It seems to me that an open-source model could work quite well for textbooks, with issues being raised by the users of the book and different forks of the project being created for different preferences, such as early transcendentals in calculus.

A quick search brings up the Open Textbook Initiative, but I have no experience with any of these and in fact had not heard of them before my quick research.

Does anyone here have any experience with open-source books or with an attempt to adopt an open-source book? What are some surprising upsides and downsides to this approach? I'm specifically interested in calculus, statistics, or college algebra, but I imagine the challenges would be shared regardless of the specific book used.


4 Answers 4


While I haven't used an open-source text for a semester-long university class, I have used an open-source calculus text for a summer program with high school students, and I'm currently modifying a number-theory text for a different summer program.

Summary, with extended discussion below:


  1. I can modify the text to suit my needs.
  2. I can modify the text in response to student reactions.
  3. My students don't need to pay excessive amounts of money.


  1. It is less tenable, at least from my position, to work with open-source texts with large courses that have multiple professors, for many reasons.
  2. The general open-source text available is supbar, in my opinion, and needs to be modified.
  3. Actually modifying/writing a textbook is very time-consuming and hard.
  4. (If you care) - it is not currently feasible to use one of the online-homework systems without using the accompanying book.

The great thing about both texts is that I can modify the source to fit the course, which I much prefer to modifying my course to fit the text/jumping around the text. In fact, this is extremely useful. It also allows me to modify and change wording, examples, and problems based on direct feedback from my students.

I must admit that I am also very happy to not force students to buy these texts, given that the information itself is readily available online.

Given the option, I would choose to use an open-source text for essentially any lower-level class (precalc, calc, linear algebra, statistics, etc.). I don't know about upper-level classes, for which there often exist great books that are extremely well-written and which don't change from year to year.

On the other hand, I don't usually have that option, at least not from my current position. And many professors I know don't have that option either. The university expects consistency, and lower-level classes are those often taught by multiple people at a time. For all of us to use a modified version of an open-source text requires all of us to agree on modifications/the text. At the very least, university policy and bureaucracy make this much harder. (I suppose it would just take the person in charge, if there is a person in charge, to make a solid decision and to commit - but this has not been my experience).

Further, in my experience, I find that most open-source textbooks need some revision for one reason or another. This limits them to the ones whose source is actually available, rather than those that are just free and which get lumped in. And the problem here is that authors get to make up their own notations/TeX conventions, which can make it very unpleasant to actually modify their text.

For that matter, writing a text at all is time-consuming and hard. It's hard to write clearly, it's hard to make pretty pictures (really hard). It really is much easier to just use some generic calculus text (the big ones are all the same, and all such classes are isomorphic) than to find, modify, and use an open-source one. Or rather, it's hard to first go out, find, modify, and use an open-source one. Having done it once, it's now very easy.

Perhaps soon a good variety of good open-source texts will become available, which will make the transition cost lower and make it more likely that a university might accept it.

I talked to the teaching head of my department (so we actually do have a guy in charge), and he's of the opinion that the future isn't in open-source, but in online homework (like webassign, or other forms). We don't actually use that at my university, but it was used at my undergrad, and I know that many other schools use online homework.

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    $\begingroup$ you are correct, the lack of web-based homework is currently a short-coming. However, this could easily be countered by an open source problem bank. I would wager there are already efforts underway. In some sense, it's even easier since the effort required to write a quality question will be far less substantial than a quality text where continuity of narrative is a serious problem for a multitude of authors... $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ One open question bank is WeBWorK at webwork.maa.org . $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ What calc text did you use? $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesS.Cook, MSE is a mother lode of problems... and open source (Creative Commons). $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ @vonbrand you know, this is an excellent point. I already use the MSE to round out my problem selections for some courses. However, we really need something that is more user friendly for creation of course-specific problem sets. $\endgroup$ Commented May 8, 2014 at 15:57

This semester I adopted Linear Algebra by Jim Hefferon for the junior-level linear algebra course. I didn't have any particular difficulty adopting it, the bookstore was able to arrange printing through some print shop and it was fairly easy given the free availability of the text. I'm not sure how many students actually purchased a copy. Once nice thing about this particular text is there is an solution manual for nearly all the exercises which is also freely available as a pdf. It has all the problems ordinary textbooks have: it doesn't fit my idiosyncrasies and it doesn't have all the content I want. On the other hand, I have little room to complain because:

  1. it is free
  2. the raw $\LaTeX$ source is available (but, I am unable to compile it, however, those with more adept computer skills have managed)

I actually follow my course notes fairly closely and at 350 pages they're more or less a book without exercises.

  • $\begingroup$ Ever considered open sourcing your course notes? $\endgroup$
    – msouth
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 5:18
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    $\begingroup$ @msouth in due time... still have a lot of errors to chase down and I'm not quite done with them. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 5:38
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesSCook, open source means you let others help chasing bugs and adjust to idiosyncrasies $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the mention. I'll remark, pertaining to the OP's question, that while I get many bug reports (for which I am grateful), I have been surprised that with the exception of a stand-alone document from Harold Ellingsen (for which I am also grateful) I have not had any contributions of longer than, say, a single exercise. So I have not seen much of an Open Source software effect of people offering substantial additions. I wonder if the community may want to consider some culture shifts. (Of course, most software projects do not see substantial contributions, either.) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2014 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ @JimHefferon for me the software problem kept me from seriously considering adding a section etc... it is just my problem... that said, more generally, the problem is that while I love to write notes a certain times, there is little pressure on me to do such. Perhaps that is a quirk of my situation, but, in large part it's just easier to use some standard canned text where so many resources like solution manuals and homework systems are already set-up. That said, as time permits I plan to do what I can towards open source and I very much appreciate the effort you put into the text. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 2:10

My colleagues are very active in this area. They have an IBL calculus and communication in mathematics (proof writing) texts. Another colleague is writing an open-source intermediate algebra text this semester on her sabbatical. These are classroom tested here as well as in other schools, and support more active learning than many commercial textbooks.

Some resources to investigate:

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    $\begingroup$ I am using the Sunderstrom textbook or my intro-to-proof class this term, and I love it. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 21:17

FWIW, I have created a website of public domain instructional materials in Mathematics and Language Arts. I began writing these materials long before the web came into existence. I sent a copy of everything to the National Science Foundation. They eventually sent me a kudos letter for my work. You can find my website, where a copy of the the NSF kudos letter is also located, by googling for "public domain materials" and my name: "Mike Jones". (or, use the address www.public-domain-materials.com)


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