Introduction: The Value of Online Course-Sharing
Before delving into the how-to of course-sharing, it might be helpful to review the purpose of online collaboration in the first place. Four years ago, Acadeum didn’t exist; now some 300 colleges and universities are sharing courses on Acadeum Course Share. Why is that?
One can think of colleges and universities as ships sailing toward their destination through rough seas (most academic leaders would certainly describe today’s environment as stormy). In a such an environment, there are two primary ways to increase one’s chances of success—by reducing leakage and by increasing power.
Ships that take on water reduce their ability to operate efficiently and effectively. Similarly, the typical university suffers from all sorts of “leakage.” For example,
• Students that universities work hard to recruit sometimes drop out—or give up—because they can’t get the course, they need to get off academic probation, regain athletic eligibility, or stay on track for their degree. Nationwide 40% of all students who start college at a particular institution will not earn a degree at that institution within six years. That’s a lot of leakage.
• Many students spend summer vacation—and increasingly, Winter Term—taking classes away from their home institution to stay on track or get ahead in their degree program.
• Some courses run inefficiently with just a handful of students in them, or professors conduct Independent Studies on the side to keep students on track.
• Some students who “walk” in a graduation ceremony languish for years without completing their degree because they no longer live close enough to campus to take the courses they need to finish.
Two decades ago, perhaps colleges and universities could tolerate such leaks, but not in today’s environment Online course-sharing enables institutions to plug holes in the ship, thereby serving students better and strengthening the health of the institution.
The second way to strengthen the ship is to increase power, and online course-sharing boosts institutional power in several ways. For example,
• Launching new academic programs or expanding existing ones that help to recruit more students.
• Employing various course term lengths
• Increasing academic quality by empowering the faculty to review and approve shared online courses.
• Retaining quality students by enabling them to take more electives in their major or change majors seamlessly.
• Providing prerequisites to enable adult degree completion programs to enroll new students immediately rather than sending them to a community college.
• Generating additional tuition revenue on unfilled online courses.
In sum, in a host of ways, online course-sharing enables universities to thrive in challenging conditions by operating more efficiently and expanding academic capacity to meet the needs of their students.
Obstacles to Effective Course-Sharing
The benefits of online collaboration to universities and to students are readily apparent, which brings up a puzzling truth: Many colleges and universities recognize the benefits of online course-sharing sufficiently to join a course-sharing network but fail to fully realize the institutional benefits of doing so. Why is that?
One reason is simply institutional inertia. Change is difficult, and often it seems that academicians who can be innovative in their particular fields are resistant to change in their institutional operations. Over time, academic professionals can come to see 20% of first-year students not returning in the fall, or students taking courses at their local community college over the summer, or professors teaching an upper-level major course to three students, as just the way universities operate. Using course-sharing for fundamental, structural institutional change requires leadership that can cast a vision for a better way of doing things.
Beyond simple inertia, effective online collaboration can be difficult to achieve because it requires a paradigm shift in our traditional understanding of the university in two key ways:
• From provider of courses to producer of graduates. Universities typically see themselves as in the business of teaching courses. Like parents who serve meals to their children, our courses are the “dishes” that we provide to students to help them grow. But what if the broader purpose of the parent is to produce well-nourished children, usually by preparing and serving meals themselves, but sometimes by providing meals from other sources? Effective course-sharing requires that universities expand their understanding of their task from that of simply teaching courses to being brokers and curators of educational experiences that lead to a degree. While universities usually do that by teaching courses, sometimes they serve students better and operate more effectively by accessing courses from partner institutions.
• From individual institution to member of a collaborative community. Moving from course-provider to producer of graduates implies a second paradigm shift. Universities that engage in course-sharing see their peer institutions as not just competitors but as teammates in a larger network whose members contribute to each other’s’ health. As Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik remarked to a group of independent college provosts, “Your primary competition is not each other but the public universities who beat you on price and selection.” Perhaps it’s helpful to think of a network of private colleges and universities as similar to professional sports league such as the National Football League: While it’s true that individual franchises compete against each other, at a broader level, the league succeeds or fails collectively.
