With $5 Million for Z-Degrees, Small Change Is a Big Step for California Community Colleges

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Students in Barbara Illowsky’s statistics class at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, CA, don’t spend a dime on the textbook their professor co-wrote. “Introductory Statistics” is an open educational resource (OER) that Illowsky estimates has saved students at De Anza over $3 million in textbook costs since 2006. “Now, instead of shelling out a good portion of my paycheck for school books, I can use that money to buy my daughter diapers and wipes or even groceries,” says Kayla Christenson, one of Illowsky’s students.

After years of pioneers like Illowsky preaching the promises of OER, the movement now has state funding for degree pathways. Last week California Governor Jerry Brown signed $5 million into the California state budget for the development of zero-textbook-cost degree programs (or Z-Degrees). With a Z-Degree program, students like Kayla can complete an entire degree track without spending money on textbooks, which has saved students up to a quarter of college costs at some institutions.

The Z-Degree grant program empowers the chancellor of the California Community Colleges system to distribute grants of up to $200,000 to community college districts for each Z-Degree path developed. The system is the largest in the nation, serving over 2.1 million students at 113 community colleges. With the funds, districts will not only develop pathways to graduation using pre-existing OER, but can fund OER creation. The districts will also be required to package and publish their degree paths such that other community college districts in the California and beyond can borrow from their progress.

OER has been around since MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative was announced in 2001, but in the past year has gained momentum, from the Department of Education’s #GoOpen campaign to the announcement of Amazon Inspire. Most proponents of OER define it as copyrightable work licensed in a way that allows users to retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute the material (the “5R” definition).

Any learning materials created under the Z-Degree program will hold a Creative Commons BY license, according to policy adopted by the chancellor of California Community Colleges, a license that uses the “5R” definition. If you provide attribution, you can do what you’d like with the resource.

Gaining Momentum

Z-Degree programs are catching on at community colleges around the country. Last month Achieving the Dream, a non-profit working to improve access and affordability to community college, announced 38 community colleges in 13 states would receive $9.8 million to develop similar degree programs. 

One of the participating institutions, Tidewater Community College (TCC) in Virginia, began work on a Z-Degree program in 2013. Many students at TCC have already received an associate degree without paying for textbooks. After implementing its Z-Degree for an associate's degree in business administration, TCC estimates that students have saved over $500,000 in textbook costs.

The success of TCC has prompted a national interest, with OER experts scrambling to advise, research and implement new programs. Community college systems have encouraged Z-Degrees, but California's budget is the first to explicitly include financial support for the initiative on a statewide level. Hal Plotkin, senior open policy fellow at Creative Commons USA, claims in a post on Medium, “California’s new ZTC program is easily the most ambitious state-level effort to promote the use of OER in public higher education to date.”

David Wiley, a chief proponent of OER, says California’s program is just the beginning. He writes on his blog, “It’s quite easy to imagine half of all US community colleges offering an OER-based degree by 2020, and not hard to imagine even more colleges doing so (or the same number of colleges each offering more than one OER-based degree).”

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