Success Stories

Montgomery College Powers Growth and Inclusion with Z-Degrees and Z-Courses

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Quick facts

  • Maryland’s largest community college, with three campuses across the state and an upcoming education center
  • Identified as the most diverse community college in the continental US 
  • Building momentum around Zero Textbook Cost degree (Z-degree) programs since receiving a 2017 grant from Achieving the Dream
  • As of spring 2024, over 11,800 students were enrolled in Z-courses
    • 651 Z-course sections
    • 346 unique instructors
    • 222 unique courses
    • Five Z-degree programs available and one Z-certificate

The challenge

  • Eliminate barriers to education by expanding affordable learning initiatives like Z-courses and Z-degree programs
  • Advance strategic plan by cultivating an inclusive, engaging learning environment with classroom innovation inspired by open pedagogy

The solution

In 2017, Montgomery College launched the MC Open Initiative as a way to reduce the cost of and increase access to learning materials through the use of open educational resources (OER). With a grant from Achieving the Dream, they were able to organize and expand their OER initiatives (which up until that point had been a few dispersed classes) and initiated their first Z-degree in General Studies. This first multidisciplinary degree acted as a springboard for what has become a thriving and expansive list of both Z-degree programs and Z-courses serving thousands of students.

To support this initiative, Montgomery College partnered with Pressbooks to provide faculty with a user-friendly platform that would allow them to create, adapt, and share no-cost learning materials. It was important that this platform easily enable multiple authors, including students, to collaborate on creating inclusive learning materials.

“Pressbooks empowers MC to develop and personalize educational content, enhancing inclusivity, accessibility, and collaboration. Its integration with interactive tools like H5P and Hypothesis enriches e-books with engaging elements. This not only aligns with MC’s focus on affordability by reducing student costs but also furthers our mission to offer high-quality, accessible, and cost-effective educational experiences.”

Dr. Christine Crefton, Project & Planning Analyst

This approach has allowed for better faculty access, enabling collaboration across campuses. Inclusion and representation are flourishing as faculty actively engage learners using open pedagogy practices to bring student voices and perspectives into learning materials (something of great importance in an educational community with over 150 countries represented.)

They’ve been able to easily incorporate books and voices from diverse backgrounds including foreign language studies. Their widely-used introductory Spanish textbook ¡Todos Unidos! has over 32,000 pageviews and 27,000 visitors.

The impact

Since launching the MC Open Initiative in 2017, Montgomery College now offers full Z-degrees in Business, Communications, Criminal Justice, Early Childhood Education and General Studies, as well as one Z-certificate in Data Science. 

And students have been voting with their feet. In a time when many community colleges are seeing their enrollments drop, Montgomery College’s Z-degree programs and courses are seeing solid growth.

As of spring 2024, over 11,800 students were enrolled in Z-courses across 651 sections with 346 unique instructors and 222 unique courses. This represents a 23.5% growth from Spring 2023.

enrollment growth

In addition to these quantifiable impacts, Montgomery College focuses on the qualitative impact of OER on teaching and learning, both for students and faculty. 

MC leaders note that faculty empowerment is an important objective in their open education initiative. By allowing faculty more control over the creation of their course materials, they are free from the constraints of commercial publishers. They can tailor materials to their course learning outcomes and student needs, and they no longer need to suffer long timelines for updates to traditional textbooks. OER makes it easier to keep up with the dynamic, fast pace of workforce-oriented college study.

For students, placing them at the center of the learning experience has been transformative. Students are empowered to become co-creators of educational content and can impact the learning experience not just for themselves but for future semesters. Students can learn from and build on the knowledge from students outside of their direct classroom. 

“Real empowerment comes when students and faculty become co-creators of content. When you allow students to work alongside you and to provide information along with you in a platform like Pressbooks.”

