Z-Degrees or OER?

The newly-posted Minnesota Budget for Education proposed by the governor (SF2415) includes $250,000 in FY 2020 and $250,00 in FY 2021 “for developing and offering courses to implement the Z-Degree textbook program”. This Z-Degree program is described on page 49 as a “zero-textbook-cost associate’s degree” including at least two zero-textbook-cost courses in each transfer curriculum goal area.

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The requirement is for three additional colleges in the MinnState system to offer a Z-Degree by the 2020-21 academic year. The means to achieving this goal is described as “expanding the use of open educational resources”. This paragraph of the bill continues, “The system office must provide opportunities for faculty to identify, review, adapt, author, and adopt open educational resources. The system office must develop incentives to academic departments to identify, review, adapt, author, or adopt open educational resources within their academic programs.”

An important question, I think, is whether these two additional “musts” in the paragraph are independent of the Z-Degree requirement or are merely means to that end? The reason this is an important question is that it will determine whether the system office will be able to allocate funds to develop OER that, although they may greatly reduce student textbook expense, do not lead directly to a zero-textbook-cost Associates Z-Degree program?

My institution, Bemidji State University, seems to offer an A.A. in Liberal Education, which is apparently a 60-credit program. It might be adapted into a Z-Degree program. I’m not sure if this is currently a “live” program or how many students may be using it. The point is that my institution does not grant a lot of Associate’s Degrees, but we do have significant issues with student textbook expense. So will any efforts be funded under this statute to increase OER on my campus?

If the system office can invest in providing “opportunities for faculty to identify, review, adapt, author, and adopt open educational resources” and “develop incentives” for faculty at four-year institutions as well as 2-year, then I think BSU will be a potential beneficiary. I’ve authored three OER and counting, and other faculty on campus are working on original textbooks and ancillary materials, and on adopting more open learning resources to reduce student costs. I’ll be devoting a significant amount of time next semester to spreading the word about OER on campus, documenting new and ongoing efforts to reduce student expense, and leading bi-weekly training in OER concepts and tools. Hopefully the new interest in open education shown by the governor and legislature in this bill will not be limited to only the Z-Degree Associate’s initiative. In the longer run, there may be opportunities to move many Bachelor’s Degree programs to either greatly-reduced- or zero-textbook-cost models. A more liberal reading of the three “musts” in the bill that opens some funding to efforts at four-year institutions would facilitate this change.

Weekend reading via Hypothes.is

A couple of the most valuable features of Hypothes.is, for me as a reader, are the ability to easily look through my list of annotations to see what I’ve been reading and pull it together into reflections on that reading. That’s what I’m doing this morning: taking a look at the notes I’ve taken as I’ve read several articles this weekend and seeing what I can learn from that. The second valuable feature is that I can do the same thing with the annotation feeds of other people. That allows me to follow the breadcrumb trails of others who are interested in the same sorts of issues, which expands the discoverable material and potentially begins conversations about that material and the issues we found in it. This can be a two-way street, as I discovered when I began following another Hypothes.is user (gowellja) and commenting on some of his annotations, and he not only responded but started doing the same.

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So what were some of the things I ran into this weekend? Inside Higher Ed ran a story a week or two ago about publisher Wiley buying ed-tech company Knewton, which prompted a response by Rajiv Jhangiani about the distinction between openwashing, where publishers pretend to be embracing OER while really locking resources behind access paywalls, and open-wrapping where publishers provide “value-added services that map onto OER.” My question about this is, aren’t publishers who do this merely shifting their focus from a desire to “eat the lunch” of OER authors to an even broader desire to displace the instructors who normally create and provide the “value-added services” that wrap around textbooks? I assume Rajiv (who is famously outspoken) was trying extra-hard to be nice. But my immediate reaction to open-wrapping is to consider expanding the scope of my CC licenses to include NC, which hopefully would prevent a publisher from wrapping my content into a format that would try to disrupt my role as an instructor.

