Additional University Perspectives and Experience

17 Support for Faculty Produced eTexts at the University of Minnesota Libraries: Lessons Learned

Kristi Jensen, Program Development Lead, eLearning Support Initiative, University of Minnesota Libraries

Introduction to Course Content Support from the University of Minnesota Libraries

The University of Minnesota Libraries created the eLearning Support Initiative in the fall of 2012 in response to Executive Vice President and Provost Karen Hanson’s Innovation in Teaching and Learning Initiative. While our early efforts included collaboration with a variety of campus service providers (e.g., Academic Technology Support Services and the Center for Educational Innovation) on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and grant-funded teaching innovation projects, the eLearning Support Initiative’s focus was always on course content. As the program developed, the need to support affordable course content options on campus became apparent. We developed a multi-pronged approach in order to meet the needs and preferences of our diverse faculty, including the provision of:

  • Customized digital course packs that can include copyrighted materials requiring student payment, library-licensed material, public domain and open web content, and Fair Use items
  • Multi-user, library-licensed ebooks made available each semester based on a comparison of our ebook collection (and potential purchases) with the University of Minnesota Bookstores required textbooks list
  • Multiple platforms for publishing openly licensed or open access faculty created textbooks
  • Affordable commercial textbook options from publishers via the Unizin Engage platform
  • Small grants and robust, customized teams to support faculty willing to replace an existing textbook with a more affordable option


In order to meet the need for affordable content options on campus, the University of Minnesota Libraries has offered Partnership for Affordable Content grants to Twin Cities faculty since the spring 2015 semester. As of the fall 2017 semester, we have supported the implementation of affordable content in 44 classes, which has impacted over 8200 students and produced an estimated savings of over $800,000. The Partnership grants are small incentive grants, averaging ~$1250, that provide faculty with the opportunity to consult about a range of affordable content options they might consider, select the option that best meets their teaching needs and the learning needs of their students, and receive support from a team designed to execute a successful project. The grant money can be used for a variety of things including copyediting, graphic design, student worker salaries (to support the project), technology, and conference travel (to discuss the project with colleagues).

The Partnership grants have mainly led to projects where faculty create new course materials (often eTexts) both for their class and for sharing more widely online. Throughout the course of these projects, we have gained a great deal of experience that has informed our processes and practices and might be valuable to others considering these efforts. Some of our most important lessons learned, those that might be most helpful to know about or consider when beginning this work, include:

  • Reimagining the “textbook” (i.e., moving beyond the traditional textbook model) to best meet faculty and student needs
  • Dealing with copyright issues
    • When offering open access materials or applying open licenses to newly created materials
    • Related to the use of images and other visual materials in the production of new learning resources
  • Choosing the best platform for “publishing” new course learning materials


Reimagining the Textbook

Many efforts around open educational resources (OER) focus on producing high quality textbooks via the same or similar processes used in the production of traditional textbooks, and achieve great success (see OpenStax as an example). During the course of our projects, however, we discovered that faculty are often not satisfied with the traditional textbook approach and are looking for new ways to think about and present textbooks in their courses. For example, one faculty member in Aerospace Engineering was already providing his students with an “alternative textbook” that contained many pages of handwritten equations and the methods for solving those equations. Another faculty member exploring sensitive discussion topics, like racism, wanted to create a unique compilation of materials including brief introductions and links to additional readings and media materials on each topic in the newly developing field of Design Equity. Finally, another faculty member used a range of open textbook chapters and news articles to create the best possible textbook for her students on Communication in various science fields. When working with faculty to create and publish new course content, we have found that a variety of drivers can and should inform the final product:

  • What type of textbook will best meet the teaching and learning needs of the faculty and students?
  • What types of media or interactive components are needed to support the best possible learning experience?
  • How might we think differently about course content or textbooks for a specific discipline in order to provide the best learning materials possible?
  • Does material need to be current and relevant and therefore updated regularly?
  • Is the “textbook” a combination of new material created by the faculty member in combination with other existing resources, or is it a completely new work?
  • Is the work being produced by multiple authors and how can we best facilitate the creation process?

Rather than focusing on traditional textbook options, our work with faculty has provided the opportunity to push the boundaries of what a “textbook” is or can be, opening the door for us to continue working with faculty to adjust and adapt learning materials to support them in the classroom.


Copyright Issues (Open Licensing/Open Access and Use of Images/Charts/Graphs)

Copyright issues surrounding the production of eTexts and other new learning materials can be complex and difficult to navigate. Having a well-informed team and early conversations about these issues can help prevent headaches later in the production process.


Open Licensing/Open Access

If the expectation of your program is that a faculty member will share their eText with the world, it is important to discuss which sort of open licensing (providing specific information that tells users what rights they have to reuse the material provided – like the options provided by Creative Commons) or open access (content made freely available online but without specific permissions for reuse) rights your effort expects to be assigned to the final product. Both open license (OER) and open access (OA) options can be difficult for authors to comprehend if they have only published via traditional models in the past.

Explaining the benefits and consequences of OER and OA choices (perhaps in multiple early conversations) will expedite the publishing process and avoid potential misunderstandings about the rights and access these alternatives provide to others. Some institutions utilize formal memorandums of understanding (MOUs) signed by the faculty and the “publisher” to ensure expectations are compatible. Whether your approach to dealing with copyright issues related to the publication of new eTexts is formal or informal, clear and frequent communication is key.


