TCC Takes Z-Degrees to the Next Level With Adaptive Learning

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When students at Virginia’s Tidewater Community College (TCC) earn their Associate of Science in Business Administration, chances are, they will never have purchased a single textbook. Thanks to the school’s Z-degree program—for zero dollars spent on textbooks—students are saving up to 25 percent on college costs. Now benefits like those cost reductions and higher student success rates are prompting the school to roll out more Z-degrees programs and extend its partnership with Lumen Learning by piloting next-generation adaptive OER courseware.

TCC partnered with Lumen Learning in 2013 to develop open educational resource (OER) courses and degree programs with the use of the Candela platform. But even before that, students had a habit of avoiding purchasing textbooks, not because they had access to free materials, but because they couldn’t afford the books and were attempting—unsuccessfully—to complete their coursework without them.

According to TCC, the 5,100 students who have enrolled in Z-courses have saved an estimated $500,000, based on the conservative assumption that they would have spent approximately $100 per course on traditional textbooks. According to the College Board, students who attend two-year colleges spend an average of almost $1400 a year on books and supplies. Recent TCC findings also revealed a 6 percent gain in student persistence and success in Z-courses, taking into account drops, withdrawals, and course completion with a grade of C or higher.

The cost savings for students coupled with the higher retention and success rates has prompted TCC to develop Z-degrees for other popular programs of study. The Associate of Science in Social Sciences is expected to launch in 2017, as are Z-degrees in General Studies and Applied and Criminal Sciences. But Tidewater doesn’t have plans for total conversion to OER, despite the benefits.

“Tidewater’s ultimate goal is to offer students a choice in every course, whether they want face-to-face instruction, hybrid, online, day or night, a traditionally published textbook, or a Z-course,” says Linda Williams, a business professor and the faculty lead of the Z-degree program. “We want to make sure we are providing access, affordability, and appropriate instructional pedagogy to meet the needs of as broad a student base as possible.”

To that end, the school aims to pilot developmental math sections as Z-courses, partnering with XanEdu, Barnes & Noble and TCC Auxiliary Services to provide on-demand printed textbooks for students who prefer them to digital resources. The total cost to students for the printed resource is estimated to be $20, says Williams.

A Pilot Takes Off

Based on the success of the Z-degree program, TCC agreed to pilot Lumen Learning’s Waymaker courseware when the developer was chosen as one of seven finalists for the Gates Foundation Next Generation Courseware Challenge. This version of courseware acts as an OER delivery system but is augmented by personalized learning features that help faculty members connect with students and guides student learning. The pilot, which launched in fall 2015 and will end at the conclusion of the summer 2016 term, includes nine fulltime and adjunct instructors and approximately 1,000 students. After the pilot ends, TCC will continue using Waymaker for some sections of the school’s business classes to collect data to make the courseware more effective.

The chance to pilot Waymaker “was an opportunity to take us further than we had already come, to see if we could we use the platform to improve the good results we were already getting from the adoption of OER,” says Williams.

According to Williams and other faculty members, although it’s too early to cite outcomes, the Waymaker platform has helped the TCC community understand the importance of personalized instruction and the power of connection.

“One of the biggest complaints you hear about online teaching is that students and faculty can feel disconnected from each other,” says Kelly Gillerlain, a TCC business professor and marketing subject-matter expert for Lumen Learning. “The nurture component of Waymaker has really addressed that issue because it allows faculty to connect with students who are doing really well in addition to those who need extra help.”

Prior to using Waymaker, faculty primarily focused on students who weren’t doing as well with their studies, but the congratulatory emails that Waymaker automatically sends on behalf of instructors if a student meets a particular benchmark means learners across the spectrum are acknowledged for their work.

“I’ve received emails from 15–20 students thanking me, telling me it helped to hear that they were doing well,” Gillerlain says.

Tackling The Learning Curve

“There are always challenges with any innovation,” says Tidewater’s Williams. But both faculty and students at TCC were willing to suffer first-adopter consequences for the chance to pilot Waymaker and further the good results already achieved from the adoption of OER.

“Students were used to classes being formatted in a certain way, so that was a bit of a hurdle,” Gillerlain says.

Because content and assessments are so closely aligned, students had to get into the rhythm of reading the assigned content, demonstrating a specific learning objective, and performing a self-check before moving on to the next section. Previously, they were reading longer-form content and then completing a more comprehensive assessment provided by their instructor.

As for faculty, to use the courseware, they “need to understand the concept of mastery learning, which they may not have a lot of experience with,” Williams says.

Williams has seen “great success and abject failure” when it comes to adopting tech, and says failure occurs when institutions rely on a top-down approach to implement new programs rather than enabling faculty to lead the charge. “There are some faculty that may choose to never go this route,” she says. “As an institution, you need to say that’s O.K…. The biggest caveat for someone in administration who believes they can solve an institutional problem is that you need to support faculty, provide them with opportunity and time, and create an environment where it’s O.K. to take a risk, and O.K. for things to not go so well. If your institution is not that kind of place, and is not comfortable taking a faculty-driven approach, then you’re not ready to go down this road.”

Amber LaPiana (@amberlap) is a freelance writer and editor who previously taught college courses for ten years in face-to-face and online environments.

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