This post is written by Tanya Grosz, Ph.D. Tanya is the Director of Educational Programs at the Open Education Network.

In 2015 I began an open textbook initiative at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul with the instructional design team that served all online, dual enrollment, undergraduate, and graduate courses. At first, I didn’t give much thought to the potential synergy between open textbooks and dual enrollment courses – college credit courses taken by high school students. However, it turns out that targeting dual enrollment courses was an effective open education strategy for our institution, with our initial success ultimately leading to the first Z degree in Minnesota.

Dual Enrollment Courses Primed for Open Textbook Solutions

While Minnesota’s Department of Education offers colleges and universities refunds for providing course materials to dual enrollment students, as an institution we still had to:

  • absorb the up-front costs,
  • determine how much inventory to buy for courses not yet enrolled,
  • mail thousands of textbooks to students,
  • get those textbooks back intact and on time for the next semester, and
  • wait on a refund from the state.

This reality, along with the wide availability of open textbooks for general education courses, meant that dual enrollment courses were primed for open textbooks solutions. Plus, dual enrollment students are typically high school juniors and seniors, so college-level work can be especially intimidating, making immediate access to course materials that much more important. With open textbooks, we could remove cost barriers and help students get started right away, even if they enrolled the moment before a course began.

Three-Pronged Strategy

At the time we started our open textbook initiative, the provost wisely saw open textbooks as one way to keep course material costs down, so the focus was on increasing affordability. We developed a three-pronged strategy for growing our initiative:

  1. educate university constituents on the realities of student debt and the current financial landscape for our students,
  2. partner with the library on course reserves, and
  3. encourage the review and adoption of open textbooks.

Thankfully, with the support of the administration and the Open Education Network (then the Open Textbook Network), we were able to incentivize faculty reviews of textbooks in the Open Textbook Library, which was integral to the success of the first and third prongs of our strategy.

In addition to our three-pronged strategy, we put related support in place for both faculty and students. For faculty, we ensured that instructional designers would be available to support them if they chose to adapt an open textbook, a strategy that freed faculty to focus on content, not technology. For students, we developed a print-on-demand option for those who want a printed copy.

Early Adoption Builds Momentum

When a professor adopted an OpenStax Chemistry text for one of his dual enrollment courses, the up-front savings ($20,000 total for multiple sections) and instant access were big wins. This professor paved the way for other faculty to adopt open textbooks by demonstrating the savings open textbooks offer students.

Also helpful was Northwestern’s course template model, which provides one template for all sections in order to ensure academic consistency. That model meant that one adoption was essentially many. It helped, too, that many undergraduate faculty also taught in the dual enrollment program.
Finally, after years of fielding parent and student complaints about late textbook fees and delayed course materials, students could focus on learning and we could focus on supporting faculty.

Success of Open Textbook Initiative Leads to Z degree

Support for open textbooks continued to grow on our campus, and when the instructional design team created a two-minute video of Northwestern students talking about how textbook costs negatively impacted them, the conversation really took off. While some faculty were resistant to exploring open textbooks, more were open to the idea. The faculty who chose to adopt an open textbook appreciated that students could access their materials immediately and at no cost. Some also liked that they could edit the material if they wished to do so. Because of the benefits and flexibility that open educational resources and practices offered, before we knew it, we had 50 open textbook adoptions. We stopped to celebrate this milestone, giving faculty adopters the kudos they deserved.

Targeting dual enrollment courses as an open textbook adoption strategy was an effective first step for us. Thanks to the instructional design team, supportive administration, and willing faculty, our initiative continued to gather steam, positive attention and press. Ultimately, buoyed by the momentum we had built together, we created the first Z degree, or zero textbook cost degree, in the state of Minnesota.