University looks to remove barriers to open textbooks

Seven in 10 college students say they don't buy required textbooks because they cost too much.

Low-cost, open-content textbooks are universally popular on college campuses, but two burning questions have stunted the open textbook movement: Where can faculty and students find these resources, and how can they be sure the books are of the highest quality?

The University of Minnesota (UMN) set out to answer both questions with its April 23 introduction of the campus’s Open Academics textbook catalog, an online repository of textbooks with an open license that lets students read the books for free online, or order a printed version for a fraction of the usual textbook cost.

UMN’s open textbook library, with 90 books in stock, will first provide textbooks for the school’s largest introductory classes, with plans to expand to smaller courses in coming years.

Open textbook skeptics—including many from large textbook companies—have questioned the legitimacy of open books in recent years, pointing out that faculty and students often can’t find out if the text has been reviewed by professors or other experts in various academic fields.

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UMN officials who assembled the Open Academics textbook catalog followed the example of the University of Massachusetts Amherst by offering $500 to any faculty member who would review or adopt an open book.

UMN will ask professors from all campus departments to contribute to the review and adoption efforts and might partner with foundations to bring more experts into the textbook review process, said Dave Ernst, a university faculty member who headed the creation of the open-content catalog.

“What we needed was a way to let people know that these are quality books that they can depend on,” Ernst said. In some open textbook programs, “there’s no way of knowing that.”

UMass Amherst’s Open Education Initiative last year awarded ten $1,000 grants to eight faculty members who developed low-cost technological alternatives to commercial textbooks that can cost upwards of $300 apiece. The school’s $10,000 grant program saved students more than $70,000 in 2011, according to a UMass Amherst announcement.

Irene Duranczyk, associate professor at UMN’s College of Education and Human Development, said the careful reviewing of open textbook options would ensure the university’s repository was home to “the best peer-reviewed open textbooks in one place.”

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