“Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.” So wrote the 4th Century, B.C., political philosopher, Aristotle. And over 23 centuries later, education is facing adversity of its own.
As COVID-19 upends daily life, we are experiencing entirely new concerns about supply and demand. These are most acute in health care, of course, where tests for the virus are still in short supply and both hospital beds and ventilators soon will be if the virus continues its rapid spread. Higher education faces adversity as thousands of institutions shut their physical campuses and move students online—not a mismatch between supply and demand, but a mismatch between supply and student access.
Many readers likely do not know that millions of slots in courses carefully designed for online instruction sit empty each year. However, in our time of adversity, colleges and universities are sending students home to take hastily reconfigured courses simply because they are offered by students’ “home” institutions. As we move forward, we need a far more innovative solution to meet this enormous short-term spike in demand for online education, in addition to the steady growth we already have been seeing.
But the good news is that some schools are responding well to this adversity. A number of colleges and universities in Texas are demonstrating what’s possible by forming online course-sharing consortia that enable seamless sharing of courses, revenue, and student data. The work is powered by Acadeum and builds on similar consortia run by groups such as the Council for Independent Colleges and the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. Those early adopters have been working for several years to use online course-sharing to allow their members to offer a broader variety of courses, to help students stay on track or speed time to degree, and to fill up sections that would otherwise be under-enrolled.
This model is now moving into the public sphere in a big way, with two-year and four-year public institutions of higher education joining online course-sharing consortia. Given that more than three-quarters of all undergraduates in Texas and nationally attend public institutions, this new frontier has the potential to vastly expand access to online courses that not only meet student demand, but have also been thoughtfully designed and tested with a view to learning outcomes.
Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, has tapped into the Acadeum network of consortia to support student progress, with a particular focus on students in high-demand fields—such as nursing, business, education, and agriculture—in its region. The university taps into other institutions’ teaching resources to open up more space in core courses that students need to regain good academic standing, meet prerequisites for their majors, and generally hasten their progress toward a degree.
This fits into the institution’s “RamFam” philosophy, committed to providing students with the courses they need to progress on time or get back on track without creating financial hardship.
“One of our major goals,” Angelo State University president Brian May says, “is to graduate students with as little financial burden as possible.” That’s a noble goal, to be sure, and one made more urgent by the economic dislocations concomitant with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The university is also working diligently to bring back students who left without graduating, and the online consortium provides far more options for those students—many of whom live in remote parts of West Texas, far from campus—to complete their degrees. As we head into an uncertain summer and fall, course-sharing will allow Angelo State to provide more online options for students.
Elsewhere in West Texas, DigiTex, an online consortium of Texas community colleges, is using course-sharing to rethink how its institutions serve their communities. Institutions like Howard, Frank Phillips, and Ranger Colleges have long been important academic, cultural, and economic hubs in the largely rural areas they serve, and advances in online education allow them to push the model. Cheryl Sparks, the president of Howard College, says her institution is now a “broker of education”—providing its own teaching resources, but just as important, tapping into the best courses across the state and helping local students and employers translate them to their jobs, businesses, and lives.
Playing this broker role, Sparks says, allows the institution to respond quickly to changing local needs and enables students to move at “maximum velocity.”
This increased mobility and nimbleness is critical as global demand, automation, and other rapid technological changes remake local economies and the very nature of work—and the economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus outbreak only makes it more important. Ranger College will use courses provided through the DigiTex consortium to deliver state-mandated pathways programs that enhance transferability and employment. And Frank Phillips College uses the consortium to provide robust offerings at branch campuses and in remote areas, helping to meet the state’s goal for 60 percent of residents to obtain a certificate or degree by 2030. President Jud Hicks says that DigiTex is particularly helpful in enabling his institution to access unique offerings from other colleges that help students gain workforce skills needed in their community.
At both colleges, online courses provided through the consortium not only expand offerings, but also provide greater flexibility for working adults and students who would have to travel long distances to campus. And flexibility is at a premium right now as students juggle work and family amid health concerns, school shutdowns, child care and other disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak.
Even as the country begins to return to normal operations, colleges will need additional capacity and students will need flexibility to recover from the disruption and get back on track or reorient for the new economic reality. Consortia can and should play an important role for all colleges in helping students catch up over the summer or adjust their plans for the fall while still staying on track to earn a much-needed credential. This potential is turning into a reality—just this week, a coalition of institutions publicly announced that they will be sharing open capacity in online courses through a new collaboration called the Higher Education Course Recovery Consortium.
While not much is clear regarding what will happen over the next few months, it’s obvious that postsecondary education will be more important than ever for gaining and keeping a secure footing in the workforce. And it’s evident that colleges are going to have to be a lot more creative—and cooperative—about how they meet that need.
In so doing, our schools will not only create a refuge in the midst of adversity for their students, but also for themselves.