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Free online textbook use grows at state universities


More than a year after the state Legislature put $110,000 into the North Dakota University System to fund a free textbook initiative, the first schools to see those funds are hoping to save students a lot of money.

Based on calculations using the full cost of textbooks, UND is going to save students about $1.2 million in textbook costs next school year. Valley City State University already is cutting up to $82,000 in costs, with the aim to eliminate between $30,000 and $50,000 in textbook expenses next school year.

“The game-changer in this project was the funding that allowed me to move forward with faculty development and workshops to help them understand the resources,” said Tanya Spilovoy, the NDUS director of distance education and state authorization.

Open educational resources and open textbooks are free, vetted online materials universities nationwide have been moving toward using.

First-time, full-time undergraduate students at four-year public institutions spent an average of $1,143 on textbooks and supplies nationwide during the 2012-13 school year according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

VCSU, UND and Mayville State University were the first to receive pieces of the state appropriation for OER implementation. VCSU and Mayville State each got $10,000 and UND received $20,000 for two separate grant proposals.

Kelly Kornkven, the Mayville State director of library services, said a total of four courses will use OERs this fall but didn’t provide a financial impact because students also can rent books or purchase used ones.

The plan is to have 10 OER courses in the 2016-17 school year, Kornkven said.

Schools will have a second chance to apply this month for the $47,280 that’s left of the state allocation, as some was spent holding seminars and conferences for all NDUS faculty.

Spilovoy said the OER Steering Committee, made up of a those in higher education and the Legislature, is looking for high-impact proposals.
“It’s gonna make a huge impact over time so it's kind of exciting,” she said.


Julee Russell had no idea the idea of using free online material to teach college courses would catch on so quickly.
The VCSU English professor attended a conference in 2015 and when she heard about a breakout session on open educational resources, also known as open textbooks, she didn’t know what it was.

“So, I spent four hours being very confused and I came back thinking ‘We could do this. This is something that has a lot of potential,’ but I didn't know how to get going on it,” Russell said.

Russell began implementing OERs in her business writing class in early 2015 and the $10,000 in grant money went toward assisting and training 10 other VCSU faculty in how to find and use them. VCSU matched that contribution with $12,000 internal dollars.

Some VCSU faculty are implementing OERs on their own without grant help, increasing the number of student impacted to about 600, which is about 42 percent of its total enrollment according to its website.

It’s now possible to complete all general education courses using solely free textbooks, Russell said.

“What the faculty are finding is it takes work up front to find resources and rearrange them how you want it to be, but it also encourages faculty members to seek out resources and rejuvenate their courses,” she said.


These initiatives have been ongoing for some time at other universities. For instance, two Lake Region State College professors who switched to OERs in the last two years were profiled by the Herald. Spilovoy also has hosted several OER seminars at universities across the state.

Textbook and supplies costs have increased from $800 in 2008-09 to $1,000 in 2014-15 at UND, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

The $1.2 million UND students could save on textbook costs are due to their use in classes with high enrollments and expensive textbooks, said Stephanie Walker, UND director of libraries and information resources.

Professor Dana Harsell is one of four UND instructors receiving grant money to implement OERs in his state and local government course. Now a part of UND’s OER working group, he was initially skeptical of the idea.

"If there is resistance to open educational resources, it’s the notion of balancing academic freedom because nobody wants to be told what textbooks they have to adopt,” Harsell said.

One $10,000 grant UND received was matched with $12,000 in internal funds from the College of Arts and Sciences and Office of Extended Learning.

The other $10,000 OER grant UND received will go toward creating an open access version of  Elwyn Robinson’s “The History of North Dakota,” which Walker said once finished could save students the cost of the book in UND’s North Dakota history course. That grant was matched with private donations.

A digital initiatives librarian also will start work at the Chester Fritz Library in July who Walker hopes will help create an institutional repository, making it easier to access and share vetted digital content at UND.

Walker said a handful of other professors at UND are using or publishing OERs on their own including professors in biology, law and aviation.

“It’s kind of excited to be able to do something like this,” she said.

Open educational resources savings at UND, 2016-17

Introduction to Sociology, 480 students

  • List price of current book: $170.25
  • Total savings: $81,600

Introduction to Psychology, 850 students

  • List price of current textbook: $148
  • Total savings: $125,375

Introduction to State and Local Government, 80 students

  • List price of current textbook: $160
  • Total savings: $12,800

Aviation Meteorology, 160 students

  • List price of current textbook: $160
  • Total savings: $25,600

Calculus 1, 2 and 3 (four sections total)

  • Estimated enrollment excluding Calculus 3: 2,867 students
  • List price of current textbook: $314
  • Total savings: About $900,000

*Savings are calculated based on enrollment in Calculus 1 and an estimated proportion of Calculus 2 students who would not likely already have the book. Calculus 3 was excluded as students would have purchased a book by then.

All savings calculated using full list price of textbooks but other cheaper alternatives are available such as textbook rental.  

Source: UND Dean of Libraries and Information Resources Stephanie Walker

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.