From there I followed a link that led me to Amy Collier’s essay on “Not-Yetness” which she describes as a “space that allows for emergence.” I like the idea that collaboration happens in this “not-yet” space where the object hasn’t quite hardened into its final form. I’m going to start experimenting with “publishing” Pressbooks OER texts before they’re 100% done and then encouraging students to annotate them with questions and comments as I use them in my classes while I continue to build them. For example, there’s an evolution from a series of lectures to a survey textbook – but why shouldn’t that evolution be visible to the outside world and a bit more collaborative. Rebus seems to be doing something similar with their textbook production projects, but in a highly organized format I find a bit off-putting. Maybe I’ll become more comfortable with their organized collaboration over time, but maybe this more student-centered approach is an alternative until then.

From there I moved on to looking for texts to use in my “History of High Tech” course this fall. I went looking for Chris Hughes’ NYT article, “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook” after hearing Kara Swisher’s May 10 interview him on a Recode Decode bonus episode. I’ve already listened to the audible version of Roger McNamee’s book, Zucked, which I think highlights a lot of the important issues. I’m planning to talk about these present issues at the end of the semester, after tracing the growth of the personal computing and communications sectors that enabled these unanticipated problems. I’ll also be referring a lot to Jaron Lanier for not only historical perspective but a sense that the outcome we got was not inevitable. This led me to Hypothes.is user gowellja’s annotations of Engelbart’s seminal paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect” which mind-blowingly was written in the year of my birth. This article had been on my radar along with Bush’s “As We May Think” which dates all the way back to the end of WWII and will probably be a starting-point of my course. It’s fun to know that others are following similar threads and having interesting thoughts about these texts.

Gowellja had also commented on an EdSurge article a couple of days ago about the Gates Foundation’s attempt to measure the value of college. He made what I thought was an interesting point about measurability, and we had a little discussion about that in back-and-forth responses to his comment. I was also interested in the article’s observation that often “rankings have focused on the input side of the equation, not the output.” I think the Gates approach is often incredibly ham-handed, but not necessarily a bad question to be asking, esp. as digital education begins disrupting brick-and-mortar schools. Can we be more explicit about the value we add as educators?

Continuing to follow gowellja’s annotations, I read an Atlantic article from last August on the “crisis” in the Humanities. The main takeaway from the article, I thought, was ultimately that the surveys that lead to compelling headlines may be asking he wrong questions. Between the lines, it seemed for example that history course enrollment is decreasing the most at institutions (big private universities and R-1s) that offer MA and PhD terminal degrees and may actually be increasing at those (regional universities) that offer only bachelors. A big discovery of the surveys seems to be that for most students, the great recession of 2008 never ended. An unaddressed issue influencing the perception that students have become more vocationally focused was the mountainous debt students now face. Could that be a contributing factor to the more precipitous decreased in Humanities enrollment at the most expensive schools? Another graph showed that between about 2010 and the present the number of women getting Humanities degrees has decreased to be about equal to men. The implication there might be that degrees for women finally relate to careers rather than to general preparedness for the “Mrs” degree. That may be bad for course enrollment, but it may also be a positive change for society.

The Atlantic article linked to an AHA article about declines in history enrollment. This was the source of the info the Atlantic cited about the disparities in decreasing enrollments between large and small institutions. But this article also failed to address the relative costs of enrollments at these schools, OR the likelihood that survey courses (where most of the decline is at the large schools but most of the growth is seen at small schools) at regional universities like mine tend to be taught by fulltime faculty like myself, while at big, expensive schools they’re often substantially or entirely taught by grad student TAs. The AHA article did mention that graduate enrollment in History was down 12% in the three years between the 2013-14 and 2016-17 academic years. Again, that’s unfortunate for History grad programs – but has anybody asked how many new History PhDs should America be producing each year?

All this reading led me ultimately to a reading list from The Disquantified Reading Group which was not only a great source of additional stuff to read but a very interesting example of how to do course content in an outward-facing way that makes it accessible to more people than just the current cohort of the current course. I’m going to try to emulate this, as much as I can, in my summer and fall courses.


New Focus and Look

I haven’t been doing a lot of personal blogging recently, and I’ve begun focusing much more on my two professional interests, Environmental History and Open Education. So I decided to change this blog to reflect that focus.

Welcome to OERFuture.net!

This will document my process learning about and talking about open educational resources and my own work to make my courses and teaching more open and collaborative. I’m not sure exactly where this will lead, but I’ll talk about it whatever it turns out to be. Of course, the opinions I express are my own and don’t necessarily represent those of any institution or organization I’m affiliated with, yada yada.

I’ve published a few OER and have several in the pipeline. In general my goal is to make all of my course material outward-facing and available to the public. This has something to do with some disruptive ideas I have about the future of higher education which I’ll elaborate in more detail at a later date. In the meantime, suffice it to say that one of my goals is to make all my course material and as much of the supplemental reading as possible open to the public.

Blow are links to my OER. I’m going to provide links to these that allow you to use Hypothes.is to highlight and annotate what you read. This makes you part of an ongoing conversation about the texts which I hope will grow and spread. Your reactions to what you read will also give me feedback about things I might be able to clarify or expand on, or things that need more explanation, stronger arguments, or basically more work. For more info about Hypothes.is, check out the videos I made for my students. Also, if you want to give me feedback but not in a public forum, you can email me.


American Environmental History textbook

A Short Handbook for writing essays in the Humanities and Social Sciences, with Salvatore F. Allosso, PhD.

The Ranney Letters: Family Correspondence During the Yankee Expansion, a primary source reader of 19th-century letters with historical background.

Works in Progress (textbooks or other projects I’m working on, which are not yet complete but may be useful while I’m working on them. Part of the project of open learning involves students and instructors, readers and authors collaborating in the creation of knowledge. Reader annotations and reactions to these works in progress will help me and my collaborators produce the best possible versions of the projects.):

US History I: Precolonial to Reconstruction, my extensive revision of the Openstax US History textbook.

Enthusiasts drive OER growth

I was reading through the Seaman & Seaman report on the Babson Survey, “Freeing the Textbook”. One chart jumped out at me. It showed that faculty knowledge of the existence of OER has been growing slowly over recent years. I thought it was pretty significant that the real growth in this graph is in the “Very Aware” category while the other two stayed about the same. I think it’s worth noting that the growth is in the enthusiast column rather than in the “meh” columns. That’s good news, and also probably a suggestion of where we should be allocating resources.

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From Seaman & Seaman, “Freeing the Textbook” p. 8, CC-BY-SA

My adventure with OER (or drinking from a firehose)

I began my OER journey with a lot of questions. OER seemed to have a steep learning curve, a lot of jargon, and a small community of very enthusiastic proponents. But let me back up a bit.

I began my teaching career at Bemidji State University as an emergency adjunct replacement for a professor who went on sick leave just about two weeks before the beginning of fall semester (2017). That semester I had the opportunity to pick a textbook for the World History II survey, but no time to really evaluate one. I took a stab in the dark and picked one. It was fine, but not spectacular. I added a lot to the content in my lectures, which I sort-of figured was an instructor’s job, after all. The following semester the professor expected to come back but about two weeks after classes began, she concluded she would not be able to return to work. I was rehired to cover her classes, and in this case to use the textbook she had chosen and that most of the students had already purchased. This textbook was different from the one I had chosen, but not really better or worse. In both cases I assigned students readings from the textbook each week and supplemented the material presented there with additional information in lectures covering the issues and events I thought had been missed or inadequately covered. The professor had ordered a companion reader, so in addition to lecturing to cover and supplement the textbook chapters, I had weekly discussions with students about the material in the reader.

