More thoughts about Z-Degrees

proxy.duckduckgo.jpgThe Minnesota Legislature passed a budget a month or so ago that includes funding and a directive to the MinnState public higher education system to create three zero-textbook-cost Z-Degree programs in the next academic year and report the OER and other textbook-replacement savings in two annual installments, this year and next. I think the reports that detail the changes and associated savings are going to be the really important aspect of this initiative and are going to provide a lot of good information as well as documenting effects that extend well beyond the number of students who may actually get Associate’s Degrees without spending a penny on textbooks.

Z-Degree is a very sexy meme, and I understand why attention is drawn to it. But realistically, is the goal to get students through college without spending a penny on a textbook? Or is it to reduce expenses to much more manageable levels like those of a few decades ago, before textbook publishers began increasing their prices at rates an order of magnitude greater than inflation? And should the real focus be on providing zero-textbook-cost for a few students, or on reducing costs for most or all students?

It’s obviously much more difficult to offer a Z-Degree in a Bachelor’s program, as I’ve already mentioned. There more upper-level courses where there’s less chance a viable OER text exists. But at Bemidji State University, there are also ten Liberal Education Goal Areas where students need to take courses ranging from “People of the Environment” to Math and Critical Thinking. In addition to providing a zero-textbook-cost (Z) path through the major, in order to offer a true Z-Degree in History my department would need to insure that all the departments responsible for the other goal areas offered a zero-textbook-cost course our Z students could take.

So it seems that if a university wanted to offer a Z-Degree, there would be two separate tasks to work on. First, finding a department willing to create a zero-textbook-cost path through its own major (again, we wouldn’t need to guarantee that all paths through would be Z, but at least one realistic path). Second, the Liberal Education contributors would need to provide a realistic path through all the core requirements. The legislature specified in the directive they gave MinnState that at least two courses in each transfer pathway curriculum goal had to be Z. That’s probably not a bad goal to shoot for – and these Z core courses would have to be offered frequently enough that any student could accumulate them.

I feel like I always have to say, when I talk about Z-Degrees, that I’m actually a little ambivalent about the concept. Very-low-textbook-cost (VLTC) programs seem much more realistic, much more doable, and much more likely to have really widespread impact on our students. Is it worth jumping on the Z bandwagon because that will carry us closer to our real goal of VLTC? I think it may be; especially if politicians want to throw money at trying to achieve it.

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.