Is online teaching and learning relevant for small residential liberal arts colleges?

Concurrent Session 4

Brief Abstract

We are interested in the place of online education at small liberal arts schools. These institutions are not typically grappling with pressures driving bigger institutions to online education and often have core practices cited as predictors of student success. Can online education be healthy for the mission of such institutions?



Janet is the Director of Academic Technology for Carleton College. She holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the Ohio State University as well as teaching certifications in biology and chemistry for grades 7-12. While she focused earlier in her career on the biochemistry of vasoactive enzymes in human skeletal muscle, work supported by the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute shifted Janet's attention away from bench science to science pedagogy and then to technology-enhanced learning. Before coming to Carleton, Janet was at Earlham College, the College of Wooster, and, most recently, at Georgetown University where she was Director of Technology Enhanced Learning at GU's Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship (CNDLS). Janet lives on four acres in Northfield and is still studying and practicing snow blowing patterns in the hopes of clearing her driveway.
Andrew Wilson completed his PhD in the field of computer science and archaeology from the University of Liverpool, UK. He is currently serving as the Academic Technologist for Digital Scholarship with a focus on augmented and virtual reality at Carleton College, MN. His primary interests include the use of augmented and virtual reality, machine learning, and analytics within the educational field. Before taking up his position at Carleton College, Dr. Wilson worked as a faculty member of the Computer Science department at Bangor University, UK. During this time, he helped lead a significant Arts and Humanities Research Council project investigating the use of crowd-sourced data for use with cultural heritage. While based in the UK, Dr. Wilson was the co-director of a software development house, Red Dragon Softworks (RDS). RDS focused on working with commercial clients to develop large-scale custom mobile and web-based applications to their specifications.
Dann Hurlbert is Carleton College's Media & Design specialist, and he works directly with faculty to develop powerful instructional videos--and to evaluate their effectiveness. Prior to Carleton, he spent 15 years teaching video production and theatre and worked as a professional actor and director–appearing in 40-50 television commercials and nearly that many stage productions. His MFA thesis included producing an instructional video entitled How to Write and Produce Your Own High School Musical, which is currently being distributed through Films Media Group. He’s got a certificate in online teaching through UW Stout and has loads of experience as both a face to face and online instructor. He also recently developed and manufactured the Little Prompter, a personal teleprompter that helps educators easily create and flawlessly delivery their own video content. More information on the Little Prompter is available at Yep, he's got a background in pedagogy and is truly an expert at developing instructional video.

Extended Abstract

At Carleton College, our first fully online course was in the summer of 2016. The course, CUBE (Carleton Undergraduate Bridge Experience), is a bridge course designed to strengthen student’s quantitative skills and support their transition to college. The summer course focuses on quantitative skills and data visualization in context, and is supported by synchronous peer sessions, asynchronous faculty feedback, and commercially-available software. Additional community-building activities include discussions with alums and social media exercises.

CUBE represented a significant departure from college policies and practices, including having no summer courses and no online courses. By gaining approval to run the course as a time-limited experiment, we avoided lengthy debates about policy changes. In addition, being given a year to experiment allowed us to gather data, and return to the curriculum committee to reflect on whether iterating on the course was warranted based on preliminary results. Our data are gathered from pre-/post tests of quantitative skills, self-reporting on the affective domain, and tracking enrollment patterns and performance in courses that carry a QRE (quantitative reasoning encounter) designation for students with similar profiles who did/did not participate. The initial data are positive and permission was granted to run CUBE again this past summer of 2017. Soon we will meet with the committee to decide what happens next for CUBE.

But it is not the design, implementation, evaluation, nor the particular fate of CUBE we want to discuss in this OLC session. Instead, we want a broader discussion with our OLC colleagues. We are interested in their ideas about the place of fully online teaching and learning at residential, small liberal arts schools, serving 18-22 year old students. These are institutions not typically grappling with some of the pressures driving bigger institutions (retention issues, growing graduate and certificate programs, large lecture-based service courses, non-traditional aged students, and more) to pursue online teaching and learning. In fact, these are often institutions which have built their identity and brand around core practices such as close faculty-student interaction and high-impact practices--activities often cited as the biggest predictors of student success in the new landscape of higher education. Thus, even though our experience with CUBE has been quite positive and we find that we resonate with what Christopher Haynes says in his blog post, Time to Change the Narrative of Online Education, that the nostalgic narrative of the online education experience as one of automation and standardization , “...suffers from what I call the digital presence fallacy, a presumption that digital spaces cannot accommodate meaningful presence or foster intimate learning encounters simply by virtue of the fact that they are not physical.”, we’re not quite sure what the place of fully online teaching and learning is or might be at schools like Carleton. Can we build on our CUBE experiment in a way that is healthy for the core mission of our institution and if so, how?

Questions to seed the conversation not presentation:

Hearing from other Residential Small Liberal Arts schools: Are there audience members from schools like Carleton with online teaching and learning stories to share?

Hearing from colleagues at bigger institutions: It would be useful to hear from attendees from schools dissimilar to Carleton but where online wasn’t an obvious choice. In other words, institutions not necessarily trying to solve problems small liberal arts schools don’t have but institutions working to embrace a particular vision of online teaching and learning. One particular question of interest for these colleagues is how have they attempted to make online learning a "high touch" experience.

Solving problems with online teaching and learning: Are there in fact some problems all institutions have in common that online teaching and learning might address?

Capitalizing on “organic” ways into online teaching and learning: Sometimes courses or experiences--such as CUBE--which fall outside the formal curriculum afford the experimental ground upon which to launch online teaching and learning. Without graduate courses or certificate programs, most undergraduate institutions don’t have these opportunities. Might attendees have additional ideas?

Changing the narrative: Just because residential small liberal arts schools appear to be protected from some of the pressures other higher education institutions are wrestling with doesn’t mean we shouldn’t step into online teaching and learning. Perhaps by stepping in now when the stakes are lower we might help to shape the narrative of what fully online could mean for our institutions and our students? Is it thinkable that fully online experiences might actually be--in and of themselves and not just as a path to other possibilities like micro courses--good for our students? That is, can an argument be made that students are deprived of particular skills, experiences, and knowledge by not having the opportunity for online learning? Could a similar argument be made for faculty not having the opportunity to teach online and staff not collaborating and supporting online teaching and learning? Could we burnish our brand and better serve our mission by offering online courses?