Fully realizing the institutional benefits of online course-sharing, therefore, requires that academic leaders help their institutions shift and broaden their paradigm of how they operate. Adopting a more student-oriented, collaborative mindset, we come to see the academic catalog not as a static repository of courses but as a dynamic, fluid collection of education experiences that “flex” with the institution as it expands to meet students’ needs and adapts to a changing environment.
What follows, then, are some general steps for getting started with online course-sharing, but there’s no simple formula. The key is to acquire some basic principles for plugging institutional leaks and boosting power through collaboration, then over time develop particular strategies that are most appropriate for your university.
Step One: The Planning Meeting
After the Master Services Agreement and the consortial agreement are signed, the first step is typically a Planning Meeting. This is essentially an opportunity to take out a map and plan where you want to travel before putting your ship to sea. Specifically, the outcomes are:
a. Identify a project leader: Universities that are most successful at institution-wide adoption of course-sharing typically have a “champion” whose job responsibilities include general oversight of course-sharing. Usually this is a person at the dean, assistant provost, or associate provost level—someone with sufficient organizational power to get things done, but also with the bandwidth to devote time and energy to the initiative. At some institutions, that person may be the Registrar. Without such a project leader, online course-sharing risks falling victim to the “it’s everyone’s responsibility and no one’s responsibility in particular” syndrome.
b. Identify a project team: This group typically consists of individuals such as the:
• dean/director of online learning
• person responsible for student success/academic advising
• person responsible for academic operations (if separate from the project leader)
• dean/director of innovation or strategic initiatives
c. Identify tangible, data-driven goals and timelines: Course-sharing initiatives can languish for lack of clarity and specificity in goals and outcomes. The Planning Meeting is an opportunity to identify specific institutional needs to be addressed by course-sharing, both short-term and long-term. To do so effectively, good data is essential. Hopefully, some data collection was part of the exploration process, but an effective project team will continue to collect institutional data and use it to drive course-sharing strategies, timelines, and success metrics. See Appendix #1 for some examples of useful institutional data.
Step Two: The Onboarding Session
The Onboarding Session is a 60-90 minute basic training session for the actual users of the Acadeum platform. It is recommended that all members of the project team participate in the Onboarding Session. Representatives from Finance and Institutional Technology may want to attend as well. Some institutions also have deans or division chairs attend the onboarding to familiarize them with course-sharing possibilities. This session covers basic course-sharing operations such as:
• Reviewing, approving, and mapping courses
• Approving and enrolling students (both as Home Institution and Teaching Institution)
• Transcripting grades
• Billing and financial aid issues
• Placing the student application
• Appointing institutional contacts
Finally, two important actions accompany the Onboarding Session:
1. The institution should identify a Primary Finance Contact who can meet with an Acadeum representative to set up Stripe, the online payment processor. One of the key benefits of the Acadeum system is the seamless transfer of data and dollars between institutions. Thus, is it crucial that the Stripe setup takes place as part of the overall implementation process.
2. Because the course-sharing system depends on multiple automated email communications/notifications to administrators and students who take courses at partner institutions, institutions should whitelist Acadeum’s two email domains, acadeum.com and collegeconsortium.org to prevent these emails from being blocked by the institution’s server.
Step Three: The Backup Curriculum
Perhaps the most important part of the course-sharing implementation process—and the one that requires the most time and energy on the part of the home institution—is the process of identifying, reviewing, and approving consortial courses for use on Acadeum Course Share. To simplify the process, it’s helpful to break it down into three phases:
1. Curriculum Review
A key part of the implementation process is to review your own academic offerings to identify the areas in greatest need of expanded capacity through shared online courses. It’s important to keep in mind that just because you approve a course does not mean that students have permission to enroll in it; they just have the ability to request the course. Therefore, it’s best to approve as many courses as possible. Some Acadeum institutions simply create a backup curriculum for their entire catalog. Doing so gives you an expanded toolkit to meet students’ needs and operate more efficiently. At this stage, it’s best not to worry about what courses are available on the Course Share application as substitutes; just review your own curriculum for opportunities. These opportunities fall into categories such as:
• Commonly dropped courses
• Commonly under-enrolled courses
• Commonly waitlisted courses
• Courses that new or current students tend to transfer in
• Courses needed to enter a program
• Courses for which students often find themselves out of sequence
Obviously, this is a group effort, and the Registrar and division chairs are typically in the best position to identify courses that would most benefit from having backup options.
