The shift online has colleges looking to share courses

Eureka College, in Illinois, had a problem. Students behind on credits would take summer classes at the local community college to catch up. But their grades didn’t count toward their GPAs, and the private liberal arts school had no way to vet what they were learning. Many students were falling off track as a result.

So in 2017, Eureka partnered with a technology company now called Acadeum, which hosts online course-sharing consortia. These arrangements allow a student at one college to enroll in an eligible online course offered by another participating institution and have it count fully toward their degree. 

Through the partnership, Eureka identifies early on students who may need summer classes to resume good academic standing. Campus staff help students select and enroll in courses they deem worthy of credits. For the most recent summer term, Eureka students had access to nearly 150 online courses. Many were in general education topics such as introductory psychology and algebra. But some were more advanced, like abnormal psychology and discrete mathematics; these are typically used as an elective or to support a second major or minor, according to Ann Fulop, Eureka’s provost.

Now, the vast majority — close to nine in 10 — of Eureka undergraduates who took summer courses through the consortium have either gotten off probation or avoided being dismissed from the college entirely, said Jamel Wright, the school’s president. About 200 Eureka students participate in the shared courses annually; the college enrolled 513 students last fall, according to federal data.

Wright attributes the trend to Eureka’s use of shared online courses. All Eureka students, regardless of their academic standing, have access to them. And close to half of the students who take advantage of the offering are not among those deemed to need extra help, Fulop noted. 

Eureka hasn’t noticed an uptick in its use of shared online courses during the pandemic, but officials there say its experience offers a teachable lesson for other institutions seeking to use such resources to work through the disruptions it has caused.

Course-sharing networks historically have tended to comprise small groups of neighboring colleges with similar curricular goals, such as the Five College Consortium in Western Massachusetts and the Claremont Colleges in Los Angeles County. While the early course-sharing happened in-person, newer initiatives let students take classes online from schools all over the country.

Eureka, which allows its students to take classes through Acadeum but doesn’t share its own courses on the platform, was one of the first colleges to adopt such a model. Dozens of other small, private institutions followed thanks to the Council of Independent Colleges’ (CIC’s) Online Course Sharing Consortium, which was formed in late 2018 and today is the largest of the dozen or so networks on Acadeum. Eureka joined the CIC’s consortium when it launched.  

But demand for course-sharing services has soared since the pandemic began. Forced to quickly adjust to remote instruction, some colleges looked to consortia for help filling out their online program offerings. 

For example, more than 70 institutions have joined the CIC’s consortium since mid-March, and enrollment in its shared online courses has grown by 150%, said Carol Schuler, CIC’s vice president for state council programs. Today, the consortium boasts more than 200 members. In all, Acadeum has added some 147 colleges since the pandemic started, including through new consortia that have emerged during that time.

Some higher ed observers think interest in the model could be lasting.

Colleges are tapping into “any and all resources” that can help mitigate disruption while still providing a quality education, said Eureka’s Wright. “Now more than ever, students are graduating into even more unknown circumstances, in terms of the marketplace and potential career opportunities. And we can’t let them down.”

More consortia emerge

The concept of online course-sharing has gained traction among a broad range of institutions that see these partnerships as one antidote to the academic disruption caused by the crisis, said Alicia Policinski, the cofounder and CEO of Quottly, a software platform that allows students to earn transferable credits from other colleges. 

The Big Ten Academic Alliance, which includes large, public research universities such as Michigan State and Pennsylvania State, recently announced an online course-sharing consortium meant to give students more academic opportunities amid the pandemic. 

In mid-September, the University of Massachusetts announced a similar initiative. Through its Inter-campus Course Exchange, students enrolled at one of its four undergraduate institutions can take online courses through the other campuses. UMass President Marty Meehan in a press release called the exchange a “silver lining” of the pandemic that will benefit students “long after COVID-19 is a distant memory.”

Various minority-serving institutions and community colleges are exploring similar partnerships, said Robert Manzer, Acadeum’s chief academic officer. 

Strategic Education, which operates Strayer and Capella universities, is offering a consortium through Acadeum that lets students at participating historically Black colleges use classes from the for-profit schools to complete coursework interrupted during the spring term. Students can access more than 900 courses, though their schools may limit the number of credits they can take. 

In March, Acadeum developed a separate consortium geared at helping students recover credits lost to the spring disruptions. While Acadeum’s other consortia are limited to colleges in specific industry groups or regions, the Higher Education Course Recovery Consortium is open to public and private colleges across the country. They can use it “on a moment’s notice to get their students the courses they need during the pandemic,” Manzer said, noting that the consortium’s membership has grown steadily in recent months. 

California’s Menlo College, for example, joined in late July to use Texas Wesleyan University’s business courses, which are accredited by AACSB International. 

‘A great piece to a puzzle’

Advocates argue the curricular flexibility and diversity such consortia afford are especially vital now, as colleges cut or curtail courses and students adjust their college plans in response to the pandemic. 

Many colleges have had to eliminate low-enrollment courses to maintain their bottom lines, said Jo Ellen Parker, the CIC’s vice president for communications and the former president of Virginia’s Sweet Briar College. Using consortia allows these schools to “identify trusted partners” and ensure that “what students are doing online is productive and appropriate for them,” Parker said.

Through the CIC consortium, where membership costs schools $1,000 a year to use the courses or $3,000 to use and provide them, institutions can facilitate credit transfer and even coordinate financial aid, Schuler said. Schools directing students to the consortium can also be sure learners will earn credits and that transferring them will be easy, she said. 

The teaching institutions determine how much they charge a students’ home college for enrollment in their shared courses, though it’s typically between $500 and $800 a seat, according to Acadeum’s Manzer

“Now more than ever, students are graduating into even more unknown circumstances, in terms of the marketplace and potential career opportunities.”

Jamel Wright

President, Eureka College

Schools are having to operate more nimbly as a result of the pandemic’s impact on their budgets. And finding ways to integrate courses from other schools within a consortium framework to support students is part of that, Manzer contends. But institutions new to consortia will need to figure out how to use the online courses to support their curricular priorities and campus populations, such as by figuring out when it makes sense to refer students and for what types of classes.

Before the pandemic, institutions may have shied away from sharing courses because of the related logistical and financial burdens. Navigating the online platforms can be intimidating for schools unaccustomed to virtual education. And such partnerships may require extra fees and support within the participating institution.

They are also incumbent on trust among participating colleges — a difficult feat in an era of hyper-competition over prospective students. 

But Eureka’s Wright encourages colleges to take advantage of available resources to help mitigate disruption. Course-sharing is “a great piece to a puzzle none of us has put together before,” Wright said. “We’ve never had to put a puzzle together that includes a pandemic.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the membership cost for the Council of Independent Colleges’ consortium. It is $3,000 for schools to use and provide courses.

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