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Building a Z-Degree Foundation: Business Administration & Multi-Disciplinary Studies

Houston Community College (HCC) is offering two Z-degree plans, an AA in Business Administration and an AA and AS in Multi-Disciplinary Studies (this is the Gen Ed transfer degree plan). Both degree plans are available online and at two of their campuses. Starting Fall 2018, HCC is rolling out a Z-Core (OER Core Curriculum offerings) at two additional campuses.

One of the things HCC does with their Z-Degree classes is not only to provide those classes on a single campus, but to ensure that there is a structured schedule of class offerings so that students can complete all their required classes in the semester appropriate to the advising plan.

HCC started their Z-Degree in Fall 2017, with 28 sections at one campus, plus online courses. In Spring 2018, they added an additional campus and increased their online offerings, for a total of 49 sections.

Author: Nathan Smith, OER Coordinator and Philosophy Instructor


Published on May 08, 2018


HCC’s Strategic Plan identified student success as a core objective for the institution by 2020. Additionally, many faculty and administrators had been advocating for OER to reduce the cost of instructional materials. Many faculty have recognized cost as a problem for their students, but they lacked the institutional coordination to design a large-scale OER program. The final catalysts were threefold:

  1. Spring 2016 – a student group gave a presentation Board of Trustees on the importance of reducing textbook costs and promoting OER.
  2. Spring 2016 – HCC applied for the Achieving the Dream grant. They did not receive the grant; however, the application process focused their efforts.
  3. Summer 2016 – the Kinder Foundation (a local arts and education private foundation) approached HCC to fund the Z-Degree in Business Administration.


Bureaucracy, Developing Courses, Recruiting and Enrolling Students

Dealing with bureaucracy is an ongoing challenge, and so far, has included challenges such as getting faculty stipends, creating budgets, hiring a part-time assistant, and paying a guest speaker.

The next challenge was setting up courses that use OER. It is difficult to find Accounting and Business Computer textbooks. Once materials were found, the courses still had to be developed, vetted. There were also issues with getting programs to adopt OER and coordinating schedules and finding faculty at the right campuses who were willing to teach the new OER courses. HCC had an institutional arrangement with Lumen Learning that included training and access to their Learning Technologies Integration, but only about a third of the faculty adopted a Lumen Learning course.

One surprising challenge was the difficulty HCC had recruiting and enrolling students. Through website marketing and email outreach, they gathered 448 names of students who were interested in the Z-Degree, however, even though all those students were contacted, only 34 attended an orientation or had a phone conversation with Nathan Smith, HCC’s OER coordinator. That’s just 7.5% of the students who originally said they were interested.

Of the 34 students HCC was able to get in touch with, 13 were not a good fit or declined to participate. Only 8 students enrolled in classes. Fortunately, another 6 students who registered for an orientation on the website (but did not attend), did wind up enrolling in Z-Degree classes. But this means that after HCC’s outreach efforts, only 14 students, or 3%, of the 448 who originally expressed an interest enrolled in Z-Degree courses.


In Fall 2015, the Vice-Chancellor of Instruction (Chief Academic Officer) created an OER Capstone project whose task it was to explore an OER program. This lead to the OER Steering Committee, which continues to be the key advising group. Then in Summer 2017, Nathan Smith was hired as a full-time OER Coordinator to manage the program and HCC was also accepted to participate in the OpenStax Institutional Partnership program. Throughout the implementation phase, a continuing relationship with the bookstore has been very important.

The OER Steering Committee members consist of a diverse group including administration, instructional leaders, the Kinder Foundation, faculty, the OER Coordinator, instructional designers, Student Services, Information Technology, HCC Online, HCC Libraries, and a student representative.

The next step was getting faculty onboard. In Fall 2016, a faculty survey was conducted, and it was very effective in identifying faculty interested in or currently using OER (63 contacts). The next most effective recruitment event was speaking at Instructional Day in Spring 2018 (50 contacts). Workshops through the Center for Teaching and Learning have been somewhat successful and reached 21 faculty members in a little over a semester. After these large-scale outreach events, however, it is necessary to go department by department.

