The North Dakota University System Open Educational Resources Initiative is a 3-phased plan hinging upon a unique collaboration among the North Dakota legislature, the University System Office, and the faculty at public institutions across the state. At the intersection of these three entities are change leaders who have come together for a common goal of improving higher education by reducing textbook costs for students. A 2015 post previewed this work, and this post outlines the plan, the people, and the product.

Project Inception

The American public has called for a change.  Higher education is expensive and the national student debt load is collectively around $1.3 trillion. Lawmakers and educators in North Dakota are interested in ideas that might reduce the cost of attendance at ND public institutions. During the 63rd Legislative Session, Thomas Beadle, a young representative, sponsored a legislative study and resolution urging the North Dakota University System to increase the use of open textbooks as a way to cut costs for college students. In 2013, the Legislative council estimated that North Dakota students spent around $1,100 per year on textbooks. Rep. Beadle described how the idea came about:

“Going into the 2013 legislative session, I really wanted to focus on our students and how we can try to look at new ways of helping them.  For years we have been talking about the growing levels of tuition and fees, but we hadn’t done anything that looked at the other costs associated with going to school.  As a young, recent college grad, I remember how frustrating it was to have to buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of books each semester, and only be able to get a fraction of that cost back when I would try to sell them later on.  I knew that the internet and technology was changing the game in how content was being delivered, but I hadn’t been seeing it on my campus, and knew that as a state we could do better.”

Representative Thomas Beadle of the North Dakota State Legislature.
ND Rep. Thomas Beadle

“In collaboration with some friends of mine, who had faced very similar frustrations about rapid cost increases for books and ‘silent expenses’ that went in to their education, we came up with Open Textbooks as being a first step for North Dakota to look at in order to try and help the students of the state not only save a few dollars, but also to help them get a more active learning tool.”

“While I knew about Open Textbooks and the impact that they could have, the whole world of Open Educational Resources was very foreign to me.  Fortunately, we had Dr. Spilovoy, a very visionary leader in the ND University System who would take our resolution pushing the NDUS to explore this new technology and run with it.  When I introduced the concept, and got legislative approval, I had hoped to start a conversation and try to move the ball forward a little bit.  I hadn’t expected the tremendous snowball effect that it would create!”

Gaining Funding and Support

In order for a system-wide initiative to succeed, there had to be stakeholders involved at every level. A bipartisan and student-focused group of legislators on the Interim Higher Education Funding Committee supported the idea and provided a platform for innovation and feedback. The North Dakota University System put together a team made up of faculty, a student, technologists, and provosts to draft a white paper exploring the concept of open textbooks in response to the legislative request. Because I work with Academic Affairs and Technology at the NDUS system office, I was on the team that wrote the white paper. And after the legislative session, I was asked to lead the Open Educational Resources Initiative for NDUS. Over the next few months, I spent a significant amount of time researching, planning, and preparing presentations, and collaborating with stakeholders across the North Dakota University System.

Governance, cost, collaboration and policy considerations were paramount to the planning process. I wanted to find and partner with a repository of open education materials instead of having to create and maintain a library. The University System is built on the concept of academic freedom. Faculty own the curriculum and choose materials for the courses they teach. I knew that faculty development, support and buy-in were key to the success of the project. An effective approach would be to empower campuses to create and implement open educational resources and textbooks in a way that best suited their unique mission, vision, and faculty. Finally, I knew that funding would be necessary and that the legislature would be interested in seeing a return on its investment. I put together a project concept and presented it at the Interim Higher Education Funding Committee.A picture of a stack of textbooks

Improving Student Access, Affordability, and Academic Success

Textbook costs create a financial burden on college students that can impact their academic success and their financial health. North Dakota University System students each pay an estimated average of $1,100 per year for academic course textbooks. Open textbooks and other open educational resources can help alleviate the burden of textbook costs and reduce the cost of attendance. Open textbooks are complete, real textbooks that are licensed to be freely used, edited, and distributed. Open educational resources include peer-reviewed videos, simulations, lesson plans, and many other openly licensed materials.

By replacing traditional textbooks with open textbooks and open educational resources, the cost of attendance would be reduced without impacting the budget of the college or university. And faculty would have the opportunity to adopt open textbooks and educational materials that they can edit to best meet the needs of their students.

