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Ed Ericson, vice president for academic affairs at John Brown University in Arkansas, has big plans for collaborating with other institutions through online course-sharing consortia.

He’s already begun working with provosts at a handful of other small, Christian colleges to bolster existing master’s programs at John Brown and elsewhere with specializations or concentrations made up of courses from other colleges. He’s also in the early stages of planning to create full degrees supplemented with other institutions’ courses, and to contribute his own institution’s courses to degree programs elsewhere.

John Brown administrators have been talking on and off for more than two decades to other colleges about similar arrangements, Ericson said. But the technology necessary to pull off collaborations only recently became available.

“These [course-sharing] efforts are some of the most exciting things I’ve seen in my 35 years being connected to higher education,” Ericson said.

Ericson's institution is one of 12 small Christian colleges that have signed up in recent months to participate in an online course-sharing consortium overseen by the Council of Christian Colleges & Universities. More are likely to sign up soon, according to Rick Ostrander, CCCU's vice president for research and scholarship.

Six of that consortium's members, including John Brown, are also participating in a larger online course-sharing consortium organized by the Council of Independent Colleges. More than 50 colleges are in the process of joining, and 250 others have expressed interest, according to Richard Ekman, president of CIC.

Both agreements are made possible by College Consortium, a tech company that offers institutions an online course-sharing platform and services like transferring academic credit and disbursing revenue. As competition for enrollment grows steeper and news of closures, mergers and acquisitions ramps up, institutions that lack public funding or nationwide name recognition are striving for efficiency. The arrangements are designed to help institutions pool resources and serve students a wider range of academic options.

Ekman believes CIC's course-sharing network -- the largest on the College Consortium platform -- should mainly help institutions fill course gaps and widen opportunities to supplement their schedules. Ostrander, meanwhile, believes the consortium can and should help facilitate ambitious collaboration like the ones Ericson and colleagues are undertaking. Even as they co-exist on the same interface, each consortium relationship serves a specific purpose that might differ from the others.

Growing Interest

Current Members of CCCU's Online Consortium

  • Bluefield College (also in CIC's Online Consortium)
  • Central Christian College of Kansas
  • Dordt College
  • Houston Baptist University (also CIC)
  • John Brown University (also CIC)
  • Judson University
  • King University (also CIC)
  • Lee University (also CIC)
  • MidAmerica Nazarene University
  • Palm Beach Atlantic University (also CIC)
  • Point University
  • Southwest Assemblies of God University

College Consortium currently has 72 different active consortium arrangements, according to Joshua Pierce, the company’s co-founder. The majority of those agreements are between two institutions, often for delivering from one college to another a one-off course requested by a student.

Other agreements, like those with CIC and CCCU, bring together a wider network of institutions, creating more opportunities for offering and sharing courses. The CCCU online consortium establishes collaboration between colleges with a shared faith-based academic perspective, offering students who take courses from multiple members of the agreement a consistent academic experience.

"The more that private colleges and universities can learn to work together both in sharing resources but also in providing common programs or common curricula, I just think it’s going to make the network over all healthier," Ostrander said.

"Teaching institutions" offer their courses on the platform to students at "home institutions," which charge students and contribute some of the revenue to the teaching institution and to College Consortium. Institutions can choose to enter a network as a teaching institution, a home institution or both.

To meet a growing need for graduates from programs like nursing and technology, institutions face daunting costs for faculty and resources, according to Janet Sommers, senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, a member of the online consortium of Christian colleges.

“Fostering relationships with other universities with whom we wouldn’t be in direct competition would be a wonderful way to expand the opportunities we give our students in those academic disciplines and market need arenas where we see the greatest potential in growth,” Sommers said.

CCCU plans to support and encourage members of the online consortium to strategically develop collaborative majors like the ones Ericson hopes to establish, according to Ostrander. Students at either institution could enroll and take courses at their home institution and supplement their schedules using the online platform.

“Thereby [each college in the agreement] is able to have a new major to build enrollment and attract students, but they are reducing the cost of actually developing the major,” Ostrander said.

Sommers said her institution is also in the early stages of considering a project along those lines.

Implementation Challenges

Not everyone thinks the consortia ought to be tapped for that purpose. The CIC consortium will actively discourage institutions from developing degree programs together, according to Ekman. “The major needs to be grounded in the home institution where most of the instruction takes place,” he said.

His organization and its online consortium operate on the assumption that effective teaching and learning takes place in a physical classroom and can be supplemented with online delivery when appropriate or necessary. "Our consortium is not intended for use by colleges that are very small and specialized and that hope to graft onto their own very limited offerings large chunks of general education or majors that are offered entirely online," Ekman said.

Indeed, the growth potential for these arrangements remains to be seen. For the CIC consortium, Ekman hopes to see a wide range of disciplines represented in the consortium’s course offerings. Otherwise, he said, the resource might not be reliable for a student who realizes shortly before graduation that he or she needs one more specific class the home institution doesn’t offer.

Still, Ekman wants the CIC consortium to be flexible in other ways. He's currently negotiating with administrators at North Carolina Independent Colleges & Universities for the state's system to join the CIC network. Some of the system's institutions that aren't CIC members might pay a higher fee to join the arrangement, he said.

Even as course sharing expands opportunities, it also presents logistical challenges to institutions, according to Russell Poulin, senior director of policy, analysis and strategic alliances for the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. Accreditors often restrict the percentage of an academic program that can be offered by an institution other than the originating one. Some institutions have policies that limit the number of transfer credits a student can count toward a degree. Navigating federal aid financial requirements and negotiating course prices for students can be cumbersome.

Administrators also have to be careful to establish partnerships that can outlast their own guidance, according to Poulin.

"Those who create the partnership often go to great lengths to form it," Poulin said. "When all those people are replaced, sometimes the altruism vanishes as well."

Interest in course sharing continues to grow, according to Pierce. He credits CIC's involvement with spurring a wider range of institutions to look at the company's model.

"The industry is talking to itself about this as opposed to us knocking on the door and talking to them about it," Pierce said. "We’re pretty excited at the fact that industry leaders are starting to work with each other and we’re just a player at the table."

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