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College professor will begin switch to free online textbook

DEVILS LAKE — After using traditional textbooks for more than 30 years, professor Teresa Tande at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake is one of the first in the state to commit to using a free online textbook for one of her classes.

“If an old teacher can look at doing this and embrace the wave of what teaching can be, I would like to see that as motivation for others to at least consider it,” she said. “You have to consider your students, your program, your class, and it’s not a one size fits all, but somebody has to make the first move.”

This semester, Tande will teach one of her two sections of the University Life class using an open textbook from the University of Minnesota’s vetted online library. She said she plans to email students signed up for the course so they can switch to whichever section they’d prefer to be in, just in case they’d rather have a physical book.

Tanya Spilovoy, director of distance education and state authorization for the North Dakota University System, has been spearheading the effort to provide students with a cheap alternative to costly books, which run University System students an average of $1,100 annually, according to legislative committee documents.

“I just feel like having Teresa pilot the open textbook is the best-case scenario to showcase what the books are and what they can do,” she said.

Blazing a trail

In the 20 years Tande has taught at Lake Region State College, she found herself creating assignments from textbooks that weren’t actually necessary because she was told she had to use a textbook to keep her classes similar to other University System speech classes.

“It could have just as easily been answered in some other format,” she said. “It’s a speech class. Why are they spending time writing things down? I didn’t want them to spend $80 on a book and then say, ‘We never used it anyway.’ ”

Tande began considering open textbooks when, for a class assignment two years ago, one of her students wrote a proposal for open textbooks and surveyed a section of the student population at LRSC. But Tande was hesitant to move forward because the student’s survey showed the campus population was split on the idea.

While Tande was unsure, Spilovoy was pushing full steam ahead with her proposal to the State Board of Higher Education and legislative committees. Once a partnership with the U of M online library was given the go-ahead this summer, Tande said she saw it as “a sign.”

Even though she’ll be working with a book that doesn’t come with any extra materials — handouts, PowerPoints, lesson plans — Tande is excited to save her students money and learn from the perspective of an instructor.

“I can’t say that my experience will be the deciding factor at all (for other instructors), but at least I will have some anecdotal information,” Tande said.

Future plans

The State Board of Higher Education’s approved budget allots $500,000 for open textbook training for instructional faculty. That budget still has to be approved by the Legislature this fall, but Spilovoy’s plan is to spend money on training and allow each college or university to come up with its own implementation plan.

But Spilovoy is excited that progress is already being made.

“It can’t be stopped,” she said. “It’s not about me, it’s not about Teresa Tande. It’s just the direction things are going.”

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.

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