Fight the Tide?

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Today I talked with Jonathan Bohn, the Inter Faculty Organization’s Director of Public Affairs, who I had met early last spring when I was beginning to investigate the various bills that were being introduced in the Minnesota legislature. I was aware that a lot of the language in HF2730 was substantially his, especially the wording that supported academic freedom and faculty’s right to choose their textbooks without interference. The new budget bill includes this wording in its second paragraph, but all the focus seems to be on the first, which mandates the three Z-Degrees at two-year colleges.

Z-Degrees (zero-textbook-cost Associate’s Degrees) are a great goal, although textbook costs may be even more of a concern at four-year universities, where students generally get less state assistance that can be used to pay for textbooks. Maybe my focus is skewed by being at Bemidji State, which is located in one of the poorest counties in the state. I’ve had many students unable to buy textbooks until financial aid or a paycheck made funds available. But let’s stipulate that expenses, including for textbooks, are a problem for all students.

It would certainly be harder achieving a zero-textbook-cost Bachelor’s Degree than an Associate’s, and maybe this makes it less attractive to try reducing costs. “Z-Degree” is a much catchier name than VLTC-Degree (very-low-textbook-cost). But what if we embraced this slightly less sexy term? A whole lot more students might benefit from VLTC than from Z, if we made “perfect” less of an enemy of “good”.

One of the ways we might be able to expand the excitement over Z-Degrees toward VLTC may be through transfer pathways. MinnState runs seven universities and thirty two-year colleges, and in recent years there has been a lot of work done to map routes for Associate’s Degree students to continue on at the universities and get credit for the work they’ve done. Bachelor’s programs that can boast of being VLTC might have better luck attracting these students who have already been sensitized to the issue in their two-year program.

The IFO is the four-year faculty union, and some faculty have been reticent to embrace initiatives like OER. The professors’ objection seems to be a concern that a move to accept OER will become a wedge that might lead to increased pressure to make price the overriding factor in textbook selection. This would be unfortunate – but is it really an issue? Are we saying that if two similar texts are of comparable quality, price shouldn’t be a concern at all? Are we refusing to consider alternatives and find out if more affordable options exist? Are we saying we won’t look, even if we’re given incentives or compensated for looking?

Some four-year faculty also resisted the transfer pathways initiative, but this attitude usually changed when they got into rooms with two-year faculty and realized that we’re all basically doing the same jobs and dealing with the same issues and concerns. Similarly, we might be surprised by the flexibility, quality, and customization capabilities of open texts, if we take a little time to become acquainted with the large numbers of options becoming available.

The union seems to be doing a good job of respecting and defending the academic freedom of faculty while at the same time trying to encourage positive changes that improve student outcomes. If faculty can take advantage of the opportunity to lead this change, we can avoid having it forced upon us. Digital and online content and tools are going to change the way education is consumed by learners and delivered by teachers. If faculty can be visionary and proactive, we can direct (and benefit) from these changes, rather than becoming victims of them. I come from the tech industry, so maybe I’m a little too comfortable with disruption. But really – you want to fight the tide?