Concept Overview: Implement a system-wide Open Educational Resources initiative throughout North Dakota University System in three phases:

  • Phase 1. Partner with the Open Textbook Network and the University of Minnesota Open Textbook Library to build on proven success. Expand to other Open Educational Resources opportunities that would benefit our students and faculty. Phase I will introduce open textbooks to faculty with support, professional development, and stipends.
  • Phase 2. Train a trainer at each campus so that the campuses begin taking ownership to reduce textbook costs for students. NDUS would also host an Open Educational Resources Summit.
  • Phase 3. North Dakota Open Educational Resources Ideation Grant. Campuses would be challenged to design and implement their own campus-wide open educational resources initiative. Funded proposals will include support and collaboration from campus administrators, faculty, technologists, and others on campus. Proposals can include a variety of peer-reviewed open educational materials such as open and/or digital textbooks, videos, simulations, and other resources that replace traditional textbooks and reduce cost of attendance for students. Campus proposals will be funded based on actual dollars saved in student textbook costs.

The Report Prompts Legislative Action

The work between sessions set the stage for successful implementation. And in the 64th Legislative session, Representative Thomas Beadle introduced legislation to fund a project to increase the use of Open Educational Resources. The governor and legislature supported the project with funding even though overall budgets had been cut state-wide. The final budget appropriation was $110,000.

Of the legislative appropriation to support the Open Educational Resources Initiative, Rep Beadle said, “One of the benefits of a state like North Dakota, is that we are a small community.  While that can be seen as a limitation by many, it has actually helped us experience rapid success.  We are small enough to be nimble and adapt quickly. Every stakeholder knows that they need to work with others in order to get things done, and we need to develop and foster relationships to get things done well.  We have really created a strong team atmosphere that is working together to push OER in North Dakota, and to make this a success for our students, our institutions, and our state.  The buy-in and leadership we have seen on our campuses within the faculty has been tremendous, and the assistance provided by our University System office has been crucial.  As a lawmaker who is responsible to the citizens and the taxpayers, being able to see the return on investment has been crucial.  Knowing that we have the players and stakeholders all seeing benefits, and seeing ways that we can improve and operate more efficiently, has allowed us to be able to get legislative support for these initiatives, and hopefully to continue to provide that support in the future.”

Data Shows Progress

In order to show progress, cost savings, and project success, I began working on baseline project data. In 2013, Babson Survey Group released “Opening the Curriculum: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2014.” I contacted Dr. Jeff Seaman of Babson Survey Group and asked if we could collaborate on a survey report comparing ND’s baseline data to the national survey data. He responded positively, and by October, 2015, we released “Opening Public Institutions: OER in North Dakota and the Nation, 2015.”Report cover. The title of the Report is "Opening Public Institutions: OER in North Dakota and the Nation, 2015" by Tanya M. Spilovoy and Jeff Seaman. The logos at the bottom of the page are for the Babson Survey Research Group and the North Dakota University System.

Key findings from the report include:

  • NDUS faculty are more aware of open educational resources than their counterparts nationally.
  • Similar to their peers nationally, NDUS faculty are taking the initiative with OER adoption. NDUS faculty report similar barriers to adoption; however, they also report that they are currently using a variety of OERs for instruction (primarily videos).
  • More than half of NDUS faculty and those at national public institutions report that they are not sufficiently aware of OER to judge its quality.
  • The most significant barrier to wider adoption of OER remains a faculty perception of the time and effort required to find and evaluate it.
  • Faculty are the key decision makers for OER adoption. At the two-year Associates level, North Dakota University System faculty enjoy significantly more autonomy in the selection of course materials than their peers who teach at the associates level at public institutions nationally.
  • A majority of North Dakota University System faculty say that they “will” or “might” use open resources in the next three years.

Project in Motion

The NDUS joined the Open Textbook Network and began collaborating with other partner institutions already implementing open educational resources projects. I assembled a NDUS OER Steering Committee made up of a student representative, faculty members from each institution type, a legislator, and national experts in open education.  In October, 2015, I organized a system-wide Open Educational Resources Summit at Valley City State University. Provosts were asked to send campus OER leadership teams made up of innovative faculty, librarians, instructional designers, and open-minded individuals. David Ernst, Ph. D., the Director of the Center for Open Education and Executive Director of the Open Textbook Network spoke and conducted a faculty workshop on open education and the adoption of open textbooks. Faculty that reviewed an open textbook from the Open Textbook Library and wrote a peer review received a $250 stipend.

The NDUS Open Educational Resources Campus Grants Call for Proposals was announced. Campus teams left the NDUS Open Educational Resources Summit energized to create their own campus plans and submit for funding.

Return on Investment

On March 4, 2016, the OER Steering Committee met to review campus OER project proposals and give feedback. The initial state investment was $110,000. The first four funded proposals include estimated student cost savings of more than $2 million for school year 2016-2017.  Three of the campus projects will provide faculty stipends to revamp general education courses using open source materials and textbooks. One project at the University of North Dakota will make Robinson’s “The History of North Dakota” an open textbook. Another round of grant proposals is due in October, 2016 with four more $10,000 institutional grants anticipated.

