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.

 

 

Hypothes.is is complicated…

I’m learning about Hypothes.is, currently listening to a video by Jeremy Dean (Director of Education at Hypothes.is), of I think it was the first Google webinar about using Hypothes.is in undergraduate English classes. It’s available here:

 

 

Now it DOES seem to me that English majors may be a bit predisposed to annotation and close reading. But History should probably be a close second. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a bit of a learning curve, or that I shouldn’t have a couple of different levels of engagement for students at different levels.

Initially, I’m inclined to make the first interaction with annotation happen inside a safe “Group” space where the student’s responses won’t be out on the web forever. There’s a group function in Hypothes.is now that I think I can use to make spaces where students are going to see all their cohort’s annotations but not the whole outside world’s. This may also be a solution to the problem of basic texts being overwhelmed with annotations that limit the new student’s freedom of movement in reacting to the text. What I mean by that is, a new student (say a freshman in a Modern World History survey) may not be prepared to say something about “The White Man’s Burden” or Mein Kampf that they’ll be comfortable existing out on the web forever. And, equally important, the expectations for responses I’m expecting from students should not ratchet up every semester, which I think they would if students each semester are confronted with not only the text, but with a growing cluster of responses that they have to read, if only to figure out where to situate their own response. This means the complexity of the exercise expands each semester, while each semester the people asked to do it are still in their first semester.

I AM very excited about beginning to use this tool, and I think I’m just going to jump in and try it this week, even though it’s the 13th week of the semester. I’m going to try to figure out how to annotate pdfs, because that’s what I usually post in D2L and assign written responses prior to our weekly discussions. I’m unsatisfied with these, because exactly the opposite of the issue I mentioned in the last paragraph applies. Students see only the text and none of their classmates’ ideas on them, which is just a bit too raw for many students. I think having to say something their peers were going to see would probably encourage many to try a bit harder, and I think it might also spur some to find something beyond the obvious to say about a passage of text.

 

Okay, first thing is I scanned a document and loaded it up to my Dropbox. I can open the “share” url and Hypothes.is will see it, but won’t let me highlight and annotate. I seem to be limited to Page Notes, which is better than nothing but not what I was hoping for. I can’t use the “paste into Hypothes.is” function because Via can’t allow users to get to it without permission. I assume this would be the same issue inside an LMS or a campus network drive application like Onedrive. So this will not work as a way to get my students to comment on this pdf I want to load up.

I could (possibly by next semester) figure a way to make course materials accessible on the outside-facing web so that my students can interact with them in a more open way (an advantage of this would be that this knowledge would be more permanent, in that they could return to it after the end of the semester. I dislike the idea that learning is becoming more ephemeral as it moves online. I have textbooks, texts, and notebooks from long ago – would I be missing that opportunity to add to a permanent store of knowledge if I was a student in my own classes now? Are we in danger of trivializing learning by moving it into these electronic formats?

The difficulty seems to be how to get students to engage with material that is copyrighted and cannot be used openly on the web? In the long run, OER can replace most survey textbooks in entry-level classes. But what about when I have an upper-level History course and I want my students to engage with monograph chapters or articles that are not in the pubic domain? Need to have a version of hypothes.is or a similar tool that works within the LMS or at least in the campus network drive.

There also seems to be a difference between the students who would be candidates for a full-on lesson on how to create their own hypothes.is account and the “Paste a link” candidates. Or maybe I’m getting that wrong. Do students have to create an account in the “Paste” scenario too? Then maybe I’m better off waiting until the fall. Maybe this is better – it will allow me to create some standards for what I’m looking for in responses, rubrics for grading them, etc. Disappointing, but probably wiser. A bit frustrating and a barrier to entry though, which I wonder if the Hypothes.is power users are completely aware of?

PS. Another disappointment: I was going to install hypothes.is on my WordPress blog, but they want me to upgrade from my present plan (which costs me nearly $100 a year) to a Business plan that would be $263. Two words come quickly to mind. My days at WordPress may be numbered.

Current Minnesota legislation related to open education

Executive summary: There are four bills in front of the Minnesota legislature currently. Three involve poorly-funded mandates; one offers incentives for positive change.

The Bills:

SF130 was introduced 1/14/2019 and is titled “Affordable Textbooks”. This bill defines an affordable textbook as any textbook that costs $40 or less. These could be traditional print textbooks, OER, “or other educational resources intended to be used in place of a traditional textbook.” This means, subscription-based products from mainstream textbook publishers in addition to open-licensed OER. Although reducing textbooks costs is an apparent goal of the bill, it could be used to move from print textbooks to less-expensive digital alternatives while avoiding a shift to OER.

