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