2. Selection Criteria
Once you have selected courses that you want to identify backup options for, you should also formulate criteria by which to identify the best backup courses from among all of the available courses on the Acadeum network. These criteria may be items such as:
• Course price
• Course dates
• Course length
• Teaching Institution (mission-alignment, region, academic reputation, etc.)
3. Course Review and Approval
Once you have identified home institution courses and criteria, you’re ready to review and approve courses on the Acadeum platform. The actual approval process varies by institution according on the degree of faculty involvement in the transfer course approvals. At some institutions, approval is made almost entirely in the Registrar’s office; at others, the faculty must approve most substitutions for courses. Most universities generally split the difference: major-specific courses are subject to faculty approval, while general education course substitutes are handled in the Registrar’s office.
Whatever your particular institution’s process, it’s important to keep in mind that Acadeum can assist you with the task of narrowing down the best possible course substitutes on the Acadeum Course Share application. If you fill out the tabs on this curriculum review worksheet, our staff can survey alternatives and provide you with a curated list of possible substitutes for each course, which you can then provide to your faculty. It’s better to present your Psychology division chair with a list of, say, three substitutes for Introductory Psychology rather than asking the chair to review syllabi for twenty possible courses.
Step Four: Pricing strategy
Once you have a backup curriculum of approved, mission-aligned courses available on your platform, it’s important to think through how you will price the courses for your students. Acadeum members vary widely on this issue: Some schools charge a standard rate—for example, $1,000—for all shared online courses, regardless of the circumstance, while others don’t charge at all. Most schools vary the cost to students, depending on the situation. In general, it's better to think of the financial benefit of course sharing as a retention/enrollment tool, not as a means of generating incremental revenue on every individual seat in a shared course. After all, gaining $20,000 per year in tuition revenue on a retained student is a better return on investment than making $200 on a particular seat.
At any rate, here are three general principles regarding pricing that most institutions abide by:
1. Meeting the institution’s needs: No charge.
If the student is taking a consortial course because of a decision by the institution, then the student is not charged. One of the uses of course-sharing is to operate more efficiently by reducing under-enrolled courses or course bottlenecks. In such situations, the institution is already benefitting financially by eliminating the cost for particular courses, so it provides the course that the student needs without cost to the student. Another scenario that might apply here is that if the institution is using consortial courses to launch a new academic program that has attracted the student in the first place, it is not likely to charge the student extra for the course.
2. Meeting student’s needs: Minimal charge.
If taking a shared course is initiated by the student but doing so contributes to student success and therefore institutional benefit, most universities will simply seek to ensure that no money is lost on a particular shared course. For example, one new Consortium member charges $275 per credit hour for all shared courses and has a “price cap” of $750 for every shared online course. By doing so, they ensure that they meet students’ needs more effectively while at least breaking even on each individual course.
This principle would apply to many scenarios such as,
• Students re-taking a course to regain good academic standing
• Athletes regaining athletic eligibility, or “front-loading” a semester to have a lighter academic load during season
• Students who double-major or seek to get ahead in their major
• Students in small majors seeking more electives
• Students who switch majors and are out of sequence in the new major
• “Walkers” who need one or two courses to complete their degree
Once again, the overriding principle here is that the institution is seeking greater academic capacity and flexibility in order to meet students’ needs, which benefits students but ultimately the university as well.
The potential revenue on an individual course is less important than the overall benefit to the university, both financially and missionally.
3. Generating additional revenue: Regular charge
One of the important benefits of course-sharing, of course, is reducing “leakage” of your tuition to other institutions. A standard course-sharing strategy, therefore, is to identify courses that your students are taking elsewhere during summer and winter term, approve substitutes on Acadeum Course Share, and provide them to your students at your regular part-time credit hour rate. Acadeum institutions have employed this strategy to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars of new revenue.
