19 City University of New York

Andrew McKinney and Ann Fiddler

New York

Type of Institution: Public system, with seven community colleges, 11 senior colleges, and six graduate and professional schools

Impetus: Achieving the Dream grant; state funding

Student Information System: CUNYFirst (PeopleSoft)

Markings Used: ZERO Textbook Cost (attribute); Course uses OER/Zero cost course (designation)

Unique Features: Assessment tied to open educational resources initiative impact tracking


The City University of New York (CUNY) spans 24 campuses across the five boroughs in New York City, encompassing seven community colleges, 11 senior colleges, and six graduate and professional schools. As the public university system of New York City, and the largest urban university system in the country, CUNY serves a diverse student population of over 250,000 full- and part-time students. In Spring 2016, we at CUNY’s Office of Library Services (OLS), situated in the Office of Academic Affairs, applied for and received a grant from to create entire degree pathways in three of CUNY’s community colleges. This experience laid the groundwork for best practices in institutionalizing OER at CUNY. The ZERO Textbook Cost course designation (see fig. 19.1) was created in Fall 2017 in conjunction with the grant.

CUNYfirst Global Search, where students can limit their search to zero textbook cost courses
Figure 19.1: CUNYFirst global search includes a search option for ZERO Textbook Cost

In Spring 2017, the New York State governor’s office took an interest in funding OER initiatives; the result was $4 million in funding given to CUNY and an additional $4 million to the State University of New York (SUNY) for the 2017/18 academic year. Funding has continued each year through the 2019/20 academic year, but the line in the budget is not permanent and funding remains contingent on legislative priorities. Given our experience administering the ATD grant it was natural that OLS would take the role of oversight and create the infrastructure for what had become a significant university-wide initiative. The goal of the initiative is large-scale course conversions throughout the system with an emphasis on high-enrollment, general education courses and OER degree pathways. OLS organizes and advises campus level representatives for every school involved in the initiative. In fact, a requirement of the schools receiving a portion of the state funding is that they designate an administrator, librarian, or faculty member who owns the project on their campus. The majority of these individuals are librarians, who are already familiar and comfortable with OLS as a centralized, service offering office.

Process Considerations

After discussions with the campus representatives about creating a ZERO Textbook Cost attribute for courses led to a consensus agreement about implementing the attribute, OLS and the University Registrar’s office collaborated to make the attribute a reality. Creating the attribute in CUNYFirst, CUNY’s centralized student information system, was a relatively quick and easy process. The first major task, however, was to get faculty to apply the attribute to their course in CUNYFirst, which is a process that varies from campus to campus. The course attribute must, in some way, be reported to the registrar to appear in the registration system. Faculty themselves cannot add an attribute to their course via CUNYFirst. Though faculty are required to input textbook information into CUNYFirst and can indicate that a course is not using a textbook or is using a free or open textbook, this is a separate process from marking the course ZERO Textbook Cost in CUNYFirst. Responsibility for officially marking courses, based on faculty-submitted data, is managed by the department chair or the course coordinator. That individual then communicates this to their campus registrar.

The process initially seemed simple, but it turned out to be a challenge for some campuses. OLS put together documentation to educate campus stakeholders on how to indicate a course as ZTC in CUNYFirst and shared this information on the library’s website (CUNY 2020). Still, some instructors and staff members were unhappy about they felt was an additional burden. In general, the push back was communicated to both campus OER leads and OLS staff and largely centered on perceptions of unnecessary bureaucratic difficulties and a lack of clarity from campus registrars about workflow. The implementation team also heard from campus OER leads both individually and as a group at our bi-semester OER representatives meetings. OER initiative participants reported that navigating inconsistent workflows for resulted in a significant increase in the everyone’s workloads.

To alleviate the burden and deal with the fact that OLS itself does not have the appropriate permissions within CUNYFirst to assign the ZTC attribute to courses, OLS hired a part-time employee to work in the central registrar’s office. Campus OER representatives sent OLS lists of courses that were part of their initiatives and would need to be coded ZTC but for a variety of reasons, such as missed deadlines or administrative confusion, had not been. These lists were then given to the registrar’s office for the part-time employee to code as ZTC. In addition to coding these courses, they also searched through CUNYFirst for courses that were marked as “No textbook required” by faculty and added the ZTC attribute to them manually. Although this was a useful service for students as it correctly identified all courses in the catalog that did not require a textbook, it made the data set produced from CUNYFirst’s ZTC courses appreciably different from a data set of courses that were made ZTC via the funding that New York State gave to CUNY, as many courses that never used a textbook or for-cost course materials (like an internship) became coded ZTC.

After the first year of the state funding, we were able to streamline the ZTC coding process for a majority of CUNY campuses through a very fruitful collaboration with Akademos, the online bookstore that serves 15 of CUNY’s campuses. As noted above, coding a course ZTC required the involvement of several parties, and workflows varied across campuses. However, Akademos’s collaboration with OLS and the central registrar to customize their system for CUNY has significantly reduced the amount of work it takes for schools to code a course ZTC. Their customization allows instructors to select a button indicating that the course is a “Zero Textbook Cost” course (see fig. 19.2). This automatically syncs with the registration system triggering the attribute. However, even with this ease of use, problems remained. After looking closely at courses that had been designated ZTC via Akademos, OLS discovered that some instructors who had chosen the ZTC option also listed a required textbook. Although this is likely user error, it is troubling that students searching for a ZTC course could sign up for a course that might not actually be ZTC. Akademos continues to work with us to modify the system to prevent this error. All the customization that Akademos has done for OLS has been done with no additional charge to the system. We count them as a valued collaborator in our initiative.

Akademos interface that instructors use to designate that a course uses OER/ Zero cost materials
Figure 19.2: Options in Akademos for designating a course as OER/Zero cost course

In addition to these workflow issues, we received anecdotal indications that some faculty were reluctant to list their course as ZTC because of perceived pressure from within their department. For example, a faculty member expressed trepidation at adding the ZTC designation because they felt that it would be looked down upon by the department chair and the faculty member did not have tenure. While there is strong support for the initiative, some faculty remain steadfast in their belief that students should choose courses based on the instructor rather than resource costs. The implementation team has treaded lightly around these issues. We have mostly left these conversations to individual campus representatives; we don’t want this discussion to appear to faculty as is being dictated by the OLS or the central office of CUNY in general. Of course, these issues go beyond course marking and are a problem for OER initiatives writ large, but it is worth noting that our experience indicates that leaving the management of faculty-level relations to staff and other faculty on the ground is the best method of dealing with this kind of resistance.


Reaching faculty and getting courses accurately coded is only half the battle. Coding efficiently makes tracking the general impact of cost savings for students much easier, but if students don’t know about the ZTC attribute, impact will be limited. In order to spread the word to students, we produced a short promotional video (CUNYMedia 2018) in collaboration with the Office of Communications and Marketing at CUNY Central and used their office to produce flyers (see fig. 19.3) and bookmarks that were distributed to our campus OER leads.

CUNY flier entitled "Want Zero Textbook Costs?" Flier defines OER, demonstrates how to search for courses that are zero textbook courses, and provides common benefits of signing up for these courses.
Figure 19.3: City University of New York flyer advertising ZERO Textbook Cost courses

It wasn’t clear, though, that these were very effective in gaining students’ attention. According to a survey administered in Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 to students who were in ZTC courses at one of the senior colleges, the vast majority of students didn’t actually know they were in a ZTC course when they signed up, nor were they aware of the ZTC attribute in general. As we approach the fourth semester of the ZTC attribute’s existence, we are taking steps to partner with CUNY Central’s Student Affairs office to fine tune promotional materials and are beginning to network with various student leadership groups at CUNY campuses to enlist them in getting the word out to students. We hope that increasing student awareness of the ZTC attribute will increase student demand for such courses, which is ultimately a path towards sustainability for any OER or ZTC initiative.


In a place as large and sprawling as CUNY, communication is always a challenge. As a commuter university, faculty and students come to campus only when they need to and student involvement in other aspects of academic life is limited. Therefore, reaching students and faculty is a major challenge. Although we’ve had some success, there is still more work to be done to fine-tune processes and try new methods of communicating the existence and importance of the ZTC attribute.

Despite these issues, use of the ZTC attribute fueled by ATD and the New York State funding has grown exponentially since its implementation in Fall 2017. In the first semester, fewer than 300 course sections used the attribute. At the time, the only way to get the attribute was to report it to the local campus registrar through a course manager or department chair. By Spring 2018, following the addition of a part-time employee in the central registrar’s office, the number of courses with the ZTC attribute jumped to 1,000. By Fall 2018, there were over 3,000 sections in CUNYFirst designated ZTC. These numbers have been reviewed by CUNY Central’s registrar’s office to remove courses that were either marked as ZTC but still required a for-cost textbook (mostly from faculty user error in Akademos) or were courses that in manual coding had been marked as ZTC but would never have had a textbook cost associated with them in the first place (e.g., an internship or a physical education class). Although the process of creating and using the ZTC attribute was less straightforward than expected, it has been an important process for tracking the impact of the OER funding CUNY received from ATD and New York State and for allowing students to take full advantage of these initiatives by actively searching for and choosing these courses. We still gather all of our individual campus reports and combine their individual data but we are able to cross check this with data we get from a query of ZTC courses in CUNYFirst. This gives us the ability to see the amount of ZTC courses at the university at a glance, and it also gives a more in-depth picture of both what the state funding has paid for and what kind of ZTC work has been done outside of the initiative.


  1. Communication with students is key. You can mark your courses as ZTC or OER, but if the students don’t know about course attributes, the effort you’ve put into making sure that courses are marked properly will not have the impact it should. If your institution skews more toward commuter than residential this can be a particular challenge. We recommend trying to speak directly to student government, partnering with your student affairs office, and generally seeking out any office that students regularly interact with to make sure they have your promotional materials.
  2. You’ll need to clean out courses like internships and independent studies from your ZTC/OER course data. There are many of these courses and we benefited greatly from having someone in our registrar’s office assigned specifically to this task.
  3. Workflow for setting a course attribute can vary widely from institution to institution and department to department. We recommend trying to gather as much information on this workflow as you can before attempting to implement. If there is another type of attribute in your registration system that is similar in function, such as a Writing Intensive attribute, find out who is responsible for that at the departmental level and work up from there.
  4. We have benefited greatly from the work that Akademos has done around course marking in their software. Having a strong, collaborative relationship with your campus bookstore can be of tremendous value to a successful course marking initiative. Our campuses that don’t use Akademos have had to shoulder a larger labor load.


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Marking Open and Affordable Courses: Best Practices and Case Studies by Andrew McKinney and Ann Fiddler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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