MSA takes open-source pitch to faculty

The group failed to pass an open-source bill at the state Legislature last year.

Molly Michaletz

After a failed attempt to create a statewide open-source textbook program last year, University of Minnesota student government leaders and faculty members are taking matters into their own hands.

But rather than pushing for a bill at the state Legislature, this year the Minnesota Student Association is focusing its open-source efforts on winning over faculty members one by one.

By creating smaller projects to raise open-source awareness around campus, the group hopes to increase students’ access to free educational resources, said MSA President Joelle Stangler.

“This is more than just a federal issue,” said Ryan Olson, the group’s government relations director. “We need to push it on our campus to our students and faculty.”

The momentum for open-source textbooks has reached the national stage. A federal bill sponsored by U.S. Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., last November would have awarded grants to schools that started programs to deliver free textbooks to students.

That bill failed, as did the one MSA pushed at the state Legislature last year. Minnesota lawmakers instead called for an “open educational resource council” of college faculty members and administrators to look at the issue.

Stangler said MSA plans to take its pitch straight to faculty members this year by creating a task force, which will spread the word about open educational resources by reaching out to faculty members on an individual basis.

The number of visits to the University’s public open textbook library has climbed since it started in 2012, with a big jump in the past six months. But some educators at the University who use open-source textbooks say many of their colleagues are unaware of them.

Students don’t always know about the free resources, either. Almost three-quarters of students surveyed at Florida colleges and universities in 2012 said they had never heard of an open-source textbook.

Dave Ernst, director of academic and information technology for the College of Education and Human Development, has led workshops in Oregon, Indiana and at the University to increase awareness of open-source textbooks and the University’s library for them.

Faculty members need to understand the financial challenges students face when buying textbooks, Ernst said.

Students often forgo buying required textbooks because of their price, said postsecondary teaching and learning associate professor Irene Duranczyk.

The Florida survey found that 54 percent of students surveyed spent more than $300 on textbooks in one semester, while 19 percent spent more than $500.

When it comes to buying textbooks or paying rent for the month, students will often choose rent, Stangler said.

Giving students access to free textbooks levels the playing field, Duranczyk said.

Postsecondary teaching and learning associate professor David Arendale switched from using textbooks in his classes to open-source materials three years ago to save students money. He said he could never imagine switching back.

With open-source materials, professors have more control over the content they’re presenting to their students.

Arendale said students have become more engaged in class discussions since he started using open-source textbooks.

“Students really resonate with real stories tailored to their subject rather than a textbook filled with primary sources,” he said.

Duranczyk said she thinks the kind of collaboration between faculty members and students that MSA hopes for is already starting to happen. Those collaborations will lead to a big change on campus in the future, she said.

“Open-source textbooks are a win-win for both students and faculty,” Duranczyk said.