Even here, however, depending on your standard credit hour rate and that of your local competitors, it may be necessary to employ a discounted summer tuition rate in order to be competitive. In general, we have found that students are willing to pay more to take a course from their home institution that has been recommended by their academic advisor and will count toward their degree and their GPA, but at some point, a significant price differential will drive them away from your institution to a community college. Where that tuition sweet spot is will vary by institution.
4. Student emergencies
One particularly relevant, but difficult to categorize, area is that of student emergencies that make it impossible for them to maintain a full course schedule on-campus. This has become particularly relevant in relation to COVID-19. Online course-sharing has proven to be a valuable institutional asset in helping student emergency situations, but institutions vary widely in how they choose to charge tuition in these situations. In general, however, most institutions conclude that it’s better to invest a few thousand dollars to retain a student and gain, say, $80,000 revenue over the course of four years (not to mention a satisfied alum).
Step Five: Creating the Student Access Application
The final implementation step is to provide students with access to possible courses through a student access link that is located strategically on your university website, most likely the Registrar page. Some Acadeum users are initially reluctant to create a student access, fearing that doing so may open up the floodgates to students to take courses away from their home institution. So it’s important to keep in mind this basic fact: The student access empowers students to explore options and make requests, but does not give them control to register for any course. You as the home institution maintain control over the process in two important ways: First, students only see the courses that have been approved for them to see. Second, they can only request enrollment in courses; the institution maintains control over which requests are granted.
The student application is crucial for two reasons:
1) Operational efficiency: Each enrollment request requires the submission of eighteen fields of student information, which can be a time-consuming process. Acadeum can perform a batch upload of student data to our system, but student populations change every semester and year. Moreover, requiring that students meet with the registrar or their academic advisor in person or by phone to submit a request not only will discourage student requests but create a workload burden for staff members. In other words, requiring student requests to go through a central office creates a bottleneck that may squeeze off the possibility of course-sharing becoming a structural and strategic asset to the institution.
2) Real-time curriculum feedback: At a healthy and efficient university, the curriculum, while under the control of the faculty, also remains flexible and responsive to students’ needs and interests. Empowering students to make course requests provides you with a valuable and ongoing source of data regarding student demand. Moreover, an especially valuable source of information on the student access link is the “Course Not Found” feature where students can request courses not currently approved on Acadeum Course Share Your physical campus probably contains some worn paths that communicate vividly where, in addition to the planned sidewalks, the pedestrian traffic really goes. “Course Not Found” results serve as the academic equivalent to campus footpaths, alerting you as to where your curriculum is not responding to student needs and where they are likely to go elsewhere to obtain.
The Key Ingredient: Building institutional awareness and buy-in
Once a backup curriculum is approved and a student access link is in established, the components for robust, effective course-sharing are in place. Having the necessary pieces in place won’t translate to actual course-sharing, however, if the university community is not aware of the benefits of course-sharing and ready to engage.
Hopefully the process of creating institutional buy-in has been an ongoing part of the exploration process. At most universities, however, the project leader and team will need to make this an ongoing activity that has cabinet-level support. Old paradigms and embedded institutional habits change slowly.
Because institutional cultures vary widely, no single strategy can be applied to all universities. Here, however, are a few general principles and recommendations:
1. Communication to faculty
At most universities, the faculty are the most influential constituency, but often the most difficult to win over to new approaches and paradigms. Moreover, in an era of budget cuts and program eliminations, it’s easy for online course-sharing to suffer from “guilt by association” and be perceived by some professors as yet another administrative plot to reduce full-time faculty. While it’s difficult to generalize regarding all faculty cultures, here are some possible approaches:
a) Correct misperceptions: It may require frequent repeating that the goal of online course-sharing is not to replace the traditional academic core of the institution but to provide an extended curriculum to supplement and strengthen the central features and commitments of the university. In other words, the ultimate goal of online collaboration is not necessarily to expand online education but to strengthen institutional health by becoming more nimble, flexible, and efficient in meeting students’ needs. Moreover, faculty often resonate with the observation that the method of online expansion via Acadeum is partnership with other quality academic institutions, not simply acquiring (i.e., buying) curriculum from an outside provider.
