Do Instructors Search for Open Educational Resources at the Last Possible Moment?

Here’s the pattern for searches for “open textbook” searches on Google.

I just ran this out or curiosity a couple minutes ago. You’ll notice immediately that there is a cyclical pattern.

Click source up under the image to go and explore the graphic yourself, but the pattern is pretty easy to sum up. The high peaks are all August/September and January, months in which both the semester system and the quarter system launch courses. The slightly lower peaks are April, when the quarter system launches courses but the semester system does not.

This is interesting, because this is *not* the cycle you would expect if faculty were searching for open textbooks during a textbook selection process. In both the semester and quarter systems you’re generally locking in a textbook not at the beginning of a class, but during the previous registration period. For example, at WSU we lock in textbooks in Feb/Mar for the fall semester and November for the spring semester, and we do that, more or less, because it is both federal and state law that we have textbooks set at registration time.

It’s foolish to speculate too much on Google Trends data, especially on low frequency terms, but I just can’t help but imagine that this is an instructor looking for something in the couple weeks before a class.

The picture gets even weirder if you map out “open educational resources”. From my experience with faculty in my instructional design role, I’d expect to see a pattern where open resources are pulled during the first few weeks of the semester as the final holes in later weeks of the course are plugged. And we do see that — but what is surprising is the obviousness of the pattern:

It’s almost too perfect. The red line of OER here looks like the blue line has been shifted slightly to the right. When the course starts, we’re looking for open textbooks, but a few weeks into the course we’re desperate for OER.

Again, I can’t stress enough the dangers of reading narratives into trends like these. This is idle speculation at best.

But it sure is curious, right? And if true, there are some implications, I think, about how these materials might be designed…

7 thoughts on “Do Instructors Search for Open Educational Resources at the Last Possible Moment?

    • Thanks Steve. Are you hounded mercilessly by your bookstore and administration to do so though? If I don’t get my textbooks in by registration they send out a hunting party.

  1. Or, students trying to find a way to avoid buying expensive textbooks selected by their profs. There are more students than instructors, so I’d guess that’s where much of the search volume comes from.

    • I thought about that, but wondered — wouldn’t most students go to,, etc, and get the actual textbook? But you’re right, it’s a question for investigation. And if it’s true that more students are searching for open textbooks than professors that’s even more interesting. I wonder if we can get one of these bigger surveys about open textbooks to ask timeline questions?

  2. This timeline is super interesting to me for two reasons, and I’d love to know other people’s thoughts. I think this is connected to how many adjuncts are hired at the last minute and how many choose to work at the last minute because they aren’t getting paid for prep time. A lot times it’s too late to purchase a textbook so you have to scramble to find something. Or more often than not, a textbook has already been ordered for you and OER helps you make that transition to learn a book that you have teach with at the last minute.

    Sure dnorman, some may be students hunting for textbooks, but I doubt most of them know about OER. First-year, first-generation students look for the textbook that’s assigned. Some may be faculty waiting until the last minute, but like your comment above, the bookstores hound you mercilessly to make their deadlines for ordering. If you’re an adjunct, not making this deadline can hurt your reappointment status.

    I don’t know. I think there’s a connection to the exploitation of adjunct labor here but then again, that’s my hammer on every nail with what’s wrong with higher education.

  3. I have thought about this connection a lot, actually. I’m not a typical adjunct at all, but I am in the sense that more than a couple times I’ve taught a class because three weeks before it someone has come to me saying — hey, could you help us out? When that happened (for example, with stats) I binged on every textbook I could find to figure out how the heck I was going to structure my course.

    Heck, who knows, this bump could be all us instructional designers searching for help when faculty come to us on week one and say “I am supposed to teach online and I have no idea what I’m doing.” I almost believe that could be a piece of it, given how much that is a normal piece of my August and January.

    I wouldn’t discount Darcy’s insight, though — if you imagine a 20-to-1 student ratio, it only takes one student in 20 searching for OER to balance out faculty. So it’s worth taking that hypothetical seriously and figuring out what that would mean. There’s an untapped area of research here around informal student use of OER.

    • That informal use of OER data would be really telling. When I worked with students about OER awareness and sharing ideas with their peers, it was always hard to have a long-term strategy because they transferred away or graduated. I was always starting over again with a new batch of students. My initial discount of that point was just me thinking about Dev Ed students. They don’t have the cultural capital to find the paper bulletin board of student-to-student book sales much less searching for OER online.

      Hey Greenlaw, I’m thinking I’ve got a case study idea for a future enhancement of an econ course I’m getting to know quite well:) Thanks, Mike.

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