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Tidewater Community College

Since 2013, more than 10,000 Tidewater Community College students have completed courses with free open educational resources. Besides saving about $1 million in textbook and material costs, administrators and faculty members say that Tidewater's OER initiative has had an added benefit -- higher course retention and grades.

According to a 2016 study published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning that Tidewater business professor Linda Williams co-authored with David Wiley, co-founder and chief academic officer of Lumen Learning, 9.9 percent of Tidewater 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. The study also concluded that students in OER-based classes were more likely to perform better, with 68 percent of students in face-to-face non-OER courses receiving a grade of C or higher and 73.7 percent of students in face-to-face OER-based courses receiving a grade of C or higher.

In an interview with "Inside Digital Learning", Williams said that students enrolled in zero-textbook-cost courses (which Tidewater calls Z-courses) also take one credit hour more per semester than learners in traditional courses, which can help them complete their degrees in fewer semesters.

Besides its associate of science in business administration Z-degree, the college has three more zero-textbook-cost degree programs under development, including two to launch next spring.

Daniel DeMarte, executive vice president for academic and student affairs, said he learned about OER at a Virginia Community College System chancellors’ retreat in 2012, where Wiley mentioned during a panel discussion that enough open resources existed for a college to build a degree around them, but that no two- or four-year college had done that yet.

“As I thought about that, I’m thinking, ‘If this is possible, why aren’t we doing it? If we can cut that cost out and eliminate that as a barrier for students, there’s no reason to not do this,’” DeMarte said.

After the panel session, DeMarte asked Wiley to help launch a zero-textbook-cost degree at Tidewater. In January 2013, DeMarte assembled a team to develop the Z-degree and appointed Williams, who had some prior experience using OER at other institutions, as the lead faculty member for the project. Wiley prepared faculty by teaching them how to find, curate and use open content.

In August of that year, Tidewater piloted an OER-based business degree, becoming one of the first colleges to launch a Z-degree, according to officials. DeMarte said students enrolled in courses using OER are saving about $100 per course, which he said takes into account that some students buy new books, others rent books and still others choose not to purchase any books.

Williams said that one of the early challenges in launching the Z-degree was overcoming the limited amount of open materials available at the time. For some disciplines, such as criminal justice and technical studies, she said, OER is still difficult to find.

“It’s just a matter of the community catching up with the demand,” she said.

As Tidewater develops an applied science in criminal justice Z-degree, Williams said, faculty are creating original content because the degree is “highly specialized” and there is not enough high-quality, curated OER for it.

DeMarte said that one way to expand the amount of available OER is to support faculty building their own materials. Tidewater has received grants from the Virginia Community College System through the Hewlett Foundation, as well as Achieving the Dream, to fund its OER efforts. But, he noted, there is not a lot of federal money available for these types of projects.

Williams added that faculty buy-in was another challenge. For professors who depend on “publisher turnkey course packs,” giving up materials like instructor’s manuals, test banks and access codes can be difficult, and was something she struggled with.

However, Williams and DeMarte emphasized that Tidewater does not push instructors to develop Z-courses, and takes a faculty-led approach to OER.

“TCC invites and supports faculty who are interested in OER,” Williams said. “One of the quickest ways to fail is to mandate it from the top down, because it is a lot of work.”

This means that faculty members who want to develop Z-courses design the classes themselves and choose their own materials. Part of Williams’s role involves assisting instructors who are interested in adopting OER by serving as a liaison to the college’s administrators and connecting instructors with librarians who can help them find free materials.

For their Z-courses, Tidewater faculty members use a variety of materials that include free open textbooks and materials from OpenStax, the nonprofit based on Rice University; content that instructors have written; tools from other universities -- like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT OpenCourseWare -- and platforms provided by OER provider Lumen Learning, such as Candela and Waymaker. Currently, 43 instructors teach 111 Z-course sections.

According to Tidewater's OER policy, the quality of openly licensed materials that faculty use must be as good as, if not better than, traditional textbook publisher content. DeMarte also said that one of the very first parameters for the Z-degree program was that students would have to perform just as well in Z-courses as they did in their non-Z counterparts.

Enhancing Course Content

Nicole Allen, the director of open education for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, said that degree programs created with OER allow instructors to tailor and enhance their course content.

“The Z-degree gives the institution and, more important, the faculty ownership over the materials they teach with, and they can be improved over time to meet the needs of their students,” she said.

Allen added that at community colleges, where textbook costs are a “disproportionately higher percentage” of what students pay, a Z-degree “makes so much sense.”

Williams said that textbooks make up about 25 percent of the cost of a two-year degree at Tidewater. About 65 percent of the 30,000 students who attend the Virginia community college, she said, receive some form of financial aid. She added that the sell-through rate at the campus bookstore is 26 percent, which means that many students opt not to purchase books there. (She noted that some learners buy and rent books and materials from other retailers.)

As part of Achieving the Dream’s OER initiative, 38 community colleges across 13 states have adopted Z-degree programs. Tidewater plans to launch two more Z-degrees -- an associate of science in criminal justice and an associate of science in general studies -- by spring 2018, as well as an associate of science in social sciences Z-degree by spring 2019.

In the long term, Williams said she hopes Tidewater will be able to offer students a choice between a Z-course or a non-Z course for any subject they want to take.

Aside from creating new degrees, DeMarte said that the college plans to give high school students in its dual-enrollment program the option to begin working toward a Z-degree. Tidewater also is working on a bachelor’s Z-degree as part of its transfer agreement with Old Dominion University.

Finally, because faculty members who teach Z-courses have put a lot of time into designing their classes, Tidewater will begin applying those design principles to all of its curricula, DeMarte said.

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