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Niche publishing that saves students money

By July 17, 2019September 16th, 2023No Comments

By Catherine Arnold

Steve Manson, Shane Nackerud, and Kristi Jensen looking over their work on a laptop computer

Associate Dean Steve Manson, College of Liberal Arts, with the Libraries eLearning Support experts, Shane Nackerud and Kristi Jensen.

Professors Sehoya Cotner and Deena Wassenberg sought a textbook for a moving target — their 13-week non-major biology course, “The Evolution and Biology of Sex,” which includes questions such as:

  • “Do animals besides humans have sex for fun?”
  • “What’s the function, if any, of the female orgasm?” and
  • “Why do young men masturbate so much?”

After checking into traditional textbook production, the professors decided an e-book would better provide the targeted approach and flexible updates they wanted. With high publication costs in traditional publishing, says Cotner, an associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences (CBS), “a publisher would need to take a general-audience approach to our very niche topic, and we felt it would be outdated by the time it was produced.”

In 2017 they stumbled onto project grants from the University Libraries’ Partnership for Affordable Content, which allowed them to write their own material with a common thread and voice, rather than cobbling together class materials from online articles and images, as they had in the past.

The textbook worked out well for Cotner and Wassenberg, the latter a teaching associate professor and director of undergraduate studies for CBS.

“I will say I feel a lot better about what I’m giving my students. I’m sure it’s fraught with all kinds of human error, but it’s unified — it’s clearly for them, and it’s dynamic and engaging,” says Cotner. “Also, it’s free, and they can look at it on their phones and on any kind of format.”

Working with the Libraries on affordable content “isn’t always just about affordability,” agrees Kristi Jensen, Program Development Lead, eLearning Support Initiative.

“Faculty frequently are focusing on new and innovative ways to approach their teaching as well.”

About $1.5 million in savings since 2015

The program does provide real savings for students — including free books. Since 2015, the Libraries’ program has helped faculty members identify alternative — and more affordable — course materials and has helped some publish their own course materials. The total savings of about $1.5 million is spread over 50 completed projects.

With teachers still able to use content they produced in previous years, savings for students “add up,” says Shane Nackerud, Technology Lead , Libraries Initiatives, who works with Jensen to lead efforts to make course materials better and more affordable.

Producing and offering the open-source textbook “Mapping, Society, and Technology” for 900 students a year has saved them a worst-case amount of $100,000 a year over traditional textbooks, says Steven Manson, a professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Society, and Associate Dean  for Research and Graduate Programs for the College of Liberal Arts.

For his class, Mapping Our World, Manson had been assembling content for some years; he used a Partnership grant to pay graduate assistants to help put together the book, which addresses ways people, companies, and governments “use and misuse maps and map technology to tell stories, save lives, rig elections, and spy on you,” according to the book’s cover.

“Having kids myself and looking at college costs, I understand that books are a huge part of a student’s costs,” Manson says. “We are saving students literally hundreds of thousands of dollars — and that’s a good thing.”

Benefits beyond the U of M

When a professor publishes a book using a Partnership grant, it’s placed into the Open Textbook Library, one of the largest catalogs of open textbooks in the world, based at the UMN’s College of Education and Human Development.

“Not only is there a savings to one professor’s classes; students at other universities who use the open-source textbooks and materials we produce also benefit and see that this comes from the U of M,” says Nackerud.

The mapping book is being used by at least three or four other universities across the United States, and people are dipping into the book from around the world, Manson notes.

Having a web link (and a QR code on free condoms) to “The Evolution and Biology of Sex” allows Cotner to reference it easily in talks and workshops.

“If people want to try the materials or the course at their institution, it’s really easy for them to use the link,” she says. “My understanding is that they can take the textbook we created and modify it; I would welcome that, and think that’s super-exciting.” 

For professors considering writing open source content

As instructors with grants participate in the Partnership program, Jensen and Nackerud hope they will recommend the process to colleagues and note that the libraries can help with identifying library-licensed content that can be used in a class, making fair-use claims, and using open textbooks and other openly licensed resources.

“I’ve enjoyed working with them, and my experience has been great,” says Cotner.

Manson notes that the Libraries also helped in establishing guidelines around usable content, such as finding repositories of open-source maps for his book.

“Instead of spending time finding maps or other materials, we could source from links the Libraries provided,” he says. “Writing textbooks is a tough job, and I think people should have the potential of being compensated.”

Manson estimates that he spent 300 hours on his mapping book. But because some textbooks overlap in their coverage, “instead of writing 20 different ‘Intro to Economics’ or ‘Intro to Mapping’ textbooks, it may be better to pool resources and allow materials to be altered and updated and edited as open content,” he adds.

If you go ahead with a project to produce open-source content, work with students, they say. Cotner and Wassenberg held a student focus group before getting started, then checked in with students again when draft content was ready.

“A student did our illustrations; and because we feel our students are the authorities on what they need to see, we worked with them in selecting resources,” Cotner says.

Another benefit of such publishing is having the ability to add custom details. For example, it’s possible to embed videos and questions, and alter content quickly as the need arises. When producing an e-book, “you have the whole world to work with,” says Cotner.

Feedback from students

When asked in a survey what worked well for them when using digital course readings or videos, student comments included:

“I liked that it was online because I could use the search bar to find the information I was seeking.”

“I could take notes on a Word document while reading.”

“It was easy to use and free. Made my learning experience much more efficient and useful.”

“I knew everything I was reading was exactly what the professor wanted me to learn.”

“The material for this course was very easy to understand in this format.”

“I liked that I had a copy of the book wherever I went so I did not have to bring it along in my backpack.”

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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