Online Course Exchanges: Models of Efficiency

Small classes and programs are often praised for offering students more personal attention and one-on-one time with professors. But when programs are too small, students and universities suffer. Students find it difficult to enroll in the courses they need for graduation. Universities spend scarce resources on low-productivity activities.

The Pope Center documented the problem two years ago. We found 210 programs across the UNC system that graduate fewer than 10 students per year. And a 2014 report by Complete College America found that many students fail to graduate on time because courses they need aren’t available when they need them.

But an innovation available through UNC Online may offer a solution that can help students and save resources. The University of North Carolina Course Exchange allows students at UNC schools to take online courses from other universities in the system.

According to the UNC Online website, “Exchange Communities are collaborative efforts of faculty across the UNC system. Each community represents a different discipline. Faculty who participate in Exchange Communities plan complementary course offerings offered via UNC Online, work together on curriculum, and make shared investments in professional development. The UNC Language Assembly pioneered the development of the first Exchange Communities.”

UNC Online and its Exchange Communities are administered by the Office of Learning Technology & Innovation at the UNC General Administration. They make it easy for students to sign up. Before registering for a course at another institution, students must see their advisor to ensure that the course they plan to take will meet specific requirements for transfer. Then, students register for the course through an automated process, using their home campus login and password. They pay no extra tuition for the courses.

UNC debuted the first Exchange in 2013 to manage the sharing of less commonly taught languages across the system. It began as a collaboration among the deans of the colleges of arts and science at Appalachian State University and NC State; NC State chair of foreign languages Ruth Gross; UNC Wilmington German Professor Raymond Burt; and UNC General Administration.

In Spring 2016, UNC added its second Exchange, a Semester at the Coast, which is a collaboration of NC State, East Carolina University, and UNC Wilmington’s coastal research centers and faculty.

Today, through the Exchange, students now have access to languages such as Persian, Cherokee, Chinese, and Ancient Greek. By the end of the year, every campus in the system will participate. There are plans to expand the Exchange to include new joint degree and certificate programs.

The Exchange helps UNC more efficiently use resources. According to Matthew Rascoff, Vice President of the Office of Learning Technology and Innovation at UNC, “The Exchange allows us to offer a more diverse and less duplicative set of courses to students throughout the UNC system. It reduces administrative burden and maximizes capacity utilization and efficiency.”

It also gives students access to programs that would not otherwise exist. Rascoff explained, “Several lesser-taught languages, such as Hindi-Urdu, Italian, and German, are available across the state via the Language Exchange but would be impossible to support at most of our institutions. A new professorship in Arabic was created at UNCW, with GA support, to make Arabic language courses available via the Exchange. Arabic would almost certainly not be economic for a single institution of the size and scope of UNCW to offer without aggregating system-wide demand.”

But large programs benefit too, Rascoff said. “Even more popular languages, such as Spanish and Chinese, take advantage of the Exchange to fill ‘remainder’ enrollment inventory.” This semester, students can take 10 different Spanish courses through the Exchange—from Spanish 101 to Women’s Writing in Spain and Latin America. Courses are offered through NC State, Fayetteville State, and UNC Pembroke.

There have been some unintended benefits of the program, too, Rascoff said, including collaborations across the system. “Chairs of language departments now coordinate which courses to offer, ensuring they are complementary and not redundant. Language faculty, with GA funding, come together every semester from across the state to do professional development on how to be an effective instructor online.”

The UNC system, with its 16 diverse institutions, should expand its use of the Exchange in the future. Small programs such as Women’s Studies, Home Economics, and even Philosophy would benefit greatly from inclusion in the Exchange. Such an expansion—and collaboration—would allow UNC to take advantage of the system’s diverse offerings, maximize students’ choices, and make efficient use of scarce resources.