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Z-Degree adds up to $1 million in savings plus student retention and better grades

Tidewater Community College was the first college in the nation to offer a textbook-free Z-Degree.

As of the Fall 2017 Semester, 10,221 students have taken a Z-course, which translates into $1 million in savings on the cost of textbooks.

The textbook-free Associate of Science in Business Administration launched as a pilot program in 2013 when the college partnered with Lumen Learning, a company that helps educational institutions integrate open educational resources (OER) into their curricula.

Daniel DeMarte, the college’s executive vice president for Academic and Student Affairs, said students enrolled in courses using OER are saving about $100 per course, taking into account that some students buy new books, others rent and still others choose not to purchase any books.

The annual cost of textbooks is about $1,300 for a full-time community college student, which research shows is a significant barrier to college completion.

Other Z-Degree gains include student retention and higher grades.

Mother helping two young boys with homework at a table
Student Rickkita Taylor uses the savings on
textbooks to pay for child care and other basic

Rickkita Taylor was one of the first to sign up for the program. A single mother of two boys, she used the savings to pay for child care and other basic necessities while preparing for a career as a marketing supervisor for Diamond Resorts.

“Some of my textbooks cost as much as $500, and I couldn’t afford that and tuition,” she said. “Aside from the savings, my learning was enhanced because the resources and interactive videos made the material come alive. It was super easy to access the course content online and on-the-go, making learning really convenient.”

After four years, the results are promising.

TCC business Professor Linda Williams authored a 2016 study published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning that noted 9.9 percent of TCC students withdrew from face-to-face courses that did not use OER versus 8.1 percent of students who withdrew from face-to-face courses that used OER.

Additional research shows that students in Z-courses are performing 3.1 percent better and achieving grades of C or higher, than students not selecting Z-courses. Also, students are taking more credits each semester, enabling them to complete their degrees faster.

To date, more than 90 faculty members are OER-proficient, having taken the pathways courses to prepare to teach textbook-free.

“I think this program is working because faculty realize how much more freedom they have by selecting content that aligns with their learning outcomes,” said Williams, lead faculty for the Z-Degree. “While it is definitely a personal preference to teach this way, it certainly seems like the way ahead.”

Student sitting at a table in a classroom
Students enrolled in courses using open
educational resources (OER) are saving about
$100 per course.

“The future is bright for textbook-free degrees,” said Diane Ryan, dean of Humanities and Social Sciences. “Often faculty will first adopt open educational resources because they are concerned with textbook prices, but once they see the high quality OER material available they get excited about redesigning their courses.”

TCC received a grant from the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) through the Hewlett Foundation to create more textbook-free course offerings. In addition, the grant enabled TCC to work with 18 of 23 VCCS schools to create Z-Degrees or Z-Certificates of their own.

Also, TCC is a grantee in the Achieving the Dream OER initiative as part of a consortium of six VCCS schools. TCC’s Z-Degree is one example being used by the 38 colleges in 13 states participating in this three-year grant.

Moving forward, TCC is launching Z-Degrees in criminal justice, general studies and science. All should be up and running by Spring 2019 Semester.

TCC’s Z-Degrees are faculty-led with Williams and other faculty leaders assisting instructors interesting in adopting OER by serving as a liaison with college administrators and connecting instructors with librarians who can help them find free materials.

“We can use YouTube videos, audio files and websites as resources for courses. The quality is as good as or better than what you can find in traditional textbooks. It’s obvious that the future of colleges in America and the world is going to include OER,” said Thomas Geary, an English professor on the Virginia Beach Campus.

Added Williams, “While there will always be a place for the published textbook, we hope the pressure of using OER encourages businesses to rethink their publishing models, providing lower cost textbooks and more rentals and e-texts with multi-year access codes.”

Williams said she is happy when her students have everything they need to be successful in her courses from the first day of class.

“It’s still humbling and amazing to see how far we’ve come,” Williams said.

The way ahead includes more Z-Degrees, high school dual enrollment Z-courses and even a textbook-free bachelor’s degree with Old Dominion University.

Thanks to an Affordable Pathways Grant from the State Council of Higher Education, TCC partnered with Old Dominion University and Kempsville High School to create a path from the high school’s Entrepreneurship and Business Academy, through enrollment in TCC’s business administration program, to ODU’s leadership major. TCC also provided the OER training for all instructors based on the college’s pathways training for Z-Degree faculty. The end result is an estimated $16,715 in textbook savings through program completion.

“We’re finding that it’s really not all about the cost of textbooks, but more about students performing better. We’re providing faculty with the tools they need to be successful,” DeMarte said. “Our use of OER is changing the conversation about student success. That is the real power of open educational resources.”