The University of Minnesota hopes to lighten the load for students by finding textbooks that are less expensive or -- better yet -- free.
"We were looking for options to make higher education more affordable and course materials just seem to be a sweet spot," said Dave Ernst, director of academic and information technology in the College of Education and Human Development.
The alternative the college found to books that can cost about $200 each are "open textbooks." The free or low-cost volumes are available online and in print and are economical because publishers release usage rights, allowing anyone to read, distribute and adapt the books to fit their curriculum, said Nicole Allen, an affordable-textbook advocate at Student PIRGs, a national research group.
In April, the university launched Open Academics, a catalog that gives professors at the U a list of "quality" open textbooks that they can review and use.
The open textbook market has gained momentum in the past five years, but not without a few roadblocks.
"The traditional publishing industry spends millions and millions of dollars on marketing," Allen said. "Open textbooks don't have that, so it's one of the challenges we need to overcome."
A study by Student PIRGs found that seven in 10 students skip buying at least one textbook because of cost; if they had free or less expensive books, this might not happen, Allen said.
The U's catalog has nearly 90 books, and Ernst is hopeful that the number will keep growing because of potential benefits for professors and students.
"It's a win-win-win all the way around," he said.
Irene Duranczyk is an associate professor at the U who was drawn to open textbooks because of the lower cost and the ability to "tweak" a book to her liking.
While the books are a little "drier," in the sense that they don't have as many eye-catching images and activities, she said she's excited to experiment with an open textbook and a published textbook for a math class she'll teach in the fall.