OLC Reflections | The Z-Major Movement

My last reflection on my top 3 sessions at OLC Innovate this year is about my favorite session: “From A to Zed: A Case Study of CSU’s 1st Undergraduate ‘Z-Major.’” I found this session incredibly inspiring and impactful and I really liked that it was presented by two faculty at CSU Channel Islands, Jacob Jenkins and Jaime Hannans. Faculty support for an intiative like the Z-major is essential, and it was exciting to see these two faculty so passionately discuss the impacts of the initiative for their students.

First, what’s a Z-major? Apparently this is a long-standing movement that is now starting to gain momentum more widely. A Z-major or Z-program is a “zero cost” program, aside from tuition. Essentially, it’s a series of courses that students can take to obtain a major which include no additional costs for things like books and materials. That means these courses utilize open resources quite heavily. Since I’ve always been a supporter for all things open source, I think the idea of using OER to support a zero-additional-cost pathway to degree for students is a fantastic opportunity for alignment.

At Channel Islands, partners recieved federal grant support to make this happen. As part of the grant terms, any resources created using grant funds are shared back with the community freely (which is something that should frankly be part of any federally funded project). Jacob and Jaime shared how they started the work of creating a zero-cost pathway to degree in communications, healthcare, and nursing. They developed a cohort program to bring faculty together with a “5 Day Workout” plan in which they were asked to read and reflect on resources related to openness in education. That served as the basis for discussion and idea generation in courses.

The grant money could not be used to buy people’s time for OER creation, which was surprising to hear. Therefore, the cohort meeting time was used to help people talk about challenges and get feedback on how they were using existing open materials to put their courses together. The speakers also discussed how they developed and deployed a survey for students to get data about the perceived impact of Z-courses on their college experience. The white paper, compiled by partners at CSU Channel Islands, lives here: https://www.csuci.edu/tli/openci/openci-white-paper.pdf and summarizes the survey results really well with great charts.

I appreciated that they took the step of documenting with data. It’s important to be able to speak in the language of your gatekeepers, and most of the time that means talking numbers. Once you’ve got the data, Jacob and Jaime said they used that information to get the early adopters on board and as those early adopters became ambassadors, they were able to use the data and their experiences to get more faculty on board. The Z program is expanding to other disciplines within the CSU system.

One useful tip that Jacob shared for those who are thinking they may undertake a similar initiative at their insitution is to think about developing a program from the bottom up. That is, look across all the sections of a class that a student may take. Only one section needs to be zero additional cost. It’s easier to convince one faculty member at first rather than attempt to get an entire department’s worth of section instructors to jump on board with free materials. As long as there are a few sections of each class that could be zero cost, you may find that you are closer to a Z-program that you thought! And for some folks, it may be as easy as asking the library to purchase a license for an eText that is used in a class. Chip away at things in small steps because those little impacts add up to big gains.

A really nice thing that happened during this session was that attendees started sharing resources for finding open materials, which I found extremely valuable. Here’s a list of some things that were mentioned:

I was so taken with the idea of the Z-program that I am currently exploring ways to incorporate this into my home institution at the College of Arts & Architecture. How great would it be to offer zero-additional-cost gen ed courses in the arts at Penn State? Compiliing a list of courses that we could market to students as “Z-GenEds” could be easier than we may think (although we already have a Z designation for some of our interdisciplinary gen ed courses… the name will need some work I suppose). As I consider these discussions, I’m also trying to think of a way to make this into a dissertation topic. It’s something that has practical implications for students, and that frankly makes me far more interested in doing the work!