Open textbooks: Educational equity and innovation

This panel presentation is a re-recording of our presentation live at the Council on Social Work Education’s Annual Program Meeting in November of 2021. Panelists include Matt DeCarlo, Whitney Payne, Rebecca Mauldin, and Susan Tyler.



Open textbooks are free, editable, and shareable alternatives to commercial textbooks. Our four panelists will detail their experiences creating and publishing open textbooks for social work, implementing them in their courses, and assessing their impact on student learning and teaching practices.


Open textbooks are unique. They are free to access, and they enable anyone to read, edit, and share educational content across the internet. Informed by faculty passion for their subject area as well as concern for social equity, open textbooks represent unique contributions to the community of social work education.

Open textbooks are, in part, a response to the broken textbook market. The price of textbooks has skyrocketed over 800% percent over the past forty years, outpacing the inflation of tuition, housing, and healthcare (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016; Kight, 2018). It is unsurprising that after tuition, course materials are the greatest source of stress for students (National Association of College Stores, 2019). A study of Virginia social work students found that because of high textbook costs, over half of students delayed purchasing textbooks, sought out additional work, or took on more student loans (DeCarlo & Vandergrift, 2019). A quarter of students in the multi-site sample engaged in piracy, skipped meals, and did not visit family over academic breaks because of textbook costs. The inequitable impacts of textbook costs such as earning lower grades, dropping and withdrawing from classes, and leaving school affect historically underserved groups like non-White, Pell-eligible, and part-time students the most (Colvard et al., 2017).

Adopting and creating open textbooks is a way for social work faculty to provide access to all of the materials needed for student success on the first day of class, regardless of ability to pay. Moreover, the open licenses attached to these books are a persistent invitation for collaboration across academia. This panel presentation will discuss the open textbook projects of four authors, how they built from existing materials, and what impacts it had on their classroom and educational practice. In particular, the presentation will focus on the spirit of OER–meeting students where they are by making the textbook more affordable and engaging to read. Insights from this presentation should be useful to any faculty member seeking to make their course more accessible and authentic.


This panel will define open educational resources (OER), describe their use in social work education, and review OER outcomes in a variety of settings. It will present the experiences of four social work faculty who created and adopted OER, with an emphasis on practical guidance for others wishing to develop or use OER in their classroom. Panelists will discuss the importance of institutional support for OER, challenges incorporating open textbooks into tenure and promotion guidelines as well as ensuring they would teach the course again in the future, and lessons learned. We will also discuss student experiences and evaluations of the OER, which include academic and personal benefits. For example, students found the open textbooks to be “more human” and “like a real person wrote them”(DeCarlo et al., 2019a) and reported using them more than commercial textbooks in other courses (DeCarlo et al., 2020). Students also reported that open textbooks alleviated the stress and workload associated with mitigating textbook costs and appreciated faculty eliminating this barrier to academic success.


Open textbooks are an immense time commitment, but represent a revolutionary new approach to course preparation. Not only do open textbook authors produce free materials customized to their course objectives, they publish and invite other scholars to use and build on their scholarship as a community of practice. These contributions would benefit from greater assistance and credibility from national and state social work organizations.

Video recording

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