Much of the companion reader’s content consisted of primary sources from modern world history, surrounded by a brief biographical or historical framing sketch to make the passage understandable to the student reader and some questions to provoke discussion afterward. There was nothing wrong with these passages or their frames. But there was nothing earth-shattering about them. They were the expected primary sources with the expected padding. In some cases, they were a bit too abbreviated for my tastes and I wished the editors had spent less time setting the scene and instead had provided more of the original document. I suppose they felt pressure to “add value” as all these readings are in the public domain.

Adding to my dissatisfaction, of course, was the fact that the textbook was costing the students $150 and the companion reader an additional $50. I was teaching two sections of World History II with caps of 75 each. Although each section only filled about halfway, that was still 75 students spending a total of $15,000, and it could have been much worse. I realized I was being a bit hard on the publisher with my dissatisfaction. No textbook is perfectly satisfying in its interpretation or theme, or contains exactly what you want to focus a class on. But for that kind of money, I felt justified in being highly critical.

I also had a number of students who I was aware did not have a copy of the textbook, or who waited a significant number of weeks at the beginning of the semester for financial aid funds to become available so they could buy it. The campus bookstore had ordered a number of used copies, but they tended to be bought first, leaving people buying later with only the choice of an expensive, new textbook. When the professor retired and I was hired to replace her, I determined that I’d do something about the expense. I applied for a grant offered through the state system office, to join a learning circle devoted to course redesign or authoring ancillary materials or OER. I announced in my application I’d be redesigning my World History survey (when I arrived in the learning circle I discovered Pressbooks and changed my first project to porting my American Environmental History textbook to an OER, but that’s another story).

When I joined the course, I discovered that the learning curve for OER seemed a bit steeper than I had anticipated. There seemed to be quite a bit of jargon and quite a bit of history that people within the movement had shared and used as a basis of discussion. I began hearing references to David Wiley, and when I googled him I was inundated with material to try to absorb quickly. It felt a bit like drinking from a firehose. I looked for a photo or image of that to illustrate this post, but couldn’t find one with CC license (I also took a CC Certification course that fall, which ultimately helped A LOT).

In time, I realized that the OER learning curve seems steeper than it actually is. Although there are plenty of jargon-rich pockets for pedagogy and praxis fans, a lot of this OER stuff is pretty straightforward. Even the second-generation open learning ideas people like Robin DeRosa are moving toward (beyond the initial discussion of OER as a way to save students money on textbooks) can be expressed in plain English and implemented by regular folk like myself, I think. Bring students into the process of creating knowledge, both for themselves and others. That seems pretty basic and doable. It also fits into my general interest in making all info I create available for any punk like me anywhere in the world, and not just behind campus LMS walls.

As I get going on my plan to begin talking to faculty at my school (we’re having a lunchtime introductory thing during finals week this semester and then kicking off bi-weekly brunch-and-learns this fall), I’m reminded of my own initial reactions. I was a volunteer and pretty motivated to climb that hill, and I still found the OER world daunting. According to the 2016 analysis of 16 major studies, only about a third of faculty who haven’t used OER have any idea what it is. So how are they going to feel when they discover that a first-year Asst. Professor hoping to make a name for himself has gotten the attention and backing of some administrators who want to promote this new thing for faculty to work on?

As I see it, there are basically three constituencies involved in OER: students, faculty, and administration. There’s a potential fourth, textbook publishers, but their involvement is complicated and I’ll save it for later. Each of the three have different perspectives, priorities, and concerns. There’s potential for conflict, but conflict isn’t inevitable or necessary. There’s an equal potential for synergy, if the path is planned and executed thoughtfully. That’s what I’m going to try to do, and I’m going to document it here.

