Montana universities adopt course-sharing platform

Students walk on the campus of Montana State University on August 17, 2020 in Bozeman, Montana. (William Campbell / Getty Images)

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The Montana university system is adopting course-sharing administrative software to improve access to courses and address local workforce needs, leaders told EdScoop.

The 16-institution system announced in August it would use Quottly — software also used by other state systems, including Idaho’s — to help students taking classes from multiple colleges. Joe Thiel, the system’s director of academic policy and research, said course-sharing across institutions supports the system’s efforts to support specialized programs in smaller cities.

Montana has already incorporated common course numbering between institutions to make course-sharing easier, but the system’s IT director, John Thunstrom, said the Quottly software will remove some of the extra work that makes it harder for students to take this approach.

“From the student’s perspective, there’s one location that they go to where they can register for classes and all of the information ends up on a single bill that they pay at their home institution,” he said.

The Montana system is working on a “hub-and-spoke” approach to offering some programs, Thiel said, in which students take courses through their local college, but pull from other institutions in the Montana system to finish a degree. That way, he said, institutions with higher enrollment can take on some of the costs of offering programs.

Many of the state’s two year schools, which are distributed throughout the state to ensure college access, have low full-time enrollment, Thiel said, which makes it difficult to fund some specialized courses. He used the example of respiratory therapy, only offered in-person at one institution because of low enrollment in January 2020. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, upping the demand for respiratory therapists, that highlighted the need to support access to these types of programs, he said.

Taking courses at different institutions typically means applying and registering at each of those institutions, requesting transcript information and ensuring correct billing, Thunstrom said, because each university in the system manages its own student information system.

“[Students are] just registering for a class or one of the other campuses, but behind the scenes Quottly is doing a bunch of the programming work to make sure that students appear the way that they’re supposed to in each of the [SIS] systems and that there’s a coordinated effort around how that student’s transcript being shared between institutions,” Thunstrom said. “It just allows for a lot of that tight integration without us having to all be in one giant student information system that covers the entirety of the state.”

There’s still work to do on automating transcript sharing — even with the Quottly system, institutions will need to manually send the student’s transcript to their home institution when the course is over, he said. The system is in the pilot phase of automating that process, sharing information through XML feeds.

Thiel said the system hopes to use Quottly to lay out course pathways, pulling in course information from multiple institutions so first-year students can easily map their route to a degree.

“What we ask transfer students to do in particular is to reach out to the institution that they want to transfer to and confirm that the courses are going to transfer before they enroll in the course, and that’s just ridiculous,” he said. “First year students to your campus aren’t going to do that and if you look at transfer statistics, not just in Montana, but nationally, they don’t do that.”

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