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Course Sharing Across Governance to Enhance Access, Success, and Equity of Opportunity

Course sharing can be impactful in creating a harmonious learning ecosystem by establishing strong relationships across higher ed to create equal opportunities for learners.

In March 2020 higher education institutions were faced with the need to move almost overnight from the traditional mode of face-to-face instruction to one of remote emergency teaching, enabling learning to continue through online/digital modes. While some institutions had significant experience in offering online instruction, a majority did not, resulting in some institutions reaching out to others to form partnerships to share courses that would enable students to continue progressing toward their degree. This partnering continues a long-standing, but relatively uncommon, tradition of academic institutions sharing resources with each other, often through membership in a consortium. The pandemic caused the number of institutions making courses readily available to others online to increase dramatically, although more often driven by economic reasons like filling seats or increasing revenue by including part-time students from other institutions. We don’t always focus on students and equal opportunity. But it would be worthwhile to look a bit further in course sharing, what it entails, and under what circumstances this could truly be used to benefit students and offer equal access, opportunity and success.

At its most basic level, course sharing occurs routinely when students attending one institution takes courses at another during summer (to be closer to home or to their internship/work) with the intention of transferring the courses and their credits to the degree at the home institution. This works well in most cases, but the student is often constrained by the nuance and confusion in the transfer process, which could result either in the course not being counted at all or the credit transferring only substantially later. Conversations about financial aid often arise; however, they’re mostly initiated by students on an individual basis with very little actual formality at the institution-to-institution level. 

For student-focused and student-effective course sharing across institutions, three specific aspects essentially need to be in place: (a) students attending partner institutions have the ability to take pre-determined courses at each other’s institutions through a common portal. The courses appear for registration and subsequently on the transcript, the way they would if taken at the home institution, (b) the courses are articulated to automatically count for credit towards degrees at other institutions without the student having to go through the often ambiguous, time-consuming, and frustrating post-completion course transfer process. And (c) courses taken at a partner institution is eligible for financial aid at the home institution.  The focus of these three aspects is ease of registration, guaranteed applicability, and a simplified process. True course sharing enables students to access pre-designated online courses at another institution as though they were being offered at the home institution itself, freeing the student of the anxiety and frustration related to taking courses at a different institution.

To understand why such arrangements might be advantageous to students one has only to study a few specific instances:

1. Enabling Sufficient Course Availability to Ensure Progression Toward graduation

The issue recently reported about a shortage of courses at UCSB[1] that could result in freshmen and transfer students not being able to earn the 12 credit hours needed to achieve full-time status is unfortunately not new. Many institutions struggle to ensure sufficient seats are available to accommodate all admitted students. especially in lower division courses. The lack of seats is exacerbated by students who are already considered off-schedule either due to previous course unavailability issues, through pre-requisite issues, or just falling behind because of personal and non-academic responsibilities, such as jobs and taking care of children/parents. The ability to use capacity at partner institutions to allow students to progress on time would substantially alleviate a host of issues at institutions while preventing students from earning excess credits for courses that do not count towards the degree but are needed to maintain full-time status. Most institutions offer key courses once a year, so if a student is off-schedule due to an illness, transferring without the appropriate pre-requisites, or unable to attend due to life-based situations outside their control, then they can’t get the courses they need when they have time to dedicate to them, This results in students falling even further behind, sometimes accumulating hours that will not count towards their intended degree. Being able to register for a course as needed through a course- sharing agreement with a partner institution provides a much-needed equity and opportunity for a growing percentage of students balancing life responsibilities with their academic journeys.

2. Enabling Choice in Electives and Areas of Specialization

Many universities and colleges, especially regional and smaller institutions, are resource-constrained and are therefore unable to offer students a full range of electives and areas of specialization. This results in a high degree of inequity that has nothing to do with the student’s level of preparation or ability. While it is unreasonable to expect that every student should be able to access every single elective and specialization, it is not out of the question to expand the set of offerings through course sharing with a set of partner institutions leveraging faculty expertise and availability to substantially expand offerings. Multiple minors, specializations and even majors can be offered across a set of campuses, despite being individually housed at different campuses.  This would also ensure greater efficiency in resource management within an institution and curb the arms race offer every single option and specialization within a discipline, even if student attendance at that institution would insufficient. Sharing faculty expertise through course sharing would enable a far greater number of institutions to offer the same breadth and depth of a discipline without having to duplicate otherwise unaffordable resources. This would also enable institutions to pool resources to ensure continued offerings for programs critical to the region instead of eliminating them due to resource and enrollment challenges at the individual campus level.

3. Creating Greater Efficiencies in Developing and Initiating new programs

Despite a clearly identified need, most often through regional employer demand, higher ed institutions are often unable to initiate new programs or are extremely slow to react to this need, resulting either in bringing in outside employees or, increasingly, the sector moving its offices/manufacturing facilities to other regions that provide them with more employees.  While the slow rate of decision-making in academia is often to blame, in many cases the actual cause is lack of sufficient resources to launch a new degree. Extremely difficult decisions need to be taken in prioritizing the need for new programs over the continuation of existing ones. Notwithstanding the necessity of looking at the priority issue, universities could pool resources through course sharing to develop and initiate new programs, drawing on partners’ strengths to fill the curriculum. This strategy would especially benefit smaller institutions, and the socio-economic benefits of keeping employment within those regions would pay off manyfold. In addition, this assists in jump-starting new programs while faculty is still being hired, leveraging faculty expertise at partner institutions, and perhaps over the longer term even sharing faculty expertise, so students benefit from the very best minds.

4. Enabling Local Academic Representation by Leveraging Regional Resources

Local economies especially in rural areas often depend on their higher ed institution, not just for graduates in key areas that support the economy, but also because the institution is one of the largest employers in the area. Yet, changing demographics, workforce demands and decreasing support for public higher education have resulted in an increasing number of these institutions having to close or dramatically reduce their offerings. This has resulted in students migrating to institutions further away. It comes at a greater cost to the student (and their families) and accelerates the migration of populations away from these areas. The ability to leverage resources among campuses through course sharing can alleviate this issue, enabling each institution to remain focused on areas of local need while sharing faculty and courses in general areas and programs where the individual campus needs may be low, but the regional need—when added over a set of campuses—is high enough to support faculty and programmatic administration in that. Course sharing could not only allow small campuses to survive, thereby ensuring the opportunity of higher education to local residents, but leverages resources to benefit the communities as a whole. 

5. Increasing Student Engagement Over Diverse Demographics

Due to a number of factors, diversity is limited at some institutions. And while efforts are made to enhance this diversity to ensure the best educational and social experience for students, this may not be possible to the extent needed in the short term. Shared online courses when the attendance is in full-immersive synchronous mode can bring together institutions that might not be diverse by themselves but when combined become diverse, leading to tremendous advantages for students and the faculty. Partnerships between distinctly different groups of universities could lead to substantial social engagement at an otherwise impossible level while exposing students to a diversity of viewpoints as well.

While the focus of this article has been on course sharing between four-year institutions, the concept is just as powerful, and perhaps more so, when extended across the bounds of governance, such as between a four-year institution and a community college, or ca four-year institution and a high school. Mechanisms associated with concurrent enrollment, dual enrollment, and early college high school, could be strengthened through course sharing and even augmented through facilitated sessions at the other institutions, with the disciplinary expert being at the four-year institution and the facilitator being at the other institution using the shared course to augment their local offering. We could even consider the viability of a group of leading national universities each making their courses available at low a cost to students at smaller institutions, community colleges and high schools aspiring to gain from the faculty experts at the said university! 

Course sharing may have been previously thought of as a means to enhance revenue for participating institutions by filling of each empty seat with students from other institutions. Or, on the institutional side, providing partner institutions with revenue-generating students by allowing them to take a few courses not offered by their own institution. While these may have been drivers in the past, there are greater, more powerful and impactful reasons for higher ed as a whole to consider a more nuanced and open means of course sharing—one focused on ensuring greater access to larger palettes of knowledge for students irrespective of geographical location and for greater flexibility in completing a program of study without being potentially constrained by the course availability. The true value is only realized if the student, rather than the higher ed institution, or external entities are placed at the center. If increasing access, providing greater opportunity for progression and attainment of knowledge, unconstrained by time, place, location and outdated rigid structures sound valuable to you, then course sharing across higher ed should be a no-brainer. Hopefully institutions of higher education have the courage to make this a common reality because of students rather than profits, and without creating additional barriers for students. The goal, as always, should be to offer greater access and enhanced opportunities for success at a lower cost to all.



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