Moving a State University toward OER

I just wrote a proposal to present a case study of the process I’ve begun observing and participating in this year, at a conference in the fall. I’m trying to move my campus, Bemidji State University, part of the Minnesota State (MinnState) System toward a more open education process. I became aware of OER in 2018 when I began creating open content, adjusting my teaching away from using expensive textbooks, and began to advocate for change on my campus. As I began discussing open resources with different people on my campus and in the state system, I became aware of a variety of different constituencies that are interested in and affected by OER in different ways. Among them are:

  • Students, who bear the cost of expensive textbooks. In many cases, textbook expense results in avoided courses, fewer courses taken per semester, lower grades (especially when students try to power through courses without texts), and increased time to completing a degree which reduces odds of finishing. Students express their frustration with textbook expense to their representatives in campus and system-wide student government organizations and statewide and national advocacy groups (PIRGs) that often have the ear of state and national legislators. Occasionally this frustration manifests in the form of legislative proposals designed to break logjams and spur action, which can be a valuable corrective to an overly cautious approach to change by other constituents.
  • Faculty, who are often already trying to minimize textbook expense by compiling course-packs or posting readings online in the campus LMS. Some are concerned about additional job expectations. Many see the potential of using technology to not only reduce student cost and reorganize courses, but to bring students more actively into the processes of learning and knowledge creation. There is a wide range of faculty engagement with OER, including adoption, remixing, revision, and full-on authoring; and there is still a degree of confusion regarding what is being asked of faculty when they are directed to consider OER. Most faculty understand their roles as teachers are changing in a variety of ways and that they have a choice of how they will respond to change. Many, when given the chance, would prefer to help direct change rather than simply react to it.
  • Administrators, who want to reduce expenses for students to help improve their learning outcomes, and often also want to encourage faculty to adopt evolving best practices regarding issues like accessibility, new pedagogy, and a more active learning environment. OER is a natural addition to a more digital approach to education and is a less restrictive and expensive path than “inclusive access” or “first-day adoption” digital solutions offered by publishers. Administrators are typically sensitive to faculty concerns regarding academic freedom and are aware that shifting to OER entails significant academic work, but would also like to encourage faculty to make the effort to shift to a more open approach. In many cases, administrators can provide incentives that are more effective than mandates and find early adopters with carrots rather than sticks.
  • Textbook publishers sometimes portray themselves as players in the open education field. Often they provide access to texts or ancillary learning materials that may be technically free to reuse, remix, revise, and redistribute under an open license such as CC. Usually, that access is supplied in the context of a service that restricts access to a certain population of subscribers for a fixed duration. Since not all academic publishers are for profit businesses, it is not impossible that some may more fully embrace elements of open education. But the other constituents of the OER community need to remain vigilant of “deals” that appear to offer openness within a “walled garden” or promise to reduce costs per student in return for monopoly privileges in departments, colleges, or entire campuses.


Since these various constituencies have different perspectives and immediate concerns, there is potential for disagreement where interests or priorities do not match. Some potential conflicts of interest:

  • Student frustration with the slow movement of change.
  • Faculty concerns over academic freedom in the face of calls either to adopt turnkey learning management from publishers or to approve OER alternatives to standard texts in their courses.
  • Administrative interest in quantifying outcomes such as student savings or additional enrollment in courses advertised as low-cost or zero-cost, when anecdotal accounts of improved results may have seemed sufficient to instructors.
  • Publisher (or bookstore) concerns over reduced share of the textbook market.


A program to increase OER acceptance in a State System should include an attempt to understand the interests and priorities of each constituency and to find compromises and synergies whenever possible. For example, student frustration over slow change that spurs student advocacy groups to back legislation including mandates is generally resisted by faculty (and their unions) as challenges to academic freedom. While these concerns are valid, so is the student frustration. The fact that students and their organizations often have access to legislators can be used to help motivate faculty to move outside their comfort zones and increase the pace of change.

I’m going to be engaging in a program to increase OER acceptance at Bemidji State University next academic year. I’ll be documenting my process of trying to understand and engage with each of these constituent groups. Some of the issues I experience may be unique to BSU and the MinnState System, but I suspect many will be more generally relevant to statewide Higher Ed systems in America. So I expect my documenting this case study will be useful to others seeking to promote OER in other systems.