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The Definitive Guide to OpenStax

A leader in the Open Educational Resource (OER) movement, OpenStax provides free textbooks to millions of students worldwide. Here’s how OpenStax works, who can use it and what its future holds.

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What is OpenStax?

OpenStax publishes free peer-reviewed, open-licensed college and high school textbooks covering subjects like math, science, social sciences, humanities and business.

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to “improve educational access and learning for everyone,” the Rice University initiative is supported by donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation.

How OpenStax works

All OpenStax textbooks are free in PDF and HTML formats, with Kindle, iBook and print versions available at low costs. Many offer interactive features like highlights, notes and the ability to create study guides.

Faculty-only resources like test banks often accompany the books, and instructors can remix and adapt the content for their courses.

“Everything in OpenStax is an Open Educational Resource under Creative Commons license,” says Mark Schneegurt, Ph.D., a professor at Wichita State University and Lead Writer for OpenStax Microbiology. “Use anything in any OpenStax textbook, text or image, with modification, even commercial uses, as long as you include attribution to the source.”

Written by highly-qualified faculty authors and academic editors – just like for-profit textbooks – each book undergoes a thorough planning and publishing process to ensure it meets benchmarks for subject coverage and course outcomes.

Contributors keep books current with regular online updates, and OpenStax publishes revised PDF and print editions for most books each June.

“The OpenStax textbooks are as good or better than competing textbooks from traditional publishers,” says Schneegurt. “OpenStax has strong partners, a strong team of authors and artists, and great editors.”

More than free books

In addition to textbooks, OpenStax offers courseware called Tutor – an online learning platform that features digital reading, assessments and Learning Management System (LMS) integration. It costs $10 per student with free options for partner schools and high schools.

“OpenStax pays special attention to accessibility as well, offering many digital products,” says Schneegurt.

Schools and instructors can also use Tech Scout, a free tool to find adaptive courseware, online homework platforms, content customization tools and other class technology resources. Users can read and submit reviews plus filter resources by book, educational level and cost.

Who uses OpenStax?

Anyone can use OpenStax textbooks, including:

  • Colleges, high schools, instructors and their students
  • Businesses
  • Self-learners

Tutor is designed for institutional use by both instructors and students, and anyone can use Tech Scout (though it’s primarily intended for schools and instructors).

OpenStax history and growth

OpenStax was founded in 1999 by Rice University engineering professor Richard Baraniuk as an OER sharing repository called “Connexions.” Its first textbook (College Physics) was published in 2012, and Tutor launched in 2017.

Today, OpenStax publishes 42 books that have been used by more than 14 million students in 120 countries. In the United States, 60% of higher education institutions and 4,000 K-12 schools use its textbooks. Demand more than doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nonprofit estimates it has saved students $1.2 billion since 2012, and its 16.5% market share in introductory-level college courses has disrupted the market and driven prices down for traditional textbooks.

The future

More than free books, OpenStax has established a learning ecosystem comprised of more than 50 technology partners committed to innovation in education.

Removing financial barriers to education and reducing student debt are ongoing objectives, but OpenStax has also launched initiatives to study and improve how students learn. Project Equip, for example, identifies ways to reduce achievement gaps and help more students succeed in college.

In 2020, OpenStax received $12.5 million in grants to expand its library to 90 textbooks, more than twice its current offering.


Obstacles to widespread adoption include faculty awareness, copyright concerns and resistance to change.

A 2020 Bay View Analytics survey found that 69% of faculty remain “unaware” or “somewhat aware” of OER materials. In addition, instructors unfamiliar with Creative Common licensing might have unwarranted concerns about copyright infringement.

Though many instructors are sympathetic to student budgets and recognize that OER materials prepare students just as well as traditional books, some have reservations over the time and effort it takes to remix content for their classes. Others have strong attachments to the course materials they’ve used for years.

Awareness increases adoption

Despite those challenges, the evidence suggests OpenStax has a bright future. Major foundations continue to fund the initiative, and awareness efforts have increased the percentage of faculty who report being “very aware” or “aware” of OER materials from just 17% in 2014-15 to 31% in 2018-2019.

Awareness leads to adoption, as faculty who are aware of an OER initiative are three times more likely to use OER materials in their classrooms.

“I had written for major publishers for over a decade. When I became interested in writing an allied health microbiology textbook, I found OpenStax to be a good partner,” says Schneegurt. “Textbooks can add substantially to the cost of a college course. Free textbooks through OpenStax save students money. I wanted to be part of making that happen.”

Perhaps most telling is the fact that OpenStax saw a 217% surge in the use of its materials during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools switched to remote learning on digital platforms. That underscores how OpenStax’s commitment to technological innovations position it for a prominent role in the future of education.