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State U Online

Published:  April 23, 2013
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The Steps of Online System Collaboration

Online learning has become a permanent fixture of our system of higher education. Yet, public colleges and universities, which educate the vast majority of college students, have been visibly slow to embrace it.  Many of these institutions were founded with a mission to serve their citizens, including those unable to attend in residence. Yet even as the technological means to achieve this goal reaches new heights, public universities too often shy away from the challenge.

Today the New America Foundation and Education Sector released State U Online, a report that examines the history of distance learning at public colleges dating back to the eighteenth century.  This paper not only reviews the online offerings at many public colleges and universities, but it also identifies consistent patterns that can help institutional and state-system leaders chart a path forward for the online future. The analysis identifies five steps that institutions and states can take to build a coherent system-wide State U Online. Each step builds on those before it, leading toward increasingly integrated systems in which students can move freely among institutions within a state and eventually beyond state lines. The steps are (access the infographic here):

Step One: Clearinghouse

State institutions collaborate to provide a clearinghouse of courses and degrees that students can easily search. Ideally, students should be able to use one search portal to find the online courses and degree programs offered at every public postsecondary institution within the state system.  This model is limited, however, because once a student decides on a course or program she must apply and enroll through the individual institution that offers that course or degree program. In this step, transfer between courses and programs among the colleges and universities is not seamless, meaning credits may not easily transfer.

Examples: University of Wisconsin System’s eCampus, Montana University System Online

Step Two: Shared Contracts

In addition to having a clearinghouse, state institutions join together to purchase shared contracts for resources like a Learning Management System (LMS)—the platform used to deliver the course. Many of these contracts can be expensive for an individual institution to purchase, so by participating in cost-sharing agreements, institutions are able to save money. For a student, this might mean that the LMS he uses at his two-year campus is the same used at the four-year institution where he will eventually transfer. But once again, even though it may reduce his learning curve for online education, it doesn’t necessarily ensure easy transfer of his credits.

Example: Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ Minnesota Online

Step Three: Shared Student Services

These state systems provide a variety of online student-support services at all institutions within the system. No matter where the student is enrolled, she can receive services like advising and e-tutoring at one central location. This helps institutions provide more centralized and targeted support to meet the needs of online students.

Examples: Florida Virtual Campus, University of North Carolina Online

Step Four: Shared and Articulated Credentials

This step includes state systems that have managed to create fully articulated efforts that include easy transfer of credit among institutions and shared credentialing. A student enrolled in this type of online system would enroll in a “home” campus but would be able to take courses from any institution in the system. The courses would transfer back to the student’s home institution with no extra paperwork burden for the student and no loss of credit. The student’s transcript would reflect credits as if they were all taken at one institution, even though that student may have taken courses throughout the system.

Examples: Georgia’s ONmyLINE, Kentucky’s Learn on Demand, Tennessee’s Regents Online Campus Collaborative

Step Five: Shared Credentials Beyond State Borders

In this step, systems create collaborative inter-institutional and interstate efforts that take all the components of previous steps, and allow students to move freely beyond state borders. For instance, a student enrolled in an online program would be able to enroll at a “home” institution within their state, pay the in-state rate, take classes anywhere within the consortium of states, and “transfer” those courses back to the home institution.

Example: Great Plains IDEA

While each state is different in how it organizes its higher-education system, public institutions should strongly consider adopting this system-wide or consortia approach, in a manner that fits their unique contexts. A State U Online model is achievable as long as states and higher-education institutions work together to share their resources and reduce barriers that prevent students from moving seamlessly through the system—credits in hand.

You can read the full report here.

Stay tuned to Higher Ed Watch this week for continuing coverage of the issues facing public online higher education.

This post was crossposted at The Quick and the Ed.

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