North Dakota College Pushes for Free Online Textbooks

free online textbooksAll prospective college students have been spooked by horror stories about the rising costs of textbooks – legends about that one student who spent over a thousand dollars on books in a single semester, and only got five cents back when he went to resell them.

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but the sentiment still stands: book costs are one of the biggest financial deterrents to college students, and they’re only getting more expensive.

Luckily, there have been a number of alternatives popping up that help students save, but even if you rent textbooks or buy them used, the costs still add up. If only there was a way to get them for free…

That’s the train of thought that Michelle Murphy, an assistant professor of biology at Lake Region State College of Devils Lake in North Dakota, had when she wrote her own textbook and allowed her students to download it for free. She tried this out for the first time in 2014 when she was teaching online college courses, and has since been using student feedback to tweak and improve the material. The result: learning materials that meet the specific needs of her course and her students, and a smaller bill for those who want to take her course.

Since then, the movement toward free online learning materials at the college has spread. Tanya Spilovoy, the director of distance education and state authorization for the North Dakota University System, has been pushing for open textbook usage recently. It’s really taken off: recognizing that students spend, on average, $1,100 per year on textbooks, the State Board of Higher Education requested funding for this open educational resource project last year. According to Spilovoy, this is a momentous beginning to the project.

How it Works
The open educational resources network has partnered with the online library of the University of Minnesota to provide access to approved textbooks for free. Professors like Murphy are beginning to author materials specifically designed to meet the library’s guidelines. So many professors at Devils Lake college have caught on that students give “negative feedback when they have to pay for something they could get online for free,” according to Murphy.

State Support
This past October, the higher education board in North Dakota has incorporated open textbooks in its five-year plan. Other colleges, like the Washington state college system, have already done the same.

A $500,000 approved budget request is currently being reviewed by the Legislature, and if it goes through, it’ll be put towards training professors and implementing the plan at colleges statewide. House Bill 2161 is also on the table, which would provide financial incentive for educators to contribute to the free resources.

According to Spilovoy, North Dakota is leading the rest of the nation’s education systems by example, and this would create a long-term positive influence on students.