An online campaign with, “Save $1,000 per year on textbooks,” banner on the HCC website was really effective in educating students about OER and the Z-degrees, however, it was quite a challenge to get students actually enrolled in the Z-degree courses.



As you can see in the table below, in Fall 2017, HCC’s Z-Degree had 12 courses on 2 campuses for a total of 28 sections and 712 students. In the spring they added another campus, increased the number of courses to 18, the sections to 52, for an overall Z-Degree enrollment of 1181 students! The numbers in the table below represent enrollment as of May 1, 2018

Table 1: Z-Degree overview
Fall 2017 Spring 2018 Summer 2018
Sections 28 52 22
Face-to-Face 17 25 3
Online 11 27 19
Duplicated Enrollments 712 1181 331 (in progress)
Courses 12 18 10
Face-to-Face 9 15 3
Online 11 18 7
Campuses 2 3 3

Whereas the scheduling requests for Fall and Spring semesters included specific days and times for face-to-face classes that aligned with the degree plans on offer, the Summer semester schedule was built around faculty availability. That is, HCC simply allowed those faculty who wanted to continue teaching a zero-cost course to do so and did not require specific courses for the face-to-face schedule. Additionally, HCC will not have a final count of enrollment for the Summer term until the end of July.

For the Fall semester, HCC will begin an expansion of the Z-Degree to offer core curriculum courses at two of their largest campuses. The goal is to have a core curriculum option at the 9 largest campuses by Spring 2020. This will mean that these classes, though designated “Z-Degree” will not actually permit a student to complete a degree. However, any program that wishes to offer a zero-cost degree will be able to build off of the existing core classes to provide degree plans at their campus.

Student Savings

The Z-Degree total savings were calculated using actual student enrollments and an average textbook cost of $100.  All OER savings refer to projected OER usage outside of the Z-Degree. To calculate All OER savings it was assumed that each faculty member who has a confirmed OER adoption was teaching 3 classes with 25 students each. This likely underestimates the actual number for two reasons: 1) actual adoptions are probably larger than confirmed adoptions, and 2) individual faculty likely teach more than 3 classes using entirely OER. Full-time faculty at HCC are required to teach 5 sections per semester, but they average over 6 sections per semester. Adjunct faculty are able to teach up to 3 sections per semester.

Table 2: Total Savings
Z-Degree All OER
Fall 2017 $  71,200.00 $312,000.00
Spring 2018 $118,100.00 $402,000.00
Total $189,300.00 $714,000.00

Student Success

Table 3: Grade Distribution Overview
% of Total Grades in Select Courses
Central Campus
A-C D, F W
Z-Degree 64.7% 26.7% 8.1%
Face to Face 68.8% 25.2% 5.1%
Online 59.9% 28.5% 11.7%
Non Z-Degree 67.0% 24.9% 7.4%
Face to Face 70.0% 22.4% 6.6%
Online 61.7% 29.1% 8.7%

Student success data here looks at the Fall 2017 semester at Central campus, where the Z-Degree was piloted. These are averages for all courses. When comparing similar courses, we obtained the following comparisons:

Table 4: # of Z-Degree Courses Performing Better

Than the Same Non Z-Degree Course

Central Campus
A-C D, F W
Z-Degree Face to Face 3 out of 9 3 out of 9 6 out of 9
Online 3 out of 9* 5 out of 9* 6 out of 9*

*Online 9 courses are included in this comparison because 2 of the online courses had no counterpart, non Z-Degree course.

Faculty and Student Surveys

Short student interviews:

Currently, only very preliminary results from faculty and student surveys and interviews are available. You can watch interviews with a few HCC students in the video embedded above. Preliminary faculty survey responses indicate that faculty have not done things any differently with their OER courses than with their regular courses. This is largely because the early participants in the Z-Degree were already using OER. However, faculty also demonstrated that they were unaware of the sorts of pedagogical innovations that could be made possible by using openly licensed resources.

That said, some instructors did put in significant work to prepare their OER class. One instructor writes the following:

Since we created a customized course from two textbooks, I had to read through the textbook sections and edited the content as needed. I researched a lot of online videos and included them… I had to design some images for use in the course myself…. In modules where Lumen did not have questions in their database, I had to write my own exam questions…. [For in-person class] I have to prepare the Powerpoint slides for each module from the materials online.

As far as the quality of OER content is concerned, faculty generally believed that the content was comparable to publisher-based resources. One faculty member writes that “The OpenStax … textbook we used (with no changes) is excellent – as good or better than texts I’ve used previously.” However, not all agree. For instance, another writes, “Content-wise, I think it is equally comparable. I just feel that the professional touch in style and design is missing. For an introductory course, the images in some of the figures need more clarity. I do like the Canvas module format set up by Lumen. It is very easy for the students to navigate.” And another says, “… graphics, however, are not at par in [my subject] with the publisher content yet.”

Other benefits of OER are noted by instructors, including first-day access:

I didn’t have to wait while students tried to acquire a printed textbook, complain that the bookstore was out, complain that somebody else was always using the one on reserve in the library, act shocked that it wasn’t ok that they used an out-of-date edition they found, etc.

And the following user of Lumen Learning’s Waymaker platform found the personalized learning plan to be very helpful:

Lumen sends a daily digest to my inbox about students who are struggling with a particular learning outcome based on the student’s performance on a quiz. I find this to be very useful as an alert system that helps me to follow up on the SLO with the student in question. With a traditional online class, it is difficult to automatically pinpoint where a student is struggling, unless a student tells me where he/she needs help. This automatic daily digest is a big plus.

When asked about the level of control faculty can exercise over content in an OER course, one faculty member offered the following reflection on the adoption process:

I would like to see more internal ‘vetting’ of the resources available in my discipline; I’d also like to see what resources my colleagues are using. Essentially, I feel like searching for materials to use is a bit of a ‘free-for-all’ and while I definitely appreciate the freedom, I’d also like to have some reassurance that I’m using resources similarly challenging and robust as those of my colleagues who are also using OER.

These responses come from a survey with an exceedingly small sample size (n = 5), but they nonetheless present a helpful picture. HCC can gather from these responses that they need to do a better job talking about open pedagogy and instructional design innovation that is enabled by open licensing. Additionally, they need to establish institutional structures that support faculty in making informed decisions about OER. Finally, while HCC has recognized the need for ancillary materials and quality support of OER, they need to continue to develop and promote these resources to our faculty.

Final Thoughts from Nathan Smith, HCC OER Coordinator

I have been in the position of an OER Coordinator for one year and I have found the position to be rewarding and invigorating but also at times confusing and frustrating. An OER program cuts across all aspects of the institution, from registration, enrollment, and recruiting of students, to textbook and intellectual property policy, to faculty training, to scheduling and staffing of courses in departments across the college. I encourage people who are administering such a program to seek out support from people in every office that is touched by the program. Additionally, I would counsel them to consider carefully the trade-offs that come from promoting an OER initiative (that may involve a more “horizontal” approach) versus a Z-Degree as defined as a zero-cost textbook degree plan. While the Z-Degree has gained prominence and can be a galvanizing initiative among the highest level administrators in the college, it is very difficult to implement. Additionally, by committing to “zero cost,” your program may be hampered by its ability to use OER support platforms that require a fee. Finally, coordinating a degree plan requires developing courses that are prescribed by the curriculum, which may not necessarily be the courses for which there are readily available, high-quality OER or — equally important — engaged and willing faculty participants at your college.

At the end of the day, I think our Z-Degree will be a flagship initiative at HCC. And I envision that the actual implementation of the Z-Degree will actually involve an umbrella effort that captures OER courses as well as Low-Cost Book options. So, we are going to try to get the best of both worlds. But it will not be possible without a lot of work and a lot of coordination between many different aspects of the college.

College Profile

Houston Community College is an open-admission, public institution of higher education offering a high-quality, affordable education for academic advancement, workforce training, career development, and lifelong learning to prepare individuals in our diverse communities for life and work in a global and technological society. Founded in 1971, it now has over 27 campuses in the Houston Metro region. HCC has a diverse student body of almost 115,000 students a year, including the largest number of international students at a community college in the United States.