The final financial impact of this initiative will be calculated at the end of the 2017 fiscal year. In the words of Senator Tim Flakoll, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, “The Open Educational Resources Initiative could well go down in history as having the highest return on any higher education investment we’ve made in the last 25 years.”


Call for Proposals: NDUS Open Educational Resources Special Projects

The North Dakota University System seeks grant proposals that implement high-impact, collaborative projects in support of open education and reduced textbook costs for students.

Applications for any amount of funding up to $10,000 are welcome from North Dakota University stakeholders, including faculty, librarians, technologists, administrators, students, and bookstore staff. Projects must involve the creation, adaptation or innovative use of Open Educational Resources (OER), which are educational materials that are openly licensed to the public to freely use, adapt, and share.

Sustainable adoption of OER is a complex issue with many parts, including course redesign, open material reviews, technology support, curriculum mapping, and much more. Project proposals will be evaluated using a rubric that balances the following criteria to prioritize impact and collaboration:

  1. Student savings on textbooks.
  2. Quality considerations such as use of peer reviewed resources, attribution/copyright clearance, and ADA compliance.
  3. Serving a campus or discipline where the availability or use of OER is underrepresented
  4. Collective commitments, such as:
    1. Department-wide commitments (for example, redesign all sections of a class, or all classes in a sequence), or
    2. Multi-institutional commitments (for example, collaborators on more than one community college campus, commitment to implement at more than one campus, or a 4-year partner).
    3. Institutional in-kind (e.g. release time) or cash match commitments (not required but may be considered favorably during the review process).
  5. Assessment plan to demonstrate improved student savings, learning, retention, and success.

Completed proposals should be no longer than three well-written pages and signed by the applicants and supervisors. The OER Steering Committee anticipates making 5-10 awards. Proposals are due 5 pm Monday, February 29, 2016. The NDUS OER Steering Committee will notify applicants by 5 pm Thursday, March 31, 2016.


Tanya’s Tips and Take-Aways

  1. Focus on Students. When leading an Open Educational Resources project, focus on making a difference for students. It is motivating to think that more people will have the opportunity to access information, and that students won’t have to go into more debt because of high textbook costs. Student associations and leaders will be excited to help promote an Open Educational Resources Initiative.
  2. Empower the Faculty. Faculty rarely get to showcase the amazing things they do in their classrooms because they are busy focusing on and teaching students. Make faculty the super stars when talking about Open Educational Resources. Ask expert faculty to talk about how they’re using open textbooks and resources in their classrooms. You will be amazed what you’ll learn from faculty. Faculty appreciate sharing ideas and collaborating. And remember that they are the experts in their field; faculty are the keepers of the curriculum.
  3. Collect the Data. You need to show a return on investment. Collect baseline data on student textbook costs, faculty needs, barriers to adoption, and faculty understanding of Open Educational Resources and textbooks. At the culmination of the project, collect follow-up data so that you’ll be able to show growth, improvement, and textbook cost savings.
  4. Customize the Message. There are many reasons why replacing high-cost textbooks with free textbooks and resources makes sense. However, different groups of stakeholders care about different things. Customize your presentations and message to reflect what folks care about. Faculty are interested in protecting academic freedom, having the autonomy to choose and customize resources, adopting quality learning materials, and helping students meet the course objectives. Talk about how OER can meet faculty needs. Legislators and administrators are interested in initiatives that will be successful and reflect positively on their state and institutions. They want to see a good return on any monetary or time investment. Remember that legislators and administrators are also parents, neighbors, and friends; everyone cares about education. Students are interested in saving money, being engaged, and the convenience of accessing learning materials in a variety of formats on any device. All of these viewpoints are valid, and you’ll find great success if you focus your presentation on what matters to the audience.
  5. Find your People. There are innovative, excited, supportive people who are interested in improving higher education. Spend time with them and absorb their energy. Listen to their ideas; ask what they think of your ideas. Give them credit when they help you. All along this journey, there have been people who have opened doors, offered encouragement, and signed on the dotted line because they believed in it. There will also be people who hate change, and/or dislike you. There might even be folks who actively work to stop or sabotage your project. That’s ok. You don’t need to waste time trying to change them or fight about it. Think of them as part of the adventure. Smile, be polite but firmly state you will continue the work, and then find a pathway around their roadblocks. I’ve discovered that many of the people who initially resisted the project are now actively working to promote it. Focus your time and energy on the people who will contribute to the project’s success. Keep your eyes on the prize, and never give up on your goal.Tanya Spilovoy


Tanya M. Spilovoy, Ed. D.
Director, Distance Education and State Authorization
North Dakota University System

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