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Make no mistake, higher education is under siege around the world. It is not just COVID-19, but rather a complex combination of factors that have cast our field into full blown crisis. Colleges are closing, faculty and staff are furloughed and laid off, institutional solvency has headed south, overall college enrollments have dropped annually for a decade, and our primary product, the college degree, is in decline. For the past dozen years, I have chronicled the economic and resourcing decline in higher education through the Recession Reality in Higher Ed curated reading list. At no time in those dozen years have conditions been as universally bad as they are today.

Colleges and universities have a long history of collaborating in research and in areas of broad purpose, but they have been notoriously cautious about collaborating in the development and delivery of their own courses and curricula. Holding a unique university identity on the academic side has been a revered aspect of institutional pride that stands in the way of large-scale sharing.

I learned this lesson well when I received funding from an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant to found the New Century Learning Consortium in 2010 with the goal of linking a dozen regional universities to share faculty/staff development programs and, ultimately, courses. It seemed logical to me -- a decade ago -- as I launched the initiative that course sharing would allow for greater choices for students, more efficient support for a broad curriculum across the discipline and an enriching diversity of faculty. The NCLC faculty/staff development initiatives were most successful. University of Illinois Online director Burks Oakley and NCLC director and University of Illinois Springfield associate director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service Shari McCurdy Smith cultivated an assortment of very successful collaborative programs. While we promoted course transfer opportunities, I was never able to break through administrative resistance among the top administration at the member universities to actually offer courses for meaningful sharing across institutional lines. In those days, they held their trademark as paramount, even above the prospect of closing small programs rather than sharing with other quality institutions.

UIS now is also a member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC). It has broken through the barrier to offer classes and portions of classes across institutions. UIS executive director of online professional and engaged learning and research Vickie Cook, who served on the committee arranging the guidelines for collaborations, reports that the association has developed a set of understandings that will enable future sharing.

Of course, the Great Plains IDEA program is one that has successfully navigated these waters over the years. Some 20 universities collaborate in this long-running project to contribute to degrees with courses offered from member institutions. The Council of Independent Colleges has also expanded their course-sharing initiatives since March with a 150 percent increase in shared class enrollments.

The former College Consortium has morphed into Acadeum, a network of more than 200 course-sharing institutions that offers a range of solutions for students in a variety of circumstances to accelerate progress toward their degrees.

It is impossible to chronicle all of the course-sharing initiatives that are springing up almost daily around the world. Yet one must recognize the largest and most influential initiatives that are founded by MOOC providers. Most notably, Coursera and edX offer classes, certificates and entire degree programs online. During this pandemic, they have extended opportunities to more traditional universities that are suffering from decreased revenues, dropping enrollments and campus closures. They are leading the way in broadly seeding such sharing across academe.

As the pace of such sharing of courses and degrees across colleges in this time of COVID-19 is rapidly picking up speed, so have the range of models among otherwise fierce recruitment competitors, who also happen to be affiliated universities, for example:

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."

Meehan is right -- this is not a flash in the pan. It is one more step toward creating the higher education model for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Motivated by efficiency, rapid responsiveness and quality, these collaborations are part of the remaking of higher education.

A late friend and colleague, John David Viera, who was revered for his creativity and vision, would ask if our efforts were more like a fleet of rowboats bobbing around in the ocean, or that of a streamlined ship cutting through the seas? In these times of retrenchment and cutting faculty lines, is your university bobbing alone in the ocean of recession and competition, or are you reaching out to exchange courses with other universities for the sake of efficiency and retaining programs?

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