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Open-book test

CEHD is exploring new ways to deliver high-quality course materials
at lower costs

David Ersnt and students in front of Burton Hall
Which is the open textbook? Both. CEHD grad student José Palma holds an educational psychology textbook in print, while senior blogger Addis Tesfaye holds the same one on an iPad. Dave Ernst, right, initiated the Open Academics textbook catalog.

Each year, college students spend an average of nearly $1,200 on course materials.

Dave Ernst decided to do something about it. As the director for academic and information technology in the College of Education and Human Development, Ernst is always looking for ways to increase access for students, and cutting costs is obviously one of them.

When a national student group called for more use of “open” textbooks, Ernst paid attention. Open textbooks, they said, would save students an average of 80 percent of current costs.

The high cost of textbooks has fueled a growing movement to look for alternatives. Open textbooks are published under an open license, such as Creative Commons, which allows students to get free or low-cost versions of their textbooks either in print or digital format. The cost can range from a significant cut to free.

“There is a growing body of quality open textbooks available,” says Ernst. “Foundations and even state governments are funding their development because they see the potential to significantly cut costs for students.”

But how is quality determined? Would professors really use them for a course?

Ernst talked to colleagues on and off campus, including bookstores and technology groups. He talked not only to students but also to the faculty. Irene Duranczyk, an associate professor in CEHD's Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning, was already looking into open textbooks for her courses.

What are open textbooks?

Open textbooks are published under an open license that allows anyone to freely access texts without having to go through the extra steps required to access traditional copyrighted material.

A common misperception is that open textbooks are available only in digital formats. All textbooks in the Open Academics textbook catalog can be ordered in print at a fraction of the cost of traditional textbooks. That’s because students still prefer print—although once they try e-books, many change their minds.

To be included in the Open Academics catalog, textbooks must be complete, be appropriate for use outside the author’s home institution, and be licensed with an open license such as Creative Commons that allows faculty to reuse and rework content.

“Faculty members share student concerns about high textbook costs,” says Duranczyk. “We are willing to consider high-quality, affordable alternatives like open textbooks.”

Ernst asked CEHD faculty members to help review open textbooks so quality would become clearer, making it easier for others to adopt.

The Open Academics online catalog launched in April with a list of 84 open textbooks currently in use in classrooms across the country. It was the first and only tool of its kind at a major research institution. Within hours of the catalog’s launch, Ernst began to get email and calls. Since then, the catalog has received more than 26,000 visits from 138 countries and territories. Educators around the globe have offered to help.

Ernst began recruiting faculty to start reviewing open textbooks over the summer and to potentially adopt them for upcoming courses. Duranczyk was one of those who signed up immediately to review a text. She is analyzing a statistics book.

“The catalog makes it easier to consider open textbooks,” says Duranczyk. “I'll be able to find peer-reviewed options in one place.”

Meanwhile, Ernst and his staff are also working with the CEHD faculty and University Libraries to cut the cost of course packets—collections of articles and other materials hand-picked by faculty to supplement or use instead of textbooks. They're running two case studies to see just how much money can be saved by digitizing the materials for CEHD courses.

Read more about the Open Academics textbook catalog or contact Dave Ernst. Ernst spoke on the topic of open textbooks in “Knowledge Belongs to Everyone,” a TED talk in Kyoto, Japan, in September.

Open textbooks were featured in This Week@Minnesota September 14. See Ernst and grad staff member Alison Link talk about the project in the final segment of this two-minute video.


CEHD on the digital frontlines: A new, first-of-its-kind e-book offers unique stories about teaching with technology at the University of Minnesota. Of the 50+ stories in it, 11 feature CEHD faculty, staff, and students.

iPads in the boardroom: When the University regents got an update on e-learning and e-textbooks in June, CEHD stepped into the spotlight.


In the photo: CEHD students José Palma and Addis Tesfaye are both engaged in educational innovation. Palma is a third-year student in quantitative measurement in the Department of Educational Psychology, featured recently in student profile, "Measuring persistence." He also collaborates with friends on a non-profit to rehab used computers, load them with educational software, and deliver them to new immigrant families with children. Tesfaye is a senior in human resources development and business and marketing education in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, with a double minor in Spanish and management. She's also a student blogger for CEHD.

Operational excellence: Read more about University of Minnesota initiatives in operational excellence.

Story by Gayla Marty | Fall 2012

This article first appeared in Connect, the magazine of the College of Education and Human Development.
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