Orange Coast College has developed a program allowing students to attain a certificate in architectural design without spending any money on textbooks.

OCC used a $35,000 grant from the State of California for Zero-Textbook Cost Degrees, also known as Z Degrees.

The OCC Z Degree architectural design certificate program is made of individual classes that OCC students can enroll in normally. In accordance with the rules for that grant, the school has ensured that students can choose to enroll in classes which will not require purchasing textbooks to receive their certification.

This program has made extensive use of Open Educational Resources, classroom materials which are made to be distributed and edited freely by instructors. Most OER textbooks are protected as publicly available intellectual property with licenses provided by the Creative Commons organization.

However, OER materials protected by a Creative Commons license are not the only way these classes can provide for their students.

“You can have Zero Textbook cost without OER. Schools can purchase e-book texts with certain licenses that they can share with students,” Lori Cassidy, an instructional design librarian at OCC and the designated person in charge of OCC’s OER and the Z Degree program said.

According to Cassidy, the program hopes to expand but is currently in limbo because of its grant.

There are extensive resources available through OCC’s website for students interested in classes using OER or the Z Degree. A list of classes which use OER textbooks is available, and the class registration section of the site includes options to filter for classes which will not require paying for textbooks.

“These lists are not guaranteed to be 100 percent complete, however.” Cassidy stated. “The faculty report this to us on a voluntary basis. The faculty have control over what materials are used in their classes.”

Many students are already aware that textbook companies have used this kind of software and online course materials to restrict textbook resales. Professors choose to use private digital resources like this because it often reduces their workload and in some cases could provide advantages for students.

“You should also be careful of searching for OER for your classes. Companies can use OER and add their own private software which is not free for professors to use,” Cassidy said. “Look for the term zero textbook cost.”

For example, some private software adapts assignments based on what answers they have answered correctly and incorrectly on previous assignments. However, it generally increases the financial burden for students by forcing them to purchase licenses or the newest versions of textbooks.

There are alternatives to this kind of software in development as open source projects. “Open source” is a term that applies to software that is made to be freely used, edited, and distributed, and makes the original written code of their project available for public review.

Myopenmath is an alternative to the popular software Mathlab, but as is often the case with open source software, myopenmath is less feature-rich and requires more technical knowledge from professors than Mathlab. Despite the drawbacks, however, OCC professor Sonia Avetisian uses OER exclusively for her precalculus classroom.

“I use OpenStax textbooks and myopenmath, which has links to videos for almost every homework question I assign,” Avetisian said. “I’ve used Mymathlab and Aleks before, and I think this was an easy transition. It’s not 100 percent foolproof. There are some errors but there’s also errors with all the other platforms. I went with the zero cost option, so we don’t have tech support but it’s completely free for my students. It has great features, I can make my own quizzes and tests using my homework prompts.”

OER classroom materials and open source software are both a part of a greater global movement for open and available information. In both cases, special licenses exist which legally protect documents from being claimed by private parties.

Open source software is usually protected by the GNU General Public License. Open source software is used in many privately manufactured devices, and among the papers you receive with an electronic device you may have received a copy of the GPL. If you own an Android phone, you should have received a copy of the GPL. The Android operating system is built around the open source Linux kernel software.

In both cases, the licenses are legally binding, internationally recognized and ensure that materials protected by them will be free for anyone to distribute and modify.

Not all OER and free software is legally protected. Software made and distributed for free without a license is called shareware.

OER resources that are not protected also exist. Professor Timothy Cooley at OCC has created worksheets for his math classes that he voluntarily shares with other professors, but it is  not protected by the CCL.

These licensed and unlicensed resources are being used to distribute free resources to people who would be unable to afford the privately licensed alternatives.

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