Goodbye, Gutenberg: UND professor publishes pioneering online textbook

Geology Professor Dexter Perkins publishes free, online textbook to support students’ remote learning

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Besides several books and numerous papers, Dexter Perkins, professor of geology and geological engineering at the University of North Dakota, has penned three editions of his Mineralogy textbook. When he last approached Pearson, the large publishing house that had produced the textbook in the past, for another update, he faced a rejection. Small-volume textbooks were being discontinued.

So, Perkins took a different approach – one that seems to align with the increasingly virtual nature of higher education.

Perkins wrote and published a free, online-based textbook, which bears the same title, Mineralogy. It is the de-facto fourth edition of his print book that serves as an introduction to the study of minerals.

“With an online book, you can put in many, many, many more full-color photographs and line drawings,” Perkins said. “You can put videos in there. You can put links to other web pages, three dimensional models. You just can’t do this in a print book. There is no reason why anyone should ever publish a traditional print book again.”

Published last month and hosted on the web by Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, Utah, Mineralogy contains more than 1,200 high-resolution images, sourced online and licensed for educational use.

More than an online academic text, accompanied by much better visuals than what is possible on paper, the book is the latest effort at UND to promote and introduce open educational resources in the classroom. Under the leadership of Dean of Libraries & Educational Resources Stephanie Walker, the Chester Fritz Library has amassed a collection of online, free-to-use textbooks and other materials, which collectively have saved UND students millions of dollars in textbook costs in the last several years.

“Books are pretty expensive, and it drives up the cost of education for students,” Perkins said. “With my print version of the book, I sold several thousand copies a year. And, if the book was selling for an average of $100, that means that students were spending several hundred thousand dollars on that book. That’s a lot of money.”

Writing for the web

Writing for the web brings about unique challenges, the biggest of them being technological. Even though it took only six months to put together the content, largely because Perkins had already written three iterations of Mineralogy, “writing a book for the internet is tougher,” he said.

Dexter Perkins

Perkins had to make decisions about the web layout of the book and the coding underlying it, considerations and tasks that are foreign to print books. His son, Douglas Perkins, helped spearhead the web work for the book. In the meantime, several UND students helped Perkins in the selection of photographs, the creation of models and videos and the transfer of the text to the online platform.

“We made 3D models that you can rotate and turn upside down and inside out,” Perkins said. “That was all students doing it, not me. And then I have one student who was my primary author. I write everything, but this student turned it all into a manuscript ready for the internet for me. And then, I went on the internet, and I edited from there.

“So, she did a lot of really, really valuable fundamental work that nobody sees except me.”

The ability to hire students materialized through several grants Perkins secured for the textbook, including funding from the UND Open Educational Resources Working Group within the Provost Office as well as the North Dakota University System. Because the book is distributed online free of charge, Perkins is not earning any profits from it.

Although the book is already available online, Perkins and three students are finalizing a chapter on mineral descriptions to add to the 13 current chapters; the chapter is expected to be added sometime next spring. The ability to constantly tweak and enhance the textbook reflects the uniqueness – and beauty, really – of open education resources, said Perkins.

“This sort of project is never done,” Perkins said. “You can keep making those minor adjustments, adding a few more explanations where needed and things like that. But on the other hand, because of the way people use these resources, you don’t want to make major changes as you go along. So, every couple of years, you can do a brand new edition, which incorporates anything significant.”

As of late October, Perkins knew of six professors from around the country who are using his open-resource textbook; the actual number could many more. Perkins will introduce the book into his core mineralogy class in the spring semester, when he will lead the course remotely.

“I wanted a good resource that would support an online class,” Perkins said. “When students come to my classroom, and I’m talking to them, and we’re all there together, it’s one thing. But, if they’re learning independently, and they live halfway around the world, you really have to have good stuff to support that.”