Institutional roadblocks

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(Roadblock, Ada Gonzalez CC-BY 2008)


I wouldn’t say my experience in the business world was entirely “move fast and break things.” But working in high tech certainly included an understanding that it’s sometimes better to ask forgiveness than permission. The situation couldn’t be more different in higher education.

As part of the OER advocacy I’m planning on my campus this fall, I’ve always assumed I’d do a couple of campus-wide surveys: one of faculty and one of the students affected by high textbook costs. The idea was both to locally replicate the results of student surveys like the famous Florida study, and to signal to all the students and faculty on campus that something is about to begin.

I was informed last spring that in order to survey the faculty, I would need to get permission of the Interfaculty Organization (IFO), our union. I sent an email to the President of the BSU Faculty Association with a link to the 25-question Qualtrics survey I was planning on using. He said he’d put it on the agenda of the first Faculty Senate meeting in September, but he didn’t think there would be any resistance. So, by the middle of September I’ll probably be sending out my faculty survey via the official mailing list. But he also suggested I contact the Institutional Review Board (IRB), an organization I hadn’t heard of previously.

This is where it gets a bit sticky. The IRB, it turns out, is also known as the Human Subject Committee. It was apparently formed in response to a Federal regulation (45 CFR 46.102f) that requires review and approval to do research that “deals with human subjects” in a way “designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” The only survey activities that seem to be exempt are student and faculty evaluations and “information collected for program improvement, evaluation, and accreditation.”

I exchanged a couple of emails with the Director of Graduate Studies at BSU, who oversees the IRB. He verified that if I planned on making the data public in any way (conferences, website, publications, etc.) I would need to get IRB approval. If the information was solely for my own course development and not for public distribution, I would not be required to get approval.

What was not clear was what I would need to do to get approval. I studied the IRB website and it seemed that in addition to filling out a number of forms, I would need to get a certificate from another organization called the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) that I had completed a training course of some type. The course was not specified and the provided link took me to CITI’s homepage, which was no help. At this point, I have no idea how much time I would need to put in, to simply get to the point where I could submit a proposal to get my survey approved.

This is a major institutional impediment to me getting the data I was hoping to get on BSU students and faculty to guide my campaign. While I appreciate the sensitivity of using data collected from people and the need to understand issues of privacy and when a line of questioning might be inappropriate, this vague, poorly-defined requirement seems like an unnecessarily obnoxious roadblock. This IRB requirement acts as a sort of unfunded mandate, requiring me to invest an undefined amount of time not only meeting its requirements but figuring out what they are. This is the sort of bureaucratic black hole that seems like it could have been designed expressly to prevent innovation rather than to protect “human subjects”. Or is it? There seems to be a loophole, both in the published official guidelines and in the Graduate Program Director’s communication. I may be able to run my surveys on campus if I direct them only at improving my program (increasing OER acceptance and adoption on campus) and if I don’t publicize the data I collect.

It would be unfortunate if I were unable to discuss the data I collected from student and faculty surveys at the OE Global conference in the fall, or if I were unable to create charts and marketing materials documenting the significance of students’ attitudes toward excessive textbook costs. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We already have published studies that document these facts. Even without IRB approval, maybe I could still conduct surveys and use the data to plan my campaign, communicate with the administration and other stakeholders about the project (“information collected for program improvement, evaluation, and accreditation”), and track changes over time as I implement the program.

Maybe in the future I’ll be able to find a collaborator who either has or is interested in getting all the certifications and permissions needed to run a survey I could publicize the results of. I might make this a goal of the second-year survey, after we (hopefully) have some change to report. People at the system office and also at the IFO have expressed interest in my surveys and their results. So maybe I could involve them in some way in this future “publication” collaboration, after providing my first-year results under the limited “improvement, evaluation, and accreditation”, non-public guidelines.

In the meantime, I think I’ll try to move forward (which is the goal, after all) in the best way I can, and not let this roadblock stop me in my tracks. I’ll survey students and faculty, but with the express understanding that I will not publicize the results. Or, in other words, that the results will be expressed in what I do about the data, not what I say about it.

