In the past, Irene Duranczyk would assign her students a $180 textbook and hope they had the money to pay for it.

Now, she still teaches the same introductory statistics class at the University of Minnesota. But the textbook is free.

Duranczyk is one of a small but growing number of college professors who are literally throwing out their old textbooks and replacing them with free alternatives on the Internet.

For most college students, the idea of free textbooks may sound like a utopian fantasy, especially when surveys show they can expect to pay $1,200 a year for books and supplies.

But in the past few years, dozens of “open textbooks” have been created, or adapted, online for a wide range of college courses — psychology, history, economics, foreign languages.

All are free to use, just “like a TED talk,” said David Ernst, a national expert in open textbooks at the U’s College of Education and Human Development.

Three years ago, Ernst created the Open Textbook Library at the University of Minnesota to serve as a national resource for the burgeoning roster of online texts. Now it has 184 titles on its virtual shelf.

Who would write a free textbook? “It’s a question I get all the time,” Ernst said. The answer: “They’re not doing it for free.” Instead, someone — typically, a foundation, government agency or nonprofit like OpenStax — pays the authors a flat fee. In exchange, they waive all royalties and allow their work to be shared freely.

So far, most of the funds have come from education-minded philanthropies, such as the Gates Foundation.

Advocates say the “open textbook” movement potentially could save students hundreds of millions of dollars — or more.

The biggest hurdle, Ernst said, is persuading classroom instructors to try the free texts. Most “don’t know where to find them, and they don’t know if they’re any good,” he said.

That’s one reason he created the Open Textbook Library. “We put them in one place, easy to find, and started collecting reviews,” he said. Ernst received a grant to pay instructors $200 to $500 apiece to write a review. He discovered that once they reviewed an open text, they were more likely to use it in class.

Prof takes the plunge

Duranczyk, an associate professor who has taught statistics at the U for 20 years, was one of the first to take the challenge.

She knew, she said, that many students “have difficulty buying their textbooks at the beginning of the semester.” Some would ask if they could get by without it for the first four or five weeks because they were short of cash.

In 2012, she decided to allow some of those students to use an open text called “Collaborative Statistics,” while the rest used a traditional book retailing for about $180. It went so well, she said, that she switched her whole class to the free version the next fall.

The benefits, her students say, are obvious. “It’s free,” said Hayat Mohamed, 22, a senior from Hopkins, who said she’s spent $500 or $600 on textbooks this semester. “I’m thankful for that. … I don’t have to spend more money.”

Another advantage: It’s lighter than lugging around a 600-page book. And easier to search.

Disadvantages? “Um, I don’t think I really [see] a downside,” said Hnong Xiong, 20, a junior from St. Paul.

Some students, though, still prefer to hold the pages in their hands, Duranczyk said. They have the option to buy a printed version for $23.

“I don’t like to read things online that much,” admits Jessica Tilbury, 19, a sophomore from Apple Valley. She bought a print copy so she could highlight it and make notes in the margins.

So did Ibrahim Abdi, a sophomore from Minneapolis; but by midterms, it was still in its plastic wrapper. “I never used it,” he said. “It’s really easy for me to just go online and read.”

Some open texts even allow professors to rearrange and edit the material to their liking.

Millennials push the trend

In part, Ernst says, the “open textbook” movement is a reaction to textbook prices, which have climbed, by one estimate, 800 percent since 1978.

Even with cheaper alternatives, such as used books and rentals, students are straining to cover those costs. More than 60 percent of college students say they have skipped buying at least one textbook because of the cost, according to Ernst.

To Nicole Allen, who leads a national campaign to promote open textbooks, the idea of $200 textbooks is galling in the age of the Internet.

“As a millennial, it’s hard to comprehend,” said Allen, director of open education for an advocacy group called the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) in Washington.

“We grew up in a world where there’s an expectation that a lot of information is free and easy to get,” she said. “I just couldn’t understand why the knowledge contained in those books was worth that much.”

She compares textbooks to prescription drugs, noting that the people who choose them don’t bear the costs. “They don’t have to pay for it, and they don’t know how much it costs. It’s a similar situation with faculty members.”

She says the University of Minnesota is playing a pivotal role in changing that. “Professors aren’t necessarily going to take recommendations from a student organization on what curriculum to choose,” she said. The U is “a central place … and a trusted place.”

So far, 25 colleges and universities, including the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, have joined the U’s growing network of open text supporters.

The publishing industry, meanwhile, insists that it’s not threatened and is adapting.

“The market is moving away from hard-bound textbooks,” said David Anderson, at the Association of American Publishers. In fact, he predicts print textbooks “are going the way of the dinosaur.”

One reason they’re so expensive, he said, is that they’re costly to produce, and “you’ve got about three semesters to recoup your costs and make a profit [before] the used versions flood the market.”

But now, he noted, publishers are producing their own online versions and shifting their attention to digital “extras,” such as interactive study aids and quizzes, to supplement the books.

That’s one reason, he said, that he doesn’t worry about competition from open textbooks.

Without those kinds of extras, he said, “frankly, a book like that for free, I don’t think is worth very much.”

Even supporters say open textbooks won’t put publishers out of business. Most of the titles in the U’s open textbook library are designed for introductory or general ed courses, not advanced ones.

The challenge now, Ernst says, is simply to get the message out. “That there is an option. And open textbooks are an option.”