Use of Images/Charts/Graphs

One of the most challenging issues to deal with when supporting faculty creation of new openly licensed eTexts is determining whether or not particular images can be used in a text that will be shared broadly. Faculty frequently come to the table with a range of images they have used in their teaching and would like to include in their publication. It is often difficult to discern where the images originally came from which impacts the ability to determine who owns the copyright. In order to ensure others have the right to reuse all of the content in an openly licensed publication, it is crucial to determine that images are in the public domain or covered by an open license. While Fair Use can be considered, this creates complications for future users because each future user then is responsible for determining whether or not Fair Use applies to their particular circumstance.

Since our goals for the outputs of the Partnership grants included sharing content as broadly as possible for reuse by others, we determined that any openly licensed content we published would contain only items that were readily available for future reuse.  Examples include items that the faculty member “owns” and agrees to license for reuse, those in the public domain, and those already licensed for reuse. Again, early and frequent conversations with faculty members and the project team help avoid the gathering of new images that do not fit these criteria.

Additionally, we have found it useful to provide faculty with a range of online resources and/or mediated searching to discover images that meet the criteria for reuse and that represent the desired concepts. Finally, in some instances, new charts and graphs may need to be produced—if in-house expertise doesn’t exist either in your department or among faculty support resources, then get creative and seek help from students in graphic design courses, graduate students in the discipline, or from contract workers (perhaps using funds from the provided incentive grant).

Dealing with images and other copyright issues can be a time-consuming process. The better prepared your team is to deal with copyright and the earlier you catch issues related to images and copyright, the more time you can save in the long run.


Publishing Platforms and eTexts

Since the advent of the internet, the word “publishing” has taken on new meaning. Almost anyone with access to the right technology can author and post content with minimal expense. Early open access or openly licensed textbooks were often self-published. The model for publishing open textbooks and other OER materials has continued to develop and change in the last 20 years and recent developments have provided new processes, platforms, and formats, as well as additional support structures for the production and publishing of these materials.

Since the internet is often the primary publishing mechanism, eTexts are typically the most popular of the affordable textbook options provided to students, but this isn’t always the case. The internet also offers options (depending on the output format of the eText) for readers to acquire a print on demand version of these books via services like The jury is still out on student opinions about eTexts vs. print texts (an analysis of opinions from University of Minnesota students will be available later this year) and also on how well students learn using electronic vs. print materials, so an option for an inexpensive print version of an affordable online textbook can be beneficial.

When it comes to publishing affordable textbooks, it would be great to point to one platform and indicate that it is the “solution” when considering this sort of publishing—but once again, that isn’t actually the case either. When it comes to determining the best publisher platforms for affordable textbooks, the answer is often “It depends.” We currently publish a majority of our open textbooks via a locally hosted Pressbooks platform. We have, however, encountered circumstances where the textbook had to be produced in an alternative format—for example, when a book requires more robust support for math based content. Discussions with professionals considering “publication” at a variety of institutions provided some important questions to consider:

  • Do you want to host a local publishing option or purchase access to an externally hosted option?
    • Can existing infrastructure (like an institutional repository or other OER repository) be used to “publish” affordable course materials, especially if funds and technical support aren’t available for a new platform?
    • Can you gain access to a publishing platform via a consortium or group?
    • Do you need a simple publishing interface to input content or do you need a backend that supports a variety of processes including editing and review of materials?
  • Based on your program and institutional values, do you want to provide an open platform or a vendor provided platform?
  • What formats do you want to be able to provide students (to provide the broadest possible access for students with varied abilities, to allow items to be printed, etc.) and which platform(s) will meet your needs?
    • Does the selection of a particular publishing platform limit access to materials due to compatibility issues (e.g., texts that can only be read on Apple devices or texts that cannot be used on Apple devices)?
  • Do you need more than one publishing platform to serve the needs of your faculty/students and can you support more than one platform?
    • Will the platform integrate easily with your learning management system?
    • Does the platform allow authors to embed or use a variety of media types?
    • Does the platform allow for the integration of interactive components that will reinforce the student learning experience?
  • Do you plan to charge for some or all of your eTexts and does the platform support both options?

No matter where you land in the selection of a publication platform, you will likely encounter new projects that will raise additional questions and force you to push the boundaries of what you have already considered or implemented. In the end, the ability to be flexible and adaptable, as well as to provide creative solutions, will often be the harbinger of success when publishing eTexts.



Implementing an affordable content program that provides for the publication of eTexts is both a rewarding and challenging experience. The information and lessons we provided above (focused on reimagining the textbook, copyright issues, and publishing platforms) are just the tip of the iceberg. The discussion could continue and cover additional topics, including:

  • How do we “deposit” new eTexts in the appropriate repositories and/or make them discoverable (via Google, Google Books, Amazon, etc.) to users who will find them valuable?
  • How do we make available additional publishing support services like copyediting, graphic design, provision of ISBNs, and more?
  • How do we create sustainable models, including the provision of revisions, once an affordable eText has been created?
  • How do we create, acquire, and share necessary supplementary materials (slide decks, question banks, tests, and data files) effectively?
  • How do we deal with storing and providing access to multiple versions of the same eText or the accompanying supplementary materials?
  • How do we create culture change at each of our institutions to move the dial on the issue of affordable content in a significant way?
  • How do we create systems and processes that provide for collaboration across our institutions to create additional affordable content and supplementary materials?

While there is clearly a great deal more work to be done, we have witnessed growing momentum and support for tackling these issues and we are optimistic that together universities can make great progress.


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eTexts 101: A Practical Guide Copyright © by The Trustees of Indiana University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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