When the iPad first came out in 2010, the University of Minnesota decided to give one — free — to each of the 450 freshmen in its College of Education and Human Development.

It was all part of an experiment to find out if anything good, academically speaking, would come of it.

Three years later, university researchers are starting to discover some surprising benefits.

Among other things, iPads and other tablets could be a way to slash the cost of textbooks and course materials in some classes to almost zero, says David Ernst, the college’s chief information officer.

Ernst, who is overseeing the iPad study, noted that a single textbook in some classes can cost $125 or more.

As part of the study, the college started searching for “open license” textbooks that are available for free on the Internet. Ten faculty members volunteered to assign their students one of the free texts instead of the pricey ones.

The change saved students in the pilot project alone as much as $100,000 last year, Ernst said. In fact, the experiment proved so popular, he said, that the university has created its own Open Textbook Catalog. So far, it has about 140 “high-quality textbooks” — on subjects from accounting to computer science — available for free online.

“We wouldn’t even have looked at this,” he said, if it hadn’t been for the iPad project.

Down the road, he said, the project could pay off for students across the university and beyond, as more and more bring their own iPads (or other e-readers) to campus. Already, Ernst said, he’s been invited to speak about the Open Textbook Catalog at other universities, and there’s interest in expanding it nationally.

So far, the iPads (which were paid for by private donors) have been a hit with the U students: 62 percent said they were more engaged in their courses, and 76 percent said they were able to communicate their ideas more effectively.

Does it really change the way they learn? “I think we’re still figuring that out,” Ernst said.