Why Minnesota’s use of open textbooks may increase

Free for the taking (UMN)

Student representatives for the state's colleges and universities have been pushing for cheaper alternatives to textbooks, and they're hoping they'll gain some ground now that they have backing from the state Legislature.

The recently passed higher education bill orders the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system to find a way to use free and low-cost teaching materials to lower students' overall college expenses by one percent.

Those materials, known as "open educational resources," are essentially electronic versions of textbooks, study guides, academic journals, and even lectures.

The aim is to give students relief from rising higher-ed costs, especially those tied to textbooks. It's an area that has generated a lot of discussion in the last few years -- but little concrete relief.

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"I suspect (MnSCU) has been stagnant ... and I think that's why students brought it to our attention," said Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. "I hope this will be a catalyst for improvement."

The digital versions of open textbooks are often free. Students just pay for printing if they want a hard copy -- usually at a cost of $40 or less, according to a University of Minnesota website on the subject. Most open publishers allow professors to customize the books by adding, deleting or changing material to fit their class needs. They tend to be aimed at introductory classes, because such classes involve large numbers of students and tend to cover the same general material regardless of institution.

Advocates see them as a solution to skyrocketing textbook prices. Nationally, the average student at a four-year public college pays about $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies, according to the College Board, an association representing about 6,000 colleges, universities and other educational institutions.

"It’s the one thing that we hear consistently from students that they’re just furious about," said Jonathan Bohn, director of government relations at Minnesota State University Student Association, the group representing students at four-year MnSCU campuses. "Why am I paying $200 for an accounting book that hasn’t changed in 20 years?"

MnSCU campuses have taken steps toward helping lower costs. So far, those efforts have seen mixed success:

  • Early notification. A few years ago, legislation required campuses to tell students weeks before the beginning of each semester just what books they would need for each class. If students had more time to shop around online for books, the theory goes, they could find much better deals that what's on offer at the campus bookstore. Most campuses appear to be complying, Bohn said. Although shopping around has helped, he said it hasn't proven to be a solution for everyone.

  • Textbook rentals. Students can rent textbooks for much less than it costs to buy. But surveys for two-year and four-year students a couple of years ago showed a low usage rate. Bohn said some students like to pay that lower cost and be done with it. But others need the textbook for multiple classes, and may not save much money -- if any -- if they rent it for more than one semester. He said others can save more money if they buy new and then sell at the end of the semester -- but only if faculty are using that text in the next semester.

  • Textbook reserves. Minnesota State University - Mankato keeps multiple copies of some widely used textbooks in its library. French professor Evan Bibbee says students there can check out a copy for a few hours when they need one. But Bohn said not all campuses have the resources to do that. And because students have to go check out a copy, they often don't have a copy at their fingertips when they need one.

  • Ebooks. Ebooks suffer from similar issues as rentals, Bohn said. Students "rent" access to the material for a semester at a reduced cost, but must continue to pay for more semesters if they need it again. They were still an uncommon sight at two-year colleges a couple of years ago, and saw sporadic use at four-year campuses, according to the student surveys.

In contrast, open texts appear to be the one solution that MnSCU could use at all campuses -- and "the only option that provides long-term savings to students," Bohn said.

Professor Bibbee is one advocate. Last fall, he rebelled against the cost of the commercial textbook -- which he says cost more than $200 -- that he his graduate assistants were using in his lower-level French classes. He started using a free text along with an integrated collection of free online videos, exercises and vocabulary lists.

The text wasn't technically "open" material, because it didn't allow modifications. But students could get a copy of a full-color PDF of the text for free, or order a soft-cover, black-and-white hard copy for about $30. Bibbee said about a quarter of his students ordered the printed text.

"It has gone pretty well," Bibbee said. "The students and the instructors seem to be happy with the material. On the whole, they don't see a lot of difference between this textbook and other ones they've taught with in the case of instructors, or ones that (students) had in high school. So in terms of quality, there hasn't been any major stumbling block."

One of his students, senior Christina Timm of Maple Grove, said she and her classmates found the text and associated website fairly easy to use, and that the savings were "a really big hit" with her group. She said she also liked finding out quickly how well she'd done each time she finished an online exercise.

"With all of the exercises and practice tests," she said,"the results are immediate -- which is how most students like it, because we like to have our results right away."

It's unclear just how many professors already use such texts in Minnesota. That's something that MnSCU hopes to find out as part of its big push, said Todd Digby, MnSCU's director of academic technology). Although he helps out on textbook issues, Digby said MnSCU has no one who's solely focused on them.

Tracking open texts could prove challenging, however. Faculty generally consider choice of textbooks to be a matter of academic freedom. They decide individually what books they want to use in class, and don't notify the central MnSCU office when they choose an open text.

Based on anecdotal information, open texts appear to be fairly uncommon. A handful of Minnesota professors and open-text publishers have been able to name only a dozen or so faculty who have used them in the past few years.

Free for the taking (UMN)

"What we came to realize was that there are barriers to faculty adopting them," said David Ernst, CIO of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. "And those barriers were: They didn't know where to find them. And if they did find them, they didn't know whether they were any good. And that's important. (Quality) is the No. 1 priority when they choose a textbook -- that it's serving the needs of their students, that it's accurate, timely, all of those things."

That's why Ernst founded a listing of open texts last year that has drawn the attention of both open advocates here in Minnesota and faculty in other countries.

To make his Open Academics textbook catalog, materials must be complete books, licensed so that professors can modify them, printable and used by others outside the author's campus. So far the catalog contains more than 130 titles, all of which he says are free.

And that number could grow soon. Open supporters are watching state plans in both California and British Columbia to produce several dozen free open textbooks for students.

Ernst's catalog is a small pilot project, but its track record seems promising. The collegepaid nine of its faculty members a few hundred dollars each to review books last summer, and said seven of those have adopted the books they reviewed. And four of their colleagues, he said, have adopted an open textbook.

So far professors from outside the U of M  have posted a couple of short reviews of books, Ernst said. The site attracts about 1,000 visits a week, and those have come from more than 160 countries. He's looking to expand awareness of the catalog and the possibilities for open textbooks, and may seek further funding for that.

MnSCU's Digby says he'd like to work with the U of M and see if its catalog is something his system could use. He said he didn't think MnSCU was "stagnating" or behind other educational institutions, and that the use of open textbooks is still in its infancy around the U.S., including at the U.

He says "it's totally possible" for MnSCU to find a way to shave off one percent of students' costs. Bohn said merely substituting one open textbook for a commercial textbook could save that much.

Ultimately, Digby said, MnSCU can merely provide information and guidance to professors.

"It really comes down to faculty," he said."They control what happens in the classrooms."

Meanwhile, Bohn says a MnSCU-affiliated panel will also look into how campuses can work together to get better deals in textbook purchasing and save money by ordering and distributing texts more efficiently.