Adding to OER ebooks

One of the useful aspects of Pressbooks is that authors can edit a title and add content whenever they need to. This allows errors to be corrected and materials to remain up to date as new information becomes available. How often have you discovered a problem in a textbook you’re using, and hoped it would be caught and corrected in the next edition in a few years?

Keeping up with research isn’t an issue only in the sciences, though. New information becomes available in all fields as researchers continue discovering new facts or refining their interpretations. For example, I recently discovered another historical source for my volume of primary readings relating to the Ranney brothers and their migrations across the continent in the nineteenth century.

The source wasn’t exactly new: it was a volume called the Compendium of history and biography of Hillsdale County, Michigan, written by Elon G. Reynolds in 1903. Reynolds’ work was typical of the genre, including about 80 pages of general history of the county and then over 450 pages of short biographical sketches of Hillsdale’s leading men and institutions. On pages 302 and 303 there is a sketch of Henry Ranney’s younger brother, Lemuel Sears Ranney.

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The passage adds some details to Lemuel’s life I was not aware of, provides validation of some of the events Lemuel and his brothers describe in their letters, and gives us an interesting look at the elements of Lemuel’s story that seemed interesting to the editors of this 1903 volume, and presumably its readers. It also shows the degree of respect Michigan residents seem to have had for Ranney, who was still alive when the book was published.

This was all interesting enough to me that I wrote an extra short “chapter” about it and added it to the end of my ebook. Readers who are reading it online will find it automatically appended after the previous final chapter that covered Henry Ranney’s obituary. Folks who have downloaded the ebook or pdf versions to their own devices can return to the Pressbook’s homepage and download another. I’ll probably not be adding a lot more to this volume, but if I come across any new material it’s nice to be able to!

If not Z-Degree, how about Z-Core?

I met with several of my university’s Deans today to talk about OER. The conversation began with some information I’ve compiled about textbook adoption on my campus that identified fifty courses where students pay more than $10,000 in the aggregate for their textbooks. Sort of. It actually shows where students would have paid $10,000 if all students had bought new copies of all required textbooks. This is not an accurate number, but I think it’s meaningful for purposes of comparison. I can use it to identify the most expensive courses at my school and target the high-enrollment, high-textbook-cost areas that would provide the most relief for students if OER was adopted.

Some results of the study for my campus:

  1. If all students had bought new copies of all required texts, total cost would have been $2,456,434.33, or about $512 per student.
  2. Of programs with over 1000 student-seats, three are very expensive (Business Administration, Nursing, and Psychology) while Education is pretty low-cost per student-seat.
  3. There were fifty courses where total textbook expense exceeded $10,000, accounting for nearly $770,000 in textbook costs.


Some of the textbook choices have a greater impact than the spreadsheet numbers implied, because they were used across several sections. For example, there were four sections of a Business course called The Legal Environment that used the same $362 textbook bundle. The 118 students in these four sections would have paid $42,774 if they had bought the required materials. Similarly, there were five sections of a Nursing course called Intro to Clinical Practice, with a total of 54 students. The $534 textbook pack resulted in costs of $29,912 across these sections.

I found it interesting that there were several multi-section courses where different instructors required different textbooks, often with great impact on student costs. For example, in a Psychology course called Lifespan Development, the online course’s textbook expense was $103.25 while the in-person course required $249.75 in textbooks. There should be a way to begin conversations about individual instructors’ choices without undermining Academic Freedom.

One of the action items from this meeting was a request by my Dean that I articulate a goal for the campus for the next academic year. The state university system in Minnesota has been tasked by the legislature with creating three Z-Degree Associate’s programs at community colleges in the next academic year, so the “Z” idea is in the air. It’s much more difficult, of course, creating zero-textbook-cost Bachelor’s Degree programs, as I’ve already discussed. But it might be more realistic to try to create a zero-textbook-cost track through my university’s Liberal Education (Gen. Ed. or Core) requirements. Like a Z-Degree, a Z-Core commitment wouldn’t guarantee that every student would be able to get through core requirements without textbook expenses. But we could use a criteria like the one being mandated for the MinnState Z-Degrees: two zero-textbook-cost courses in each transfer curriculum goal area. That should be achievable, and should encourage textbook cost decreases even in those courses that can’t go to zero.

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?