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zELI OER Degrees: General Studies & Social Sciences


Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) has built a large and robust nationally recognized program using open educational resources (OER) and was the first community college to share their courses in an open repository.  NOVA’s zELI OER degree initiative currently offers online OER Associate Degree pathways in General Studies and Social Sciences through NOVA’s Extended Learning Institute (ELI). The initiative received the WCET WOW Award in 2014.  A third OER degree pathway is being developed for both online and on-campus delivery, as well as expanding OER course offerings throughout the college.

Author:  Preston Davis, Director of Instruction, Extended Learning Institute, Northern Virginia Community College

Published on January 24, 2017


The goal of NOVA’s OER Degree project is to increase access, affordability, and student success by offering a variety of options for completing individual courses or complete degrees without textbook costs. The need to increase access to and reduce the costs of attending college is a burden shared by all higher education institutions. NOVA’s OER program sought to affect a broad population of students by creating course options in a variety of subjects that save students money and ensure that all students in these courses have equal access to all course materials required to be successful. This program also sought to highlight the availability of numerous high quality OER to faculty in many disciplines, and encourage more faculty to adopt OER in more courses across the college.

Funding  to help support the online OER-based degrees was provided through the Chancellor’s Innovation Fund at NOVA.  The third OER-based degree targeted at both online and on-campus delivery is receiving funding from Achieving the Dream’s grant to the six colleges in the Virginia Community College OER degree Consortium.

Three Challenges

The team at NOVA experienced three challenges while developing and delivering the OER degree.  This included the requirement to build expertise rapidly, find interested faculty who were a good fit, and finally how to make this work part of the normal operations of course development and delivery.

Building Expertise Among the Team

It was crucial to build expertise in understanding open licensing and open pedagogy in order to transition from reliance on publisher textbooks to adoption of OER.  We leveraged the existing skills of library and instructional design staff, and developed training workshops with the help of CCCOER to provide each functional area with the foundational knowledge to get started.

Recruiting Early Faculty Participants

We made use of a small grant to add some technology tools to aid in developing open course content, and to provide a small stipend to the first group of faculty to encourage participation.  We had identified faculty who would be a good fit for the pilot, but needed to provide an incentive for them to participate in this new and unproven project.

Making OER Implementation Sustainable

We knew that financial support for stipends would be a short-term solution to help us get started, so we had to focus on building the support mechanism to sustain OER implementation.  This meant building internal expertise to assist faculty, and sharing data from the OER courses to show the financial and academic impact that these OER courses had on NOVA students.    


NOVA’s OER-Based Associate Degree Project is a comprehensive approach to addressing access, affordability and student success.  Dr. Preston Davis provided the overall vision and leadership for this project. With support from NOVA’s executive leadership, he translated his idea into an actionable plan and put together a team of dedicated and skilled faculty and staff. He recruited faculty with a history of innovative teaching as the content experts to design and teach the new OER courses, and paired them with NOVA’s Distance Learning Librarians who provided guidance and expertise in locating and curating information, and Instructional Designers who provided content organization and instructional technology and delivery expertise.

This team-based approach ensured that all major areas were covered, and that the quality of the OER courses would be consistent with standards of the college.  ELI made use of a small grant to purchase technology resources, develop OER training workshops, and provide small stipends to the initial faculty participants in recognition of their work to help establish a sustainable OER adoption model at NOVA.

Once the first set of OER courses were piloted in 2013, data was collected on cost savings and student success and shared that data with the Administrative Council and key college committees that included faculty and staff from across the college.   The OER courses were then promoted to students through college social media.  This approach was deliberate in that, as a grassroots movement at NOVA, it would build awareness and encourage the use of OER rather than coerce faculty.  This has led to a steadily growing culture of openness and sharing at NOVA.


NOVA has one of the largest and most robust distance learning programs in the country with enrollment increasing 40% between 2010 and 2014.  The OER-Based Associate Degree Project was initially developed to be delivered online, so that any student at NOVA could take one or more of these courses.  Online students are familiar with technology and find having OER embedded into their online courses conducive to learning. Building digital content and resources into an online course can enhance learner engagement and help students focus. The  OER courses have been expanded to include hybrid and campus sections, and it has been found that free digital and OER content helps students improve their information literacy skills and better prepares them for technology adapted careers.

NOVA developed the institutional capacity to support OER courses by teaming faculty leaders with Instructional Designers and a Distance Learning Librarian, and developing a collaborative OER course development process.  This team approach ensures that these courses satisfy all learning objectives and deliver an effective and engaging learning experience for students. This team-based adoption and implementation model can be applied by any institution and is scalable and applicable to traditional, hybrid and online modalities.

The cost savings from the piloted of OER courses was significant. NOVA students saved $200,000 in the pilot semester, and these savings have reached nearly $3 million in three years. The OER project also brought together administrators, faculty, librarians, instructional designers, and information technology staff, to form a collaborative team dedicated to student success.  Student success rates increased as much as 9% in the pilot OER courses, and on average were 5% higher over the first year. While it is great to measure savings in millions of dollars, the positive impact on individual students in reaching their educational goals is the true measure of success.

College Profile

  • 6 Campuses,  ELI Online
  • 76,000 Students
  • Publicly funded community college
  • Virginia Community College System

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) was originally founded in 1964 and is composed of six campuses and four centers located in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. It is the second largest multi-campus community college in the United States with over 70,000 students, 60% of which come from underrepresented populations. It is one of the 23 colleges within the Virginia Community College System, and the largest higher education institution within the State of Virginia.

Links to Additional Resources

NOVA OER Project Video

zELI OER Courses from NOVA


Sharing Courses with Lumen

NOVA OER Showcase