Transitioning to
Online Introductory Math

Promising Strategies

Outsourcing Instruction to Address Internal Capacity Issues and Quickly Meet Student Needs

In this strategy, institutions outsource instruction of individual courses to other credible partner institutions or third-party providers to help meet their internal capacity issues while also helping students progress more efficiently by tapping into a broad set of vetted courses. The “teaching” institutions or third-party providers administer the entire instructional package on an online platform. Faculty at the “home” institutions are not responsible for course design or teaching, but rather agree to offer credit to students for successfully completing a course elsewhere.

The ability to cater to student needs effectively and efficiently also enables an institution to retain students and support their academic progress while also maintaining the institution’s own financial viability.

This approach affords institutions with limited resources and in-house expertise to offer online courses a means to respond to students’ academic needs with the help of the external partners in a timely and cost-effective way. The ability to cater to student needs effectively and efficiently also enables an institution to retain students and support their academic progress while also maintaining the institution’s own financial viability. This practice has been very common among various consortial relationships in higher education, though historically, it tended to be limited in small groups of neighboring colleges with similar missions and curricular goals, and focused primarily on sharing in-person courses. Newer initiatives take advantage of technology to broaden their partnership scope and allow students to take online courses from schools all over the
country.[1] More recently, third-party organizations have stepped in to help find greater synergies between these inter-institutional relationships by providing a central platform and the necessary administrative support to bring together a much larger network of institutions and students to access a broader range of course options. We highlight two such examples below.

Examples in the Field

  • Acadeum (formerly College Consortium)[2] provides a platform for a network of over 200 institutions to share courses across over a dozen existing higher education consortia. It focuses on enabling student progress by providing them expanded course offerings from a broad set of institutional partners while creating new opportunities for participating institutions to increase their revenue. Acadeum’s platform enables easy vetting and approval of shared courses for individual institutions, makes it easy for students to explore course offerings and electronically request registration, and provides an automated inter-college payments system. Designated staff at Acadeum also conduct an initial review of teaching institutions ahead of loading their courses onto the platform using widely used quality metrics to ensure that basic elements of online courses are in place. The platform stores and displays syllabi, faculty credentials and learning assessments to help institutions vet the courses they use, which is often a primary responsibility of regional accreditors.
  • Straighterline[3] offers an affordable and convenient way to earn college credit for general education courses with a nominal monthly membership fee and flat fees for individual courses. All courses go through a quality review process by ACE Credit prior to being available to students, and earned credits can transfer to more than 130 partner colleges and universities. The platform allows immediate access to courses, free one-on-one tutoring, and offers free transcript processing and easy credit transfer, with live support (technical, membership, course support from dedicated student advisors). Many of the courses come from third-party vendors (e.g. McGraw-Hill, eScience Labs) and are self-paced, while some courses have options where students can benefit from increased engagement and direct communication with professors with access to additional resources, tips, and supplemental instruction.

Implementation Considerations

Because institutions are outsourcing a limited number of general education courses in many cases, it still gives the institutions’ faculty the ability to maintain control of their degree programs and teach the majority of courses in their major field of study. However, concerns over quality of courses, equity in student outcomes, and diminished faculty roles still exist and will need to be carefully considered when making decisions.

Some questions institutions may want to ask include[4]:

  • Is outsourcing the best option available? What institutional and student needs will be addressed by outsourcing? What alternatives are there, if any? Will outsourcing place the institution’s public missions in jeopardy in any way?
  • What is the anticipated impact on faculty jobs and morale? How will faculty be involved in decision-making about outsourcing and its execution?
  • How will the quality of courses and instruction be evaluated? Will students continue to have access to and/or personal contact with regular faculty?
  • How will the equity goal of student access and success be met through outsourcing? Can outsourcing be used to reduce students’ time to degree and promote their learning? Will those courses be offered to students at an affordable cost?
  • What mechanisms will be established to measure student outcomes and ensure accountability?

Depending on the size and nature of the institution, there is a high likelihood that the face-to-face math courses are already being outsourced to some degree through the use of adjunct faculty or graduate teaching assistants. While these types of contingent instructors allow for flexibility in staffing and some control over course content and pedagogy, it is important to recognize the financial non-monetary institutional resources of time and effort that go into maintaining this non-employee instructional workforce when considering the relative risks and benefits of pursuing wholly outsourced online instruction.

Recommended Readings


  1. Alia Wong, “The Shift Online Has Colleges Looking to Share Courses,” Education Dive, October 2, 2020,
  2. For more information, visit Acadeum’s website:
  3. For more information, visit Straighterline’s website:
  4. Questions adopted from Alene Russell, “Outsourcing Instruction: Issues for Public Colleges and Universities,” American Association of State Colleges and Universities – A higher Education Policy Brief, July 2010,