The Bill calls for 15% of courses at state colleges and universities to use “affordable textbooks” by August 31 2021. It does not specify a cap for spending per course, so it is conceivable that a course with multiple textbooks or with a textbook and supplementary texts could still result in student spending in excess of $40.

The issue with this bill is that $40 seems to be an arbitrary number. Does it relate to current student spending? Does it relate to the cost of “other educational resources” the textbook companies are preparing to roll out? And finally, how is the state going to legally require 15% of courses to use “affordable textbooks”?

 

SF699 was introduced 1/31/2019 and is titled “Z-Degrees”. The bill defines Z-Degree as a zero-textbook-cost associates degree and requires each “college” to “offer the opportunity to earn a Z-Degree”. “College” may mean universities as individual units, or it may mean every college within a university. Z-Degree course offerings must include “at least two distinct [zero-textbook-cost] courses in each transfer curriculum goal area and at least enough credits in each transfer curriculum goal area to complete the transfer curriculum package.”

SF699 specifically includes a requirement that “Each instructor must review and approve open educational resources for use in a course.” It defines OER as OER advocates would expect: “high-quality teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and repurposing by others, and may include other resources that are legally available and free of cost to students.” This is a good working definition of OER; the sticking point in this bill seems to be the “Each instructor must review and approve” part. This seems to be a violation of the faculty’s contract and against the spirit of academic freedom. And the appropriation associated with this whole Z-Degree mandate is $2 million spread across two years, for the entire system! That’s probably not enough to pay for the work involved in making a Z-Degree happen in every college in the state, even if everybody was excited to do it and ready to go. And how are administrators going to force faculty to review and “approve” (but not adopt) OER?

 

SF2214 was introduced 3/7/2019 (its companion HF2426 was introduced 3/13/2019) and is titled “Inclusive Access Pilot Program”. It is a short bill which calls for a pilot program to “address textbook affordability in postsecondary institutions and determine the cost savings for both students and the participating institutions.” Inclusive access is defined as “digital distribution of course material instead of traditional textbooks”. The bill calls for BSU and South Central College to be pilot sites that would “receive incentive funding…for purposes of developing and utilizing inclusive access for all courses offered at the institution, where available.” This sounds very cool at first glance. BSU would get incentives…to do what?

It turns out that “inclusive access” is a sneaky code-word for requiring all students to purchase license keys for a publisher’s digital “walled garden” of educational material (some of which may in fact be open, but it’s all behind the pay-wall). This cost would be assessed as a mandatory course fee. So it would probably be lower than current textbook costs – at least to start. The other sneaky clause in the bill is “for all courses offered at the institution”. Once Pearson achieves a monopoly of all the courses on campus, then it will no longer have to compete on price.

 

Finally, HF2730 was introduced 3/27/2019, amending MN Statue 2018 section 136F.58 to include incentives for “Open textbook development”. This bill calls for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities to “develop a program to expand the use of open textbooks in college and university courses.” It calls on the system office to “provide opportunities for faculty to identify, review, adapt, author, and adopt open textbooks” and to “develop incentives” to meet those goals.

The system office will (“in coordination with faculty bargaining units”) develop a “program that identifies high-enrollment academic programs and provides faculty within the selected disciplines incentives to jointly adapt or author an open textbook.” The bill is careful to specify, though, that these activities “must be implemented pursuant to faculty collective bargaining agreements that govern academic freedom and textbook choice.” So, it’s a carrot instead of a stick and it will provide faculty with incentives to choose a path that both supports student cost-reduction and respects academic freedom.

How much of a carrot? The bill would allocate $500,000 over two years, which isn’t a bad start. As high-volume programs started quantifying their savings, presumably that number would increase. An incentive ratio of 10% has apparently been discussed (based on success in other states), where a department might receive an incentive payment of 10% of the money they saved students using their new OER. This seems like a good idea, although the system might want to “prime the pump” a bit to move a couple of high-volume programs and get the process started.

 

Takeaway from the bills:

Academic freedom seems to be challenged when legislation attempts to impose mandates (especially unfunded or poorly-funded ones) in place of incentives. If passed, laws of this type would probably be challenged by faculty unions, with good cause. However, incentives and an appeal for volunteers might get the OER ball rolling on campus.

Remixing an OER textbook

This is a 12-ish minute long episode of History in 5-or-so Minutes, in vlog format this time, in which I talk about beginning to rewrite the Openstax US History textbook. I’m going to use this as the basis of a US History I class this spring, but not before I revise it sunstantially. I’ll discuss those revisions chapter by chapter as I rewrite or as I create PowerPoint lectures and videos using the content.