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!


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