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Free online college textbooks receive statewide attention in ND

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – Lake Region State College of Devils Lake is pushing forward with providing free online textbooks to students.

Michelle Murphy, an assistant professor of biology and other pre-nursing science courses at the college, recently wrote and implemented her own general biology textbook.

“It was getting to be overwhelming for me to have to change all these books and it was getting overwhelming for the student to have to pay for all these books, so it just seemed like the right time to start writing my own,” she said.

Murphy teaches all of her classes online and in 2014 began testing sections of her book on her students and then editing it based on the feedback she received. After about six months, the project culminated in a 132-page online textbook her students can access online or print for free.

“I really like to develop things that help students meet their individual learning abilities,” she said.

Tanya Spilovoy, the director of distance education and state authorization for the North Dakota University System, has been spearheading the push for open textbook usage, sometimes called open educational resources.

The State Board of Higher Education has even requested funding for the project, as traditional textbooks can run NDUS students an average of $1,100 annually, according to 2014 legislative committee documents.

Spilovoy said while her work is far from over, she’s happy to see it begin to pay off.

“This is why I went into education, to see things get better,” Spilovoy said. “It’s kind of surreal to see it all actually happening.”

Free resources

The open educational resources network works through a partnership with the University of Minnesota online library where students can access vetted textbook materials for free.

Murphy’s book doesn’t yet meet the requirements to be included in that library, but she’s working toward meeting them and plans to write more books once she does.

“(Students) really are starting to expect open educational resources and it’s not so much positive feedback when they get them as negative feedback when they have to pay for something they could get online for free,” she said. “There really has been a shift.”

Others at the Devils Lake college are also providing their students with free material.

Professor Teresa Tande implemented open textbooks in one section of her “University Life” class in the fall.

“Now I’m interested in working with Tanya and the others to help other people realize, ‘You might not think you can do this, but you really can and it’s really a benefit to students when you do,’ ” Murphy said.

Statewide efforts

In October, the state higher education board included increasing the use of open textbooks in its five-year strategic plan, following in the footsteps of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Washington state college system and the California State University system, all of which have created online libraries of free course materials in recent years.

The board’s approved budget request that is being reviewed by the Legislature allots $500,000 for open textbook usage. That budget still has to be approved, but Spilovoy’s plan is to spend money on training and allow each college or university to come up with its own implementation plan.

“Any resources that are available are always welcome,” Murphy said. “For me, it was kind of a personal, ‘I want to see if I can do this’ thing,’ so I didn’t make a big deal out of doing it.”

Murphy didn’t receive any extra compensation for writing her textbook, but House Bill 2161 is on the table this session, which would create a grant-funded incentive program for educators taking advantage of open educational resources.

Spilovoy said North Dakota is setting a precedent for the rest of the nation, as many other online programs are funded through limited grants.

“Right now there’s so much support throughout North Dakota that this actually could be something that would make a long-term positive effect for students,” Spilovoy said.

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.