Summer Data Science Online: Building Bridges through Collaboration in the Liberal Arts

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

A defining feature of a liberal arts education is learning through strong interpersonal collaborations among faculty and students; the emphasis is on connection, which can occur in person and online.  While some traditionalists at liberal arts institutions tend to assume face-to-face learning is best, a number of small colleges are actively experimenting with emerging forms of online engagement for our students and faculty through collaboration in the digital realm. 

In summer 2019, several leading liberal arts colleges in the Liberal Arts Collaborative for Digital Innovation (LACOL, https://lacol.net) collaborated to offer the first iteration of a fully online, team-taught course Introduction to Data Science for their undergraduates. The learning design was developed collaboratively by a multi-campus team of faculty, instructional designers and technologists, centered around these learning objectives: 1) familiarity and expertise in basic coding (R/RStudio); 2) understanding of theory and application of basic concepts in statistics; 3) ability to write and present technical material to diverse audiences.  Data Science is widely recognized as a subject of high interest and relevance across our schools, thus the opportunity to co-develop a truly useful online summer course experience for students presented itself.

Both synchronous and asynchronous pedagogies were used to deliver lessons, support group project work, and foster engagement between the teaching team and the roster of students drawn from five LACOL colleges. Student demand for seats in the class exceeded supply; retention after add/drop was 100%. Student performance and feedback indicate success in reaching many course and project goals, with room for growth in future offerings.

Our driving question remains: how can “liberal arts learning” best be achieved online? In this session, members of the LACOL Summer Data Science Class team will share an overview of the course design, implementation, and the lessons we learned in summer 2019.  We will also look ahead to the next iteration of the course to be offered in 2020, especially exploring the challenge of scaling up. In the second half of the session, prompts drawn from the book Small Teaching Online (F. Darby, J. M Lang, Jossey Bass 2019) will be shared to stimulate individual reflection. The group will then report out and discuss their favorite effective practices for liberal arts learning online.

Presenters

Dr. Elizabeth Evans is the executive director of the Liberal Arts Consortium for Digital Innovation (https://lacol.net), a partnership of leading liberal arts colleges exploring emerging models for teaching and learning through digital collaboration. Liz is based at Haverford College near Philadelphia, and occasionally teaches online and hybrid courses as an adjunct in the Department of Communications at Drexel University. Prior to joining LACOL, Liz served IT Director for eLearning at the University of Pennsylvania and as Academic Computing Specialist at Swarthmore College. Liz is a graduate of Bennington College and holds a Ph. D. from Cornell University.

Extended Abstract

A defining feature of a liberal arts education is learning through strong interpersonal collaborations among faculty and students; the emphasis is on connection, which can occur in person and online.  While some traditionalists at liberal arts institutions tend to assume face-to-face learning is best, a number of small colleges are actively experimenting with emerging forms of online engagement for our students and faculty through collaboration in the digital realm.

As a consortium of small, residential liberal arts colleges, the ten partner institutions* in LACOL, the Liberal Arts Collaborative for Digital Innovation (https://lacol.net), are interested in emerging models for teaching and learning that may enable our schools to do new things together online that we are currently not doing (or doing less creatively) on campus. Thus, a key question for us is: how can “liberal arts learning” be achieved through collaboratively developed courses or modules that are shared digitally across LACOL schools?

In summer 2019, several colleges in LACOL, including Bryn Mawr College, Davidson College, Haverford College, Swarthmore College, Vassar College, Washington and Lee University, and Williams College, collaborated to offer the first iteration of a fully online, team-taught course in Introduction to Data Science for their undergraduates. The learning design was developed collaboratively by a multi-campus team of faculty, instructional designers and technologists, centered around these learning objectives: 1) familiarity and expertise in basic coding (R/RStudio); 2) understanding of theory and application of basic concepts in statistics; 3) ability to write and present technical material to diverse audiences.  Data Science is widely recognized as a subject of high interest and relevance across our schools, thus the opportunity to co-develop a truly useful online summer course experience for students presented itself.

Both synchronous and asynchronous pedagogies were used to deliver lessons, support group project work, and foster engagement between the teaching team and the roster of students drawn from five LACOL colleges. Student demand for enrollment in the class exceeded supply; retention after add/drop was 100%. Student performance and feedback indicate success in reaching many course and project goals, with room for growth in future offerings.

Specific outcomes of the Summer 2019 course include a set of reusable, adaptable materials, lesson plans, and workflows that are now in place for delivering a rigorous course in data science that is appealing and useful to our students; these can be built on in future iterations of this class or related topics.  Faculty and student TAs gained experience with models and pedagogies for teaching with online technologies, especially strategies for fostering an engaged online learning community. The success of the initial online data science course points to a model of collaborative online teaching that could serve certain kinds of curricular needs to benefit our liberal arts students and institutions.  Moreover, we were able to develop some initial administrative processes to drive the project and keep things running smoothly.

The complexity of scheduling across a globally dispersed student cohort forced some tradeoffs in the use of synchronous class time; offering extensive drop-in office hours was a key ingredient for the success of this experiment in delivering an engaging, liberal arts class in data science.  Many students were juggling work and travel which called on them to develop different time management strategies for online learning compared to taking an on-campus class. Offering this class during the summer (outside of regular session) also presented some unique challenges for some of our participating institutions.

Liberal arts courses emphasize the development of critical thinking, communication and research skills and the habit of applying them, as well as mastery of particular disciplinary content or skills. Liberal arts pedagogies tend to 1) be centered on meaningful, collaborative interactions among faculty and students; 2) emphasize active over passive forms of learning; and 3) encourage students to reflect on and take ownership of their thinking and learning.  Our driving question remains: how can “liberal arts learning” best be achieved online?

In this session, members of the LACOL Summer Data Science Class team will share an overview of the course design, implementation, and the lessons we learned in summer 2019. We will also look ahead to the next iteration of the course to be offered in 2020, especially exploring the challenge of scaling up. In the second half of the session, prompts drawn from the book Small Teaching Online (F. Darby, J. M Lang, Jossey Bass 2019) will be shared to stimulate individual reflection. The group will then report out and discuss their favorite effective practices for liberal arts learning online.

*LACOL is a partnership of Amherst College, Bryn Mawr College, Carleton College, Davidson College, Hamilton College, Haverford College, Swarthmore College, Vassar College, Washington and Lee University, and Williams College.