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. is complicated…

I’m learning about, currently listening to a video by Jeremy Dean (Director of Education at, of I think it was the first Google webinar about using 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 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 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” 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 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 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 power users are completely aware of?

PS. Another disappointment: I was going to install 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.