Why Colleges Should Pool Teaching Resources
It would increase student access and save money
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In the pre-pandemic world, each college maintained the conceit that it offered its own unique version of Econ 101, Physics 101, Calculus 101, or any number of other courses. But in fact, for many courses, the student’s experience of attending an in-person class at my own institution (UCLA) isn’t a whole lot different from the experience of attending a similarly sized in-person class on the same topic at dozens of other colleges around the country. That’s true not only for large lecture-style courses but also for courses with only 20 to 30 students. If you have committed students, a committed instructor, and an interesting topic, it’s going to be a good class.
An empty virtual seat represents a financial inefficiency that colleges can ill afford.
The assumption that UCLA students should be taught by UCLA instructors was eminently reasonable when everyone involved was on the same campus. But that assumption makes a lot less sense when all interactions are on Zoom. Of course, there’s nothing new about the realization that online teaching, despite its many disadvantages, also removes some barriers. As advocates of massive open online courses (MOOCs) have argued for years, if you are going to take physics, why not learn from the best physics professor in the world? But the same scalability that makes it possible for one MOOC instructor to teach 10,000 students also creates an asymmetry that makes it impractical for students to have any meaningful one-on-one interaction with the instructor either in class or in office hours.
Students in a MOOC generally don’t have any common institutional tie beyond that provided by their participation in the course. In that sense MOOCs can be viewed as lying at one end of a spectrum. Traditional in-person college courses represent the other end, in which all students in a course are typically enrolled in degree programs in the same institution. But there is an intermediate point on the spectrum that could both increase course availability for students and lower costs for colleges: Colleges could team up to jointly leverage their online curricular offerings.
Large-scale intercollege instructional collaboration would benefit students by providing them with more options in choosing their classes. It would also broaden the reach of colleges by expanding the pool of potential students for each course, thereby reducing the chance that a course would be underenrolled. In short, instructional collaboration could reduce the number of empty virtual seats, each one of which represents a lost opportunity for both students and colleges. An empty virtual seat also represents a financial inefficiency that colleges (and for public colleges, the states that fund them) can ill afford.
Of course, there would be hurdles as well. To avoid the need to put in place a complex set of inter-institutional tuition reimbursements, it would be important to aim for approximate symmetry between the number of class seats exchanged between collaborating colleges. It would also require some work to identify suitable courses at each institution. Exchange programs would need to be structured in a manner that avoids antitrust concerns. The biggest challenge of all would probably be overcoming the inevitable institutional resistance to such pooling of instructional and virtual classroom resources.
But colleges — and the students who pay the tuition that keeps them afloat — shouldn’t let institutional inertia get in the way of innovative ways to make education more accessible. While that has always been true, it’s especially so given the many changes and challenges to higher education arising from the pandemic.