Dr. Michael Mills, Vice President of the Office of E-Learning, Innovation and Teaching Excellence (ELITE)

The how

Professional development + faculty engagement
The team at Montgomery College attribute the success of the Z-degrees and Z-courses in part to the robust professional development provided to their faculty. Faculty are consistently trained and given the opportunities necessary to be innovative in the classroom, and to understand what inclusivity and open pedagogy looks like (which they have enthusiastically embraced.)

“Effective collaboration and communication are essential for engaging faculty in OER. Tailoring experiences to each faculty member’s needs is key. Success lies in articulating a clear vision and explaining the importance of our work. With the right tools and support, faculty are eager to contribute to student success.”

Dr. Christine Crefton, Project & Planning Analyst

Strategic rollout
Montgomery College’s strategic approach to building their Z-degrees allowed them to scale from one “Z-course” (a zero textbook cost course designed using OER) to over 640 sections within six years. 

They chose General Studies, a multi-disciplinary associate’s degree program, as a starting point because its course offerings can also lead towards other degree programs. Starting here meant that once General Studies OER courses were in place, it would be a relatively light lift to add other Z-degree programs because roughly half of every other major was already done. 

This approach made it easy for them to organize and work with deans, department chairs, and faculty to continually get more Z-degree programming off the ground. 

Adapting existing materials
A cornerstone of their OER adoption has been showing faculty the existing resources they can use. Faculty no longer need to write their own textbooks, instead they can turn to resources like the Pressbooks Directory to save time by finding and adapting existing OER materials. Faculty are able to search the Directory using various criteria including subject, keywords, publishers, use of H5P interactive learning activities, and more.

One such project is MC’s widely-used Spanish 1 textbook. Originally adapted from an open-source textbook selected by the World Languages department, this text was updated with H5P interactive elements and integrated with grading in Blackboard. This text is currently used by every Spanish 1 course instructor, and each term they have opportunities to suggest ongoing enhancements. 

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Open Pedagogy Fellowship
Open pedagogy is a powerful way to foster student-centered learning and a more engaging, collaborative learning environment by focusing on the students as co-creators. In pursuit of their goals to create a student-centered learning environment that is committed to social justice, Michael Mills and Shinta Hernandez created the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Open Pedagogy Fellowship

The award-winning fellowship allows faculty to learn more about open pedagogy and how to create open renewable assignments that are linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Faculty who participate in this fellowship are paired up with faculty who are not in their discipline or from their institution (they could be from one of the 13 international partners.) They are tasked with creating three renewable assignments that engage students in the creation process and provide a platform for experiential learning that adds value to the world as well as students’ learning experience. 

Students who have taken part in the fellowship have referenced the positive impacts on their schooling and future careers, as well as their understanding of and engagement with social justice.

“Something we can take away from this experience is that we are all members of a shared global community experiencing our environment in different ways. We can become agents of change in our communities. We can educate others on sustainability and we can become more aware of our relationship with our shared environment and this will all give us a better future.”

Student contributor

Learn more about the fellowship

Student projects

Advice from the field

  • Start small but impactful. Gather the data as you go, so as you scale up you can show that it’s working. At Montgomery they started with a smaller branch campus and gathered a year’s worth of data before scaling up to a larger one.
  • Start with a small group of motivated, innovative staff who are willing to see what this change looks like. Let them experiment and play at the department level. They will become your champions who can help spearhead expansion.
  • Evolve cross-functional teams. Talk with librarians, faculty, chairs, and deans. This will ensure cross-functional buy-in and also help spread the energy and effort across multiple functions.
  • Find opportunities through the year to have faculty showcase their projects to help increase awareness

Thank you to:

Dr. Michael Mills, Vice President of the Office of E-Learning, Innovation and Teaching Excellence (ELITE)
Dr. Shinta Hernandez, Dean of the Virtual Campus
Dr. Christine Crefton, Project & Planning Analyst at the Office of E-Learning, Innovation and Teaching Excellence (ELITE)