We heard a couple of months back about Unizin launching a consortium of large state universities to share course content, content systems, and analytics. More recently we learnt about Cal State Online’s decision to slow down its already tepid push into a system-wide collaboration to offer online courses. These initiatives join a long list of efforts to expand online education by sharing resources across institutions.

The logic of building collaborations is infallible: joining forces can potentially bring down costs, reduce risk, increase access to better resources, stimulate innovation, ward off competition, and more. But there are more a few failed efforts to ward off any naive assumptions that academic collaborations — particularly those that concern shared courses — are fool proof. There are more than 50 consortia in North America and almost as many types. There are right ways to do it and wrong.

Having had a chance to review online consortia recently for a client, I want now to share a few observations in a handful of posts, beginning with “known obstacles” of course sharing initiatives. These obstacles are not insurmountable. But like any undertaking, it helps to know where the potholes are before you set on your journey.

one . . .

Most online consortia that include course sharing agreements were created in the 1990s; a time when many institutions had yet to make substantial investments in online learning  (e.g. technology, student support systems, professional development for faculty) and/or had yet to develop a sufficient level of confidence to carry out the functions required. As of 2014, the vast majority of universities have internal resources in place to support online education. The capacity to scale-back these investments is often difficult, owing to labour agreements and established practices. Nor do I suspect many institutions would chose to scale back at this point — given the growing strategic importance of online education to institutions. This, possibly more than any other factor,  could dampen enthusiasm among institutions for participation in shared course delivery models.

two . . .

Many course sharing initiatives target large enrolment, foundational courses because, first, these courses appear to offer the greatest possible savings and, second, because the curriculum is thought to be relatively generic. But of course these high enrolment courses also often generate higher net revenue for universities than other courses and activities. Revenue from these courses is regularly redirected to other university activities and program areas that are less “profitable” (i.e. “cost-shifting”). Consequently, initiatives that facilitate students enrolling in foundational courses at other institutions may appear to administrators as a threat to a strong and stable source of revenue.

three . . .

Owing to concerns about intellectual property, some university faculty and instructors have voiced concern about distributing their instructional content outside of their home institution. While open educational resources is often presented as a solution, in practice this approach continues to face opposition, and seems to have greater traction for the distribution of academic research papers (e.g. open journals) than instructional resources.

four . . .

Course sharing initiatives typically involve moving students between institutions (rather than the courses moving between institutions). In these cases, institutions may question whether courses offered by other institutions are inconsistent with, or inferior to, the instructional practices and academic standards of their own institution.

Education is a positional good; it’s used to define the status of the student (and the faculty and institution). Not surprisingly, my review identified cases in which more prestigious institutions refused to participate in course sharing programs with less prestigious institutions. Initiatives that bring together institutions of similar status may produce higher rates of buy-in.

five . . .

Institutions with more robust and successful online learning operations tend to less interested in participating in consortia. As a result, the consortia will fail to benefit from the participation of institutions with the greatest capacity and interest in online education.

Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 


  1. Really good point.

    One correction, however. It was Cal State Online, not UC Online, that nixed their centralized online degree arm. For much more info:


  2. Reblogged this on Petridishing and commented:
    High quality insights from Dr. Keith Hampson on the conflicts unfolding while Universities debate how to increase capacity in online education. It is interesting to note that while UC seems to be reducing the number of online courses they offer, Forbes recently estimated the market for online education at $1.07B per year. Publicly-funded organizations cannot afford to sit by while private companies build superior positions. and crowd out innovation. Thanks to @PhilonEdTech for bringing this post to my attention.


  3. Phil – Thanks for the title correction. If I understand correctly, they’ve renamed their most recent effort (yet again).
    Scott – Thanks for the note. Interestingly, Unizin — which I mention above — seems highly, even primarily, motivated by the desire to ward off involvement by private companies. They write:
    “Our goals and purpose in endorsing Unizin are simple: As professors and members of the academy, we want to support faculty and universities by ensuring that universities and their faculty stay in control of the content, data, relationships, and reputations that we create. As we look at the rapidly emerging infrastructure that enables digital learning, we want to bias things in the direction of open standards, interoperability, and scale. Unizin is about tipping the table in favor of the academy by collectively owning (buying, developing, and connecting) the essential infrastructure that enables digital learning on our campuses and beyond.”


  4. Regarding number ‘one’: speaking as a person who works in an online course support department at a community college, I’m not sure our existence would be a barrier toward moving toward greater collaboration in the online learning arena. If anything, it would give the institution greater flexibility, either to better utilize the existing resource or opt to eliminate it.
    As for the former and yes, preferable route, there is no end to the need for technology support. We are a long long (long) way from making online learning an ideal mode of education, and both the tech itself and the usability issues require people who can creatively tackle its ongoing evolution.
    And in the former, let me just say that outsourcing or downsizing seems ever looming on our career horizon.


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