Open content discussion starts in Legislature

A bill would back open source educational materials.

by Cody Nelson


Widespread use of free online textbooks may soon become a reality for Minnesota students.

A bill calling for an “open educational resource council,” made up of faculty from various public and private colleges around the state, was introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives in February and will be heard by the Senate’s Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee on Thursday.

The legislation marks the beginning of state-backed efforts to implement open source educational materials, which include textbooks and journals that are digital and editable. The bill would establish a council where faculty members could give input on how materials would be chosen, reviewed and implemented in the classroom.

State-supported open textbook initiatives are already underway in several states including California and Texas.

One of the legislation’s main goals is to educate faculty about open source educational materials, said John Bohn, who helped prepare the bill as a member of the Minnesota State University Student Association.

“What we’ve heard from faculty is that they want to help save students money, they want to do everything they can,” he said. “But they don’t have the time to go sift through all these different resources that are out there.”

To address the faculty members’ concerns with open source materials, the bill calls for a partnership with the University of Minnesota’s open textbook catalog — which was developed by the College of Education and Human Development.

Dave Ernst, information technology director for CEHD, helped create the University’s catalog.

The two main problems faculty members have with open source textbooks are difficulty finding materials and quality issues, Ernst said. The University’s catalog was created with these problems in mind, he said.

“Faculty had one place to go, and they could judge the quality because they could read what their peers think about the book,” Ernst said.

The University’s open catalog has already received widespread use.

“The catalog is a national and even international resource,” Ernst said.

The catalog has saved more than $80,000 in the 2012-13 academic year, Ernst said.

Psychology junior Ben Larsen used a virtual textbook in a biology class, which he said was “more convenient than the regular old book.”

Rep. Zachary Dorholt, DFL-St. Cloud, who authored the bill in the House, said it has received bipartisan support and praise from the public.

Dorholt said students, student groups and professors have sent him emails saying they were “thrilled” about the legislation.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who is chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, said open textbooks are one way her committee is trying to lower student expenses.

“We are doing everything we can to lower the overall cost burden of our students,” she said.

Bonoff said she thinks the bill will pass.

“I don’t think there will be any dissension,” Bonoff said.

In the House, the bill was referred to the Government Operations and Elections Committee, of which Dorholt is a member. He said it will be helpful to introduce his own bill to the committee but is unsure if the bill will pass in the House.