Fight the Tide?


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?

Toward a better appreciation of D2L

These are some thoughts I had today after a conversation with Dan McGuire of SABIER. But I should stress that although catalyzed by some things Dan said, responsibility for these musings is mine alone – especially if they’re flakey!

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I met Dan at the “E”ffordability Summit at UW Stout last March. He lives in the Twin Cities, so we had that in common. And he used to work for AT&T during their foray into the PC market, so we have that common tech experience too.

I had asked Dan to talk to me a bit about the history of OER before I became involved and interested in it in the last year. After his career in computers, Dan worked for the Minneapolis Public Schools for sixteen years. Then he helped Augsburg University shift all (400+) of their courses from face-to-face to a hybrid model, using Moodle. Dan was also involved in making a K-12 science curriculum, where he said part of the key to the district’s success was teaching and encouraging teachers to both create and to curate open content. Curate may be a relevant term for me to remember as I’m talking with faculty.

One thing that has struck me about the difference between K-12 and Higher Ed is that K-12 is much more focused on shared standards than many Higher Ed faculty seem to be. In the MinnState system we’re beginning to focus on a transfer pathways curriculum, which may be a way of establishing some uniformity between the ways similar courses are taught at various campuses. The bulk of the focus, naturally, seems to be directed at the 2-year to 4-year transition; but along the way there may also be a little more visibility from one 4-year institution to the next. Maybe even a chance to collaborate.

Dan and I dicussed that faculty sometimes seem acutely concerned about the possibility of losing autonomy or authority over their curricula and course content in a shift to more open resources, although I don’t think this is a necessary result of such a change. Dan suggested that a way to avoid a loss of control might be for faculty to drive the change. They should take authorship, I think he said, because everybody would be happier to have instructors drive this change. Nobody in the institution really wants to take on this task. The implication I’ve picked up in some other conversations, though, seems to be that some of the other constituents will push for someone else to drive the change, if faculty don’t step up.

Then the conversation shifted to an issue that seems to concern Dan quite a bit. He made the case for what he described as an “elegant” combination of tools like Pressbooks,, and D2L. I was a bit surprised, because I hadn’t really considered the LMS to be a player in this new open ecosystem I’ve been imagining for my courses. Sometimes it’s easy to see the LMS as a necessary but less-than-ideal partner. The more I thought about it, though, the more sense it made to try to try to make the LMS a key component of a new course design. Especially when the alternative may be abandoning that territory to the control of a corporate turnkey solution that purports to reduce instructor effort but may really be trying to (or may inadvertently) disintermediate teachers.

Until now, I hadn’t really considered the LMS as a potential bulwark in a defense against encroachment by corporate “homework and assessment” providers. Several publishers seem to be attracted to this new value add – some have even gone so far as to declare the traditional textbook “content” market is dead. If the profitability of course content ever approaches zero due to the growing number of people like me who share our content in the commons under CC licenses, they seem ready to jump ship and make their money elsewhere. Of course, the value of content doesn’t really approach zero – but content creation is complex and expensive to manage. So maybe it makes sense to jump. Apparently (I hadn’t really thought of it this way until now), several for-profit corporations including some that present themselves as the best friends of “Open” are targeting traditional LMS functions such as homework and quizzing, providing “solutions” that replicate the things instructors traditionally do inside an LMS like D2L. This may be more problematic than just disintermediating instructors, though.

I’m a big fan of Jaron Lanier and for years I’ve been reading his books about the problems of the internet, server “stacks” that gain competitive advantages from the data they harvest from users, filter bubbles, and social media algorithms. The problem with a big “stack” like Amazon or Google is that they have the ability to use information they accumulated by offering your free email or keeping track of decades worth of your searches, to create a competitive advantage that other folks who lack the access to extreme network effects can’t share. What happens if we give student information to an organization and allow it to become a “stack”? It might make business sense for a corporation to give free access and free services to users in order to aggregate data. If the users are poor students or budget-constrained institutions and the services replace expensive textbooks or provide infrastructure or tools that typically come with a price-tag, that can seem like a good idea.

There’s a simple reason corporations want to give you stuff in return for your data: because the data has value. Even if you can’t capitalize on that value yorself, your competitor can. If an institution is concerned about competition from outside its walls (and most probably should be), then why would they ever give away their most valuable asset for short-term cost reductions? And what about student privacy? If a corporation knows everything about a student except her name, do they really not know her name if they want to?

Thought experiment: what would happen if a for-profit corporation that portrayed itself as a friend of the open movement found itself talking to a state university system that had just been tasked by legislators with creating Z-Degrees at three of its 2-year campuses in a single academic year. The friendly corporation could offer OER textbooks sourced from the commons, to help the system show a reduction in student textbook costs. It could bundle those OER textbooks with homework and assessment products that aren’t free but don’t count as a textbook expense, so the system could adopt them and meet the requirements of its mandate. The system could buy a turnkey solution and market it to instructors as a reduction of their workloads.

What would be wrong with that? It might reduce student out-of-pocket expenses, if the course fees or tuition bump associated with the “inclusive access” homework and testing systems weren’t too high. And it would certainly reduce textbook expense, even if it didn’t reduce overall student expenses that much. Maybe some of the money could come from the funds the legislature earmarked for the system to incentivize faculty adoption or remixing or authoring OER. Oh wait, that means that money wouldn’t be available for faculty to actually do that. Well, maybe dealing with one friendly, open-seeming corporation is easier and faster than convincing a lot of instructors and professors to change the way they’ve been doing things?

The problem (or one of several problems) is that in the long run, if faculty don’t lead the change, they’re going to be left behind by change. Outsourcing the change is probably an effective way of preventing most faculty from changing. The system pays for the change it is mandated to achieve, but faculty who are not directly affected by the purchased changes go on living their lives as before. They don’t see any of their peers doing a new thing, getting excited about it, getting rewarded for it. To whatever degree the change (Z-Degrees or whatever else) becomes the hot new thing, they drift farther from the cutting edge. To the extent that an outside vendor is providing the cutting edge, the value of the rest of the faculty is decreased.

These are just some ideas I had after an interesting conversation this afternoon. I’ll think about them some more, and probably talk with Dan about them again soon as well as some other people. They may be completely off base – and if you think so, set me straight! They’re certainly no one’s responsibility but mine.

MinnState Showcase Slides

A couple of people have been curious about the presentations people made at the MinnState OER Showcase last week. While I don’t have and can’t make public all the poswerpoint slides, I can post my own, which were basically a summary of what I’ve accomplished over the two semesters I was involved in Learning Circles and Leader Training facilitated by Karen Pikula. Here they are:

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“Podcast” Chapters

I’ve made video lectures of chapters from my American Environmental History text — now I’m also making audio “podcasts” of the chapters so people can listen tot he chapters on the go. Here are the first three:


Chapter 1: Prehistory

Chapter 2: Recontact

Also available on soundcloud.

Optimal Annotation?

What’s the optimal amount of annotating?

I’m planning to use to have my students annotate readings and discuss their reactions and interpretations with each other online, this summer and fall. During the summer session I’m teaching an online “Readings in American Environmental History” course, so any discussion of texts we would do would necessarily be online. But I’m not particularly thrilled with the experiences I’ve had trying to run online discussions in my university’s LMS (D2L), which seems particularly ill-suited to the task. Maybe if we had something available like Slack and Canvas I’d be more excited about trying to do discussions in the shell. Even so, I suspect I’d be leaning toward using directly. And in my fall classes (three in person, one online), I’d like to grow beyond the model I’ve been using, where the students’ written responses to readings are only visible to me. I think posting responses that their peers will read and respond to could be an incentive to more thoughtful engagement with the material. It will also set a baseline of sorts and may tend to raise the bar a bit as students see the efforts their peers are making. And beginning a discussion in may make the transition to in-person discussion in class smoother and easier.