b) What’s good for the university is good for faculty: We’ve seen in recent years—and especially amid a global pandemic—that institutions that lack fiscal strength and operational efficiency are the ones most at risk of significant cutbacks or even extinction. Effective course-sharing leads to improved retention and enrollment, greater efficiency, and therefore more profitability. These benefits make it more likely that all academic departments will thrive, and that the institution is less likely to have to make difficult decisions about eliminating programs and departments.
c) Self-interest: Ultimately, the most effective way to change faculty culture is to empower professors to use course-sharing and experience the benefits first-hand. The professor who is enabled to expand electives for majors or propose the development of a new program that employs course-sharing, is a potential champion for online collaboration among students and fellow faculty. Furthermore, at the level of simple academic efficiency, when professors learn that they can reduce independent studies or avoid teaching a class to three students, they will likely become advocates for rather than obstacles to course-sharing.
2. Communication to finance and business
In addition to faculty culture, another potential pocket of resistance which you may have experienced during the sales process was a CFO or Controller noting the steady trickle of dollars going to teaching institutions to access online courses. As with ongoing communication to faculty, this can be another situation in which it’s important to continually track, quantify, and communicate the corresponding financial benefits of course-sharing, such as:
• Incremental revenue generated on reselling seats to students
• Number of under-enrolled sections and independent studies reduced (typically about $3,000 per course, plus university overhead, etc.)
• Number of students retained due to grade replacement strategies (around $20,000 per student X four years, depending on tuition, discount rate, etc.)
• Number of athletes retained due to maintaining athletic eligibility (around $20,000 per athlete X four years, depending on tuition, discount rate, etc.)
• Number of new students enrolled due to an academic program that employs course-sharing
Admittedly, some of these items may be difficult to quantify and depend on more factors than just online course-sharing. Nevertheless, if you employ online course-sharing at anything beyond the rudimentary, “problem-solving” level, it won’t be difficult for your institutional researcher to demonstrate a financial return far beyond the investment of annual fees, payments to teaching institutions, and workhours in the Registrar’s office.
3. Communication to academic advisors
Students take their cues from their academic advisors—perhaps not as much as we would like, but still to some extent. It’s crucial, therefore, that academic advisors are aware of and equipped to counsel students about course-sharing opportunities.
Most independent colleges and universities rely on faculty advisors, so communication to advisors may overlap with faculty communication. Nevertheless, it’s helpful to communicate to faculty in their role as academic advisors, especially at key times of the year when advising is especially relevant. For example, Appendix 2 provides a sample email communication to academic advisors in early-fall, ahead of October registration and at a point in the semester when some students are beginning to struggle academically.
Of course, it goes without saying that in-person communication is more effective than emails. The successful course-sharing institutions have champions who regularly visit academic councils and departmental meetings in person, especially ahead of student registration.
4. Communication to students
Ultimately, the main audience for course-sharing, of course, is the students themselves. And because student populations continually circulate (and hopefully graduate), communication to students is an ongoing process. Thus, successful institutions not only incorporate course-sharing into academic advising but also institute a regular cycle of direct communication to students at appropriate times throughout the academic year. A few sample communications are provided in
Conclusion: Creating Agile, Collaborative Colleges and Universities
Hopefully, this introduction to course-sharing will be helpful in starting you on the path toward effective collaboration. It must be reiterated in closing, however, that online collaboration which produces significant institutional benefits is not a formula to follow but stems from a changed mindset, healthy habits, and institutional culture. Teaching a child to play piano requires scales and lessons, but the goal is for the musician to develop skills and habits to play Mozart, not simply repeat scales. Similarly, these steps are simply a way to get you started toward an institutional culture that is characterized by entrepreneurship, agility, and collaboration.
Acadeum is committed to helping independent, mission-centered, academically-rigorous colleges and universities thrive amid a challenging landscape. Online course-sharing is not a silver bullet that will solve all of the challenges facing private higher education. If employed strategically throughout the structure of the institution, however, course-sharing can become a healthy institutional habit that leads to greater efficiency, flexibility, and profitability, which in turns enables institutions to better serve the students that are their reason for being. We look forward to partnering with you to strengthen your institution and serve your students through online collaboration.
Appendix #1: Some Tips on Data Collection
Hopefully, the process of collecting data to guide course-sharing priorities was begun during the exploration process. Because institutional data will vary, however, the Planning Meeting should be an opportunity to consider what sources of data will be most helpful in guiding the institutional strategy. Possible data points can be grouped in these four categories:
1. Student Progress
a. Percentage of athletes in the overall undergraduate student population
b. Number of student-athletes who were ineligible for academic reasons
c. Number of students who walked (near completers) at graduation last year
2. Student Retention
a. Number of students placed on academic probation last year
b. Number of students dismissed for academic reasons last year
c. Current retention/graduation rates
d. Institutional goals for retention/graduation
3. Market Competitiveness
a. Number of students taking courses elsewhere last summer
b. Total number of credits transferred in last year
c. Number of new majors started in the past three years
d. Number of new minors started in the past three years
4. Quality and efficiency
a. Number of off-campus courses transferred in by existing students last summer
b. Number of independent studies conducted last academic year
c. Number of under-enrolled courses last year
Appendix 2: Sample Email to Academic Advisors
Dear faculty advisors,
As you prepare for student advising, it's possible that you will encounter some advisees who are struggling in a course this fall and will need to replace a low grade, or who desire to make progress on their degree plan during our long inter-term break from early-December to mid-January.
Therefore, I wanted to make sure that you were aware that SCHOOL belongs to the Council of Independent College Online Consortium, which makes available to SCHOOL students a "backup curriculum" of online courses that can be used for course re-takes or to get students on track toward their degree. These are online courses taught by other mission-centered, private colleges and universities that share SCHOOL’S commitment to academic quality. The courses currently available from late-fall into early-January can be found here: CIC Consortium courses
If you encounter advisees who would benefit from an additional course during this time window, please encourage them to contact the Registrar's office about enrolling in such a course [or some other course of action].
Appendix 3: Sample Student Communication Emails—Summer Term
General Message to Students
We are excited to offer you an extended Summer term with more online options that will count toward your degree and help you make progress while you are away from campus. You can log in and register for these courses HERE [insert link to student application] via a catalog supported by Acadeum, our partner in coordinating these online course equivalencies from other institutions.
We are encouraging our students to participate in Summer courses to:
● Catch up on a prerequisite or waitlisted course you need to take to stay on track
● Get ahead on courses credits that count toward your degree to finish faster
● Replace a low grade on your transcript with the equivalent course and boost your GPA
The Summer term starts on [enter date] and runs through [enter date], but you should register as soon as possible to review course materials and prepare. You will be billed [$amount] for these courses and the credits will count toward graduation and your transcript to help you be in good standing for Fall and beyond. Please reach out if you have any questions.
Message to Students for SAP
We are excited to offer you an extended Summer term with more online options that will count toward your degree and improve your academic standing. Based on a review of your transcript, we encourage you to take the following course to replace the low grade you received in the class and strengthen your GPA:
Low Grade Course Equivalent Course for Grade Replacement
[Course at XX] [Consortial Course Link]
[Course at XX] [Consortial Course Link]
You can create a student account and register for any of the above courses HERE [insert link to student application], a course equivalent catalog powered by Acadeum.
The Summer term starts on [enter date] and runs through [enter date] and will cost you [$amount] per course. Please contact us if you have any questions about registering or how the grade earned this Summer can improve your campus GPA. We hope you will participate in this second chance to improve your GPA.
Message to Students for Athletic Eligibility
We are excited to offer you an extended Summer term with more online options that will count toward your degree and help you be eligible for athletics this Fall. Based on a review of your transcript, it appears you need [credits] this Summer to be able to play [sport] next season. We encourage you to register for a Summer course HERE [insert link to student application] via a catalog powered by Acadeum, our partner in coordinating these online course equivalencies from other institutions.
The Summer term starts on [enter date] and runs through [enter date] and will cost you [$amount] per course. Please contact us if you have any questions about registering or how these credits will help you be eligible for athletics at Dean.