Course Packs are analog OER

People have been trying to reduce student textbook cost for a lot longer than there has been a CC-based OER movement. I think it’s important to recognize this, when OER enthusiasts talk with other faculty. A lot of them are doing things that reduce student textbook cost every bit as much as adopting or authoring an OER – and that are related to these new activities in ways that can provide a bridge for instructors considering the new techniques and resources becoming available.

One of the ways faculty have traditionally provided lower-cost materials to students has been through course packs. When I was an undergrad in the ‘80s, I remember the “textbook annex” at UMass was filled with stacks of bundles containing articles or monograph chapters that professors had xeroxed from their own libraries. In some cases, even when there was a textbook, there would be an additional pack of readings that would be assigned over the course of the semester, for which the $5 price covered the copying cost. Nowadays, we generally scan these types of readings and post them in our LMS. The same principal of Fair Use applies to the material we post in these digital course packs; although there’s no longer a printing expense, so they can be completely free to the student.

Another source of low-cost material for students were study guides and handbooks written by faculty and printed in campus copy shops. My father wrote a writing guide called “A Short Handbook for Writing Essays in the Humanities” for UC Davis in the early ‘90s that he used in all his Comp. Lit. courses and that other faculty adopted and continued using even after his retirement. A couple of years ago he and I updated it and I added examples of writing for the Social Sciences, and it’s now available in the Open Textbook Library as a free ebook.

Many faculty over the years have reduced student cost by turning the material in textbooks into lectures, handouts, and assessments they have used in class rather than assigning textbook chapters. This may be especially effective in surveys and introductory courses, where there may be more emphasis on facts than on deeply nuanced interpretation. In my surveys, I have eliminated textbooks in favor of detailed lectures. Students can view the slides online and read my script, and can listen to a podcast or watch a video of the lecture to review. You may object that the textbook chapters I’m replacing, and which I base my lectures on, probably contain more information than I’m providing in the lecture. That’s probably true. I’ve built my lectures by focusing on the best information in several textbooks, so I may be passing over details from one or the other. But I’d counter that if the students aren’t assessed on the material, they don’t learn it. So the presence of additional information in a textbook that I don’t cover in class is largely irrelevant, in my opinion.

And then there are the newer ways that are becoming available to reduce reliance on expensive textbooks. There are OER textbooks like the ones listed in the Open Textbook Library. Some of these could be as credible a basis for a course as a commercial textbook – or are at least as good a starting point for customization. And unlike commercial textbooks, it is completely legitimate to customize, re-use, edit, and adapt an OER textbook as long as you abide by the Creative Commons license applied to it. Until recently, a lot of the emphasis in the OER world has been on authoring complete textbooks. I think that will change, as instructors realize they can re-use and remix open educational resources in a variety of ways other than just by authoring a full-on textbook.

One of the issues the OER community is dealing with that seems quite contentious is the practice of for-profit companies, bundling free OER textbooks with assessment and homework “solutions” that students are charged for. I think this is unfortunate: it not only encroaches on one of our roles as instructors (and an important opportunity to interact with our students), but it commoditizes student data. I’m not saying we should avoid automating quizzes to make time to focus on student writing and discussion – but the LMS does this for us already. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be outsourced. If you don’t have time to write quiz questions, have the students write them! As Rajiv has ably demonstrated, it’s a great way of engaging students and assessing how well they understood the material!

Long story short, I think we need to embrace all the ways instructors have been reducing student textbook expenses over the years, because that creates a sense of continuity that could be valuable in convincing faculty to engage. And I think a more incrementalist approach to adapting and remixing might allow instructors to embrace the challenge of building ancillaries around OER materials rather than outsourcing that task to publishers.

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.

Potential Questions for Faculty OER Survey

Need some help here! Please comment or make suggestions via

I’m planning on surveying the Bemidji State faculty this fall about OER. The idea is both to begin raising awareness about the issue, and to assess the current state of  people’s thinking on the subject. I might return to these questions after a couple of semesters pass, so in that sense it’s somewhat of a pre-test. I’m looking for feedback on the questions and suggestions of other questions I haven’t thought of.

Many of these are yes/no questions. Others are multiple choice, with an html text box at the end so faculty can write in answers I may not have considered:

Have you read an OER text?

Have you considered using an OER text in your course?

If yes, what is the most compelling reason?

  •  Reducing cost to students
  •  Ease of adoption
  •  Flexibility and easy customization
  •  Quality of the text
  •  (text box) Is there another reason you’re considering an OER?

If no, what is the most compelling concern?

  •  Not enough time to make a change
  •  Outside pressure to adopt OER is a turn-off
  •  Questionable quality of texts
  •  Have not found an appropriate text for my course
  •  (text box) Is there another reason you’ve ruled out an OER?

How frequently do you revise your course and adopt a new textbook?

How long have you been using the current textbook?

Do you know how much the textbook costs?

Has the textbook price changed significantly in the last couple of years?

Do all your students buy the textbook?

Do all your students who buy your textbook have it on the first day of class?

Does the content in your textbook vary significantly from the content of your lectures?

  • Identical to lecture content
  • Supplement to lecture content
  • Source of review, homework, quiz practice, etc.

Do you use the latest edition of the textbook and switch to it as soon as a new edition is available?

If so, why?

  •  Significant updates in a rapidly-changing field
  •  Students like to be using the newest edition
  •  Bookstore has trouble getting older edition
  •  (text box) Other reason

Did you choose the textbook?

  •  Yes, decision was mine alone
  •  Partly, decided along with others teaching this course
  •  No, my department chose the textbook
  •  No, this is the standard text in the field and everyone uses it
  •  (text box) Other

Do you adapt the textbook content into lectures, assessments, discussion prompts?

Do you use a print or an electronic version of the textbook?

Do you use ancillary materials provided by a publisher (assessments, homework)

  • Yes, as part of a package purchased with the textbook
  • Yes, but as a separate purchase from another provider
  • No, I make my own and put them in D2L
  • No, I don’t use electronic assessments or homework

Are there any other issues (pro or con) with OER texts you would like to mention?


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.