One issue I’ve encountered as I’ve begun preparing to assign web-based readings is, how much prior annotation is optimal for a reading I’m going to ask my students to highlight and annotate? There are several possible approaches, which each seem to have their pros and cons. My first thought was I would go with a well-annotated source, such as the famous 1962 Doug Engelbart essay, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” which I was considering assigning in my fall course, “History of High Tech: Computers and Communications”. According to, this essay has 408 annotations, including nineteen I made myself. Earlier this year, the essay was the subject of a formal annotation event sponsored by Gardner Campbell and the Doug Engelbart Institute and featuring luminaries such as Howard Rheingold (see Gardner’s video conversation with Howard here). I was personally excited to read the annotations and comments of these folks and eavesdrop on their conversations regarding Englebart’s ideas. I threw some thoughts into a couple of these conversations, and I did manage to find several points to comment on, where I thought there were gaps in the conversation that had been had already.

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I was impressed with the ideas raised by the annotation group, and I suppose I was a bit gratified that the format of the project not only allowed me to add my own comments that would be visile to the previous annotators (a core feature of, but how the project page includes a feed of “Latest Annotations” that currently lists five of my own made yesterday. Will this feed (or will the notification feature in itself) lead to some of these previous annotators seeing and responding to my comments? That’s an exciting possibility. But is it a level of exposure I want to impose on my students, the first time they use a tool like this?

Another heavily-annotated volume I might use this fall is Robin DeRosa’s Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, published as a Pressbook in 2015. I could use this as a source of readings for my World History course like the excerpt from Columbus’s Journal of the First Voyage to America. Once again, assigning this version of the reading in my class will help my students understand that they are part of a much wider community of readers and learners working on and responding to this text. But…is there already too much here? The passage currently has 244 annotations. As I read through them, some seem very insightful and some seem less so. There are sections of the text that are heavily commented and others where whole paragraphs go by without a word. What effect will the annotations and the gaps have on my students? Do I want their reading and responses to be influenced (determined?) by a previous group of students? Would I learn more about their engagement, responses, and gaps in reaction if I assigned my students a new, fresh version of the passage?

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Maybe I’ll give my students links to heavily-annotated versions of some documents, to serve as examples; but then assign them a fresh version to read and annotate in the class. This would mean, though, that I’m denying my students the opportunity to participate in this wider community of scholarship. Their contributions will not become visible to other scholars; their comments on annotations will never be visible to the students who originally annotated the text. No conversations will ensue. And to the extent I use “disposable” versions of readings housed within the LMS, these annotations and conversations will disappear at the end of the semester and won’t even be available to the students themselves to revisit in the future. This seems like the type of situation I really want to avoid. Almost as bad as the “inclusive access” online rental models the publishers seek to impose.

So maybe the solution is to use the power of OER to remix an open but outward-facing anthology of my own for my classes, where all the open-licensed material I’m assigning exists in a fresh form, but in a form where annotations will accumulate as I teach the courses from semester to semester. This provides a bit of continuity and a potential for conversations across semesters and student return to previously-read texts, but it doesn’t overwhelm my students with so much prior annotation that it seems impossible to say something meaningful about the reading. Maybe later in the semester or in more advanced courses, once students are comfortable with annotation, we can move out to more public venues.

If people reading this have already solved these issues to their satisfaction, I’d love to hear about it! Comment via! Thanks, –D




Minnesota OER bill not for 4-year schools?

I was initially excited about the prospect of an OER provision in the new Minnesota budget. I’m still excited, although I’ve discovered in the last day or so that the bill wasn’t really designed to address textbook costs at four-year institutions like Bemidji State University, where I work.

Based on information I gleaned from a conversation with people from the MinnState system office (some of whom were in the meetings that led to this legislation), the current bill (SF2415) is the result of a more-or-less last-minute negotiation that mashed together language from a senate bill (SF699) and a house bill (HF2730), but to some extent the senate bill came out “on top”. SF699 was the “Z-Degree” bill introduced last January, which in its original form would have mandated a zero-textbook-cost AA degree program at every college in the MinnState system and would have allocated $2 million spread over two years. This is also the source of the two-courses-per-transfer-curriculum-area stipulation used in defining a Z-Degree, which probably isn’t a bad model. SF699, which seems to have been written to address the needs of two-year institutions and pressing concerns of the two-year students’ group, LeadMN, had also included language requiring that “Each instructor must review and approve open educational resources for use in a course” – clearly a worthy goal although untenable as a mandate. At least it didn’t include the “inclusive access” pilot program language that had been floated in SF2214!

HF2730 was a much more incentive-oriented bill written with input from the IFO. It called for both colleges and universities to “develop a program to expand the use of open textbooks” and charged the system office to “provide opportunities” and “develop incentives” to meet this goal. The bill specified that these faculty efforts should be voluntary (hence the incentives) and “in coordination with faculty bargaining units”. Much of this language has been retained in the second paragraph of the budget bill (Subd. 3, a. and b.). But this paragraph does not seem to include four-year institutions in the way the original bill intended.

The charge presented in the budget bill, as the system office seems to understand it, is to develop Z-Degrees (AA degrees) at three MinnState colleges by the beginning of the 2020 academic year, and to produce two reports in January 2021 and 2022 listing “the number of courses transitioned to using an open textbook resulting from the programs in this section” and “the total amount of student textbook savings resulting from the transitions.” As you’d expect, I think the charge is too narrow because it doesn’t include four-year institutions. But I also think it’s too narrow in that it only seeks to track the number of OER adoptions in courses that contribute to the Z-Degrees. I get that they want to focus on the savings resulting directly from the establishment of these Z-Degrees. But is that really the way to measure the effect of OER adoption on a campus?

I think the system office should take the money and create three Z-Degrees. But I also think it should over-report OER results in the following ways:

  1. In addition to OER adoptions and student savings in Z-Degree courses, measurements should be taken of all OER adoptions and money saved on the two-year campuses where these Z-Degrees are created. I suspect there will be additional results and savings beyond the Z-Degree program courses, as awareness of OER increases.
  2. Measurements should also be taken of two-year and four-year campus OER adoptions and savings not involved in these three Z-Degree projects. The number of adoptions and the student dollars saved throughout the rest of the system will not only crush the savings achieved in the Z-Degree programs, it will provide guidance for future decision-making regarding where to allocate development resources and incentives.
  3. If there’s a cost associated with gathering this information, the investment will be well worth it because this data will help direct future efforts. And it will more firmly establish the system office’s expertise in determining the best ways to promote OER (as opposed to the legislature somewhat blindly following the advice of the most vocal advocates with the greatest access).

It remains a bit of a mystery to me whether two-year students are actually in a more tenuous financial position than their peers at four-year schools (BSU sits in the center of the second-poorest county in the state). But we can probably agree that all students will benefit from lowered textbook costs. I do think incentives are an important way to move faculty to make the effort to consider, adopt, adapt, and ultimately author OER. But as long as the system office has additional resources they can allocate to four-year institutions, I think it will be possible to push the program forward at BSU. It’s even possible that additional state money made available for these Z-Degrees might free up some existing system funds for projects at four-year schools. And finally, the increased legislative, administrative, faculty, student, and public attention being devoted to open education can only be good for everybody in the OER community. Greater buzz and increased statewide momentum are good for BSU, even if none of this particular appropriation comes our way. And the greater success the system has meeting the goals set out in the bill, the more likely the legislature will be to continue incenting Minnesota Higher Ed. to change.

Some specific things BSU can do to support this change are:

  1. Focus on the transfer pathways that may enable students in the three new Z-Degrees to enter bachelor’s programs.
  2. Begin making the case for the importance of “greatly-reduced-textbook-cost” (GRTC) programs as well as fully Zero-textbook-cost (ZTC) programs.
  3. Identify subsections of departmental work that might align with ZTC or GRTC, such as the History program’s service of Social Studies Education. It might be easier to provide a ZTC Social Studies track (or even minor) than a full ZTC History major.
  4. Create a “Zero-textbook-cost” designation for courses; possibly even a ZTC icon. Begin listing such courses in the catalog (this was an innovation described today at the Northeast OER Conference at UMass).
  5. Explore the possibility of Z-Degrees in BA/BS programs, using similar criteria (2 ZTC courses per goal area or major requirement). The idea wouldn’t be to guarantee that every student would avoid textbook costs, but that it would be possible to graduate without textbook expense.
  6. Explore how the Library might be able to support ZTC in upper-level courses where not all texts can be acquired without copyright restrictions. This might require some combination of access to periodical and services to which the Library subscribes, purchase of texts, ILL, and course reserves; so guidelines could be created and programs put in place to coordinate course development.

This is just a preliminary list – let me know what I ought to add!


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.