Published on 2017/09/08

Cooperating to Serve Students Across Institutional Boundaries: Leveraging Online Ed in New Ways

The EvoLLLution | Cooperating to Serve Students Across Institutional Boundaries: Leveraging Online Ed in New Ways
Intra-institutional collaborations on online educational offerings have helped to reduce bottlenecks and improve access to and affordability of degree programs. The next step is the expansion of inter-institutional collaborations, creating an interconnected postsecondary ecosystem.

Many higher education institutions have leveraged online learning in support of the operation of the institution. In recent years, online learning has been seen by many as a way to increase enrollment and extend the reach of the institution both geographically and demographically by reaching out to adult learners.

This approach has been effective for many institutions and has grown enrollments for those who are well positioned and have executed the strategy well. In recent years there have been a large number of institutions that have ramped up online program delivery to meet the demand for online programs. According to WCET’s (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technology) Distance Education Enrollment Report 2016, 5.8 million students took at least one distance course in 2016. Despite a large number of benefits afforded by online program delivery, and a decline in overall higher education enrollment in 2016, residential institutions and programs remain the “gold standard” of the U.S. higher education system.

It has been over a decade since higher education institutions began using web technologies to deliver online degree programs. Over this time a great deal of investment and development has taken place within higher education institutions. Faculty have been trained, instructional design has proliferated, and the new capabilities have become mainstream components of education. The time has come for institutions to use this expertise and the resources developed to support all students, not just those at a distance. Students enter higher education with many years of experience using online technologies, both in their personal and, increasingly, in their primary and secondary school academic programs.

Higher education institutions are now regularly providing online courses to students within residential programs as part of normal university operation. Public and private higher education institutions are now seeking students outside of geographic boundaries via online programs. The elimination of geographic boundaries for competition has provided students with more choice for institutions. Many students, not just the non-traditional students, either choose—or are forced—to balance academic study with other commitments in their lives. Many students seek to attend institutions nearby their home communities for personal or financial reasons rather than sequester themselves away for the duration of their studies. Providing a mixture of program delivery options can help add flexibility to a student’s academic career, while affording the benefits of an immersive, residential experience.

The Pennsylvania State University created an online course cooperative in 2003 to facilitate online course sharing across the campuses and colleges that comprise Penn State. This initiative has grown into a Digital Learning Initiative that aligns with the University’s access and affordability priority. This effort is a partnership between the Commonwealth Campuses, Undergraduate Education, and World Campus to provide students with access to high demand courses, reduce bottlenecks for program progression, and widely provide access to online course content to faculty for use in both residential and online courses.

Many of the Penn State colleges have developed courses as part of programs developed for delivery via the World Campus. The online cooperative, now named the Digital Learning Cooperative, is designed for the planned sharing of these courses across locations. Courses that will be shared are offered on the Digital Learning Cooperative (DLC) for other locations to reserve seats for their location. Each location has the option to reserve or offer courses to other campuses. The Digital Learning Cooperative serves as a place where course sharing agreements or plans can be codified in advance of the semester. Each campus can opt-in to shared courses based on their local needs. This system does not replace campus discretion to resolve individual student needs and one-off emergency situations. However, the development of this system has reduced the transactional friction between campuses associated with the sharing of courses between locations.

This sharing capacity has allowed the university and its colleges to strategically deploy courses and programs that can greatly enhance the student learning experience within Penn State. For example, students who have interest in the veterinary medicine program need to understand the nature of the program early in their academic plan. The DLC provides access to an introductory course that can help students explore the major prior to entering a multi-year path that is hard to change after they dive into the program in earnest during their junior year. A minor in women’s studies has been made viable by the work of the faculty across multiple campuses. A core course of the minor is offered via the DLC, but each campus partnering to offer the DLC shared course offers the remainder of the courses for interested students. A third case is the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Minor that has the three course cores available via the DLC, where individual clusters are offered by colleges and campuses.

The multi-purpose nature of the system allows for both organically grown and structured efforts to be operated. The use of a common exchange system, and the automation of the processes have allowed for new discussions about discipline coordination of course offerings, in order to allow for greater access to the breadth of the Penn State curriculum for all students. In addition to course sharing, there are also consortia-delivered degree programs within Penn State. These programs are comprised of faculty from multiple campuses, teaching as part of one program. This is a further extension of the long-standing Penn State philosophy of “one university, geographically distributed.”

Across higher education there is an increasing number of courses being shared to offer more than a collection of courses, rather degree programs are offered via multi-campus or multi-institution consortia. The University System of Georgia (USG) has offered consortia-delivered programs, such as an Online Master in Business Administration and a Bachelor of Science in IT, in addition to the USG core curriculum online for many years. Course sharing efforts have been supported by the work of groups like the Big Ten Academic Alliance, The Council of Independent Colleges, the Connecticut Distance Education Consortium, Online Consortium of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the longstanding SREB Electronic Campus.

Moving forward, I believe that these kinds of inter-institutional sharing agreements and partnerships will continue to grow. Once we solve the substantial issues of inter-institutional credit transfer and can articulate student prior learning more effectively, the next step will be to improve the flow of students through our academic institutions throughout their lives.

The future of higher education will be an increasingly interconnected ecosystem of institutions that are connected, if not by strategic effort, then by the ways students move between institutions over the course of their lives.

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