, for instance, direct faculty to the library's Outreach Services Specialist, who had graphic design expertise, for help creating diagrams? We decided to include a section in the application asking faculty to identify types of help they might need for their proposed projects.

As the OER Librarian, I was assigned to oversee and assist with the projects. The grantees did have a requirement to report on the status of their projects halfway through the grant period, but these reports were informal, consisting of an emailed check in on what work had been completed and what work remained to be completed. The grantees asked for minimal help: Collectively, they asked for a list of possible authoring platforms, reference resources on how to structure a textbook, and technical help with using Adobe Acrobat to split a PDF into smaller sections. The grantees from the first round of funding also formed a working group to tackle some of their challenges together. The faculty member who instigated the group said, "As I work[ed] through the process, I thought it would be beneficial to share ideas/insights."

What Level of Detail Should We Ask For?

We held long discussions about the level of detail we should ask for in the proposals. A $500–$2,000 grant is relatively small, and we reasoned that faculty members might not be willing to write a long application. In the end, we asked for some information about the applicant and their course, a 500-word abstract, and a 1,000-word narrative. We did not ask applicants to provide a detailed budget or much detail about any collaborators; for instance, one faculty member said, "I am using the [assistance] of a grad student to co-write and help increase the reliability and validity of what I am producing," but we did not ask for the names or qualifications of the student(s) involved.

Figure 1 shows one of the completed projects now posted in the FHSU Scholars Repository. Note that the project is openly accessible and uses the creator's chosen Creative Commons license.

Figure 1. A screenshot of one of the completed projects in the FHSU Scholars Repository
Figure 1. A screenshot of one of the completed projects in the FHSU Scholars Repository


Even with the amount of debate and number of drafts the OER Committee went through before we sent out the CFP, we encountered some challenges along the way. We addressed some of these challenges during the second round of funding, but some of them still need work.

Issues with the Instructions

When we received the applications, it was clear that, despite the four information sessions we had held and the eight-page instruction document available online, many of the faculty had misunderstood the purpose of the grants and/or had not read the instructions. One faculty member seemed to be under the misimpression that the OER Committee would choose and adapt an open textbook for the course. Another expressed a desire to use an open textbook but had not chosen one to adapt or provided any details about the proposed project. We concluded that possibly the instructions had been too long and that faculty might have been more willing to read them if they were shorter.

We adopted a new application process for the second round of funding: Instead of providing written applications, interested faculty were instructed to schedule a presentation to the OER Committee so that we could ask questions and clear up misconceptions. The presentations provided significantly more clarity but were longer than the committee expected. We might institute a time limit for future presentations or choose not to ask about the applicants' expertise in favor of a written CV. We have also decided to move future applications to a rolling basis after receiving feedback from our instructional designers that some of the faculty they have worked with were interested in applying but did not because of the timing of the CFP.

Unreadable Application Data

We used a Google Form to collect applications. Unfortunately, Google Forms have limited data export options, so we ended up with a spreadsheet full of long paragraphs. It was difficult to read and required significant reformatting to be legible. Now that we are using presentations instead, this is no longer an issue. If we were to move back to written applications at some point, we would choose a different survey tool.

Unanticipated Project Types

Our initial CFP focused narrowly on two specific types of projects: open textbook adaptations and the creation of supplementary materials for open textbooks. Ultimately, only one of the three projects we funded during the first round of applications fell into one of these categories. Several of the faculty members who applied were unsure how to fill out the application, which was intended for the specific project types we anticipated. For the second round of funding, we broadened the CFP to include the authoring of new open textbooks (for an award of up to $3,000) and asked that any faculty member whose proposed project did not fit within the categories defined in the instructions contact the OER Committee directly to ask if their project might be eligible.

Faculty Members Didn't Complete Projects as Proposed

Of the three faculty members whose projects we funded, only one completed the project as proposed in the allotted time frame. Because we had envisioned that all of the projects would be based on revising or adding supplementary materials to existing open textbooks, we assumed that one school year would provide enough time for the grantees to complete their projects. Therefore, awards were made near the end of spring 2016 with projects presumably in use in the classroom by fall 2017. Now that we have expanded the scope of the grants to include the authoring of original open textbooks, we plan to let applicants propose their own deadlines.

However, the one faculty member who completed the proposed project in the allotted timeframe was also the only one who proposed writing an entirely new open textbook. This person was well prepared to use the open textbook in the classroom, planning to "pilot [it] in the summer course, make adjustments based on student feedback, and implement it in the fall [of] 2017."

One faculty member had moved to a new position and still intended to complete the project, but said that it was not high priority. However, due to a previous campus grant program in which many faculty members did not complete their proposed projects, the award letters and project agreements for the Open Textbook Grant Program stated that funds would be dispersed on project completion. "Completion" required that the project meet two standards, stipulated in the award agreements:

  1. It was in use in the classroom.
  2. The faculty member had provided a PDF version of the project to be uploaded to the FHSU Scholars Repository.

The third grantee significantly scaled down the proposed project, but still saved students the same amount of money, so we provided the full award amount agreed on. In the future, we may add a clause to award letters that states the OER Committee reserves the right to reduce awards if faculty members modify their projects in a way that requires less work than initially proposed.


To date, we have had eight applicants, six in the first round and two in the second round, and have funded four projects. Those may seem like small numbers, but we are a small institution. We have approximately 400 total faculty, including adjuncts and faculty teaching on our partner campuses in China. We have also had various OER initiatives in place since 2013, and many faculty are already using OERs and other zero- and low-cost resources. In a survey last spring we identified 109 courses with zero course material cost and 47 with a course material cost of less than $50. So we are fairly happy with our small numbers, and we hope to continue funding a few projects each year. Table 1 pulls together the numbers for both rounds of funding.

Table 1. OER funding, rounds one and two


First Round of Funding

Second Round of Funding

Expressed interest in applying



Expressed intention to apply










For other institutions considering implementing a similar program, we recommend the following steps:

  • Develop a clear plan and a list of reasons for implementing OERs before approaching potential funders. We have been lucky with our donors, but had we not succeeded in seeking outside funding, we would probably do as other campuses have done by charging a small course material fee in classes already using OERs to fund continued implementation of the grant program.
  • Hold information sessions for faculty and leave plenty of time for questions and discussion. Faculty members indicated they found our sessions to be very helpful.
  • Keep the call for proposals broad. The breadth of projects faculty dream up will surprise you.
  • Keep application instructions short and practical. If faculty want more background information, they will ask for it.
  • Have a system for getting clarification on the applications from the faculty if you have questions about their proposals, whether via presentations or in some other way.
  • Include contingency plans in your award letters and agreements in case projects do not go as planned. We also chose to disperse grant funds on completion of the project, in part because of experience with a previous FHSU grant program for which some faculty did not complete projects as promised, but you may choose to award the grants in parts throughout the process or at the beginning following acceptance of a proposal.

Our OER Committee is about to embark on what we might consider the third round of grants, except that now we are moving to a rolling application cycle. We have simplified the instructions, set a time limit for application presentations, and plan to advertise the rolling applications once per semester with information sessions. I asked the previous grantees for any thoughts they might have on the program, and one of them had this to say:

"There are times when you are reading, writing, and designing for online delivery that it can become overwhelming to think about all of the extraneous parts as the instructor for the course. One has to think about accessibility and quality design along the way. When constructing pure content, it really is about looking at the individual trees, and [not] getting lost in exploring the forest."

Further Reading

Ethan Senack, Open Textbooks: The Billion-Dollar Solution (Washington, DC: The Student PIRGs, February 2015).

David Wiley, "On the Sustainability of Open Educational Resource Initiatives in Higher Education" (Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, 2007).


  1. Jade Boyd, "More than 1.5 million students have used OpenStax's free textbooks," September 27, 2016.
  2. David Annand and Tilly Jensen, "Incentivizing the production and use of open educational resources in higher education institutions," International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, Vol. 18, No. 4 (2017): 1–15.

Claire Nickerson is learning initiatives and OER librarian, Fort Hays State University.

© 2017 Claire Nickerson. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.