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Facing Declining Enrollment, Liberal Arts Colleges Turn to New Modes of Instruction
Lessons from a Teagle Grant Program

Over each of the past five years, the total number of undergraduate students in the United States has declined. There are multiple potential reasons for this trend: rising tuition, questions about the value of a postsecondary education, and shifting demographics have all likely contributed. While the impact of this trend has been felt across higher education institutions, private liberal arts colleges have been hit particularly hard, as have liberal arts programs offered at public institutions, marked by a decline in enrollment in colleges of arts and sciences within universities.

To combat this trend, these mostly-tuition-dependent institutions have turned to a number of strategies to increase enrollment and hold down costs, without sacrificing program quality. Some institutions have banded together to form consortia to share resources and distribute burdens. And some of these consortia have focused their efforts on the creation and use of online teaching resources and courses, hypothesizing that doing so will increase institutional capacity to provide educational offerings at a fraction of the cost of duplicating those offerings at each institution.

The Teagle Foundation’s “Hybrid Learning and the Residential Liberal Arts Experience” program, which ran from 2014 to 2016, funded a group of higher education consortia to test whether the collaborative development of technology-enhanced educational resources can cost-effectively increase institutional capacity to offer high-quality learning experiences. Ithaka S+R has observed and assessed the grant program on behalf of Teagle since the program’s launch. Today, we release our final report: Faculty Collaboration and Technology in the Liberal Arts: Lessons from a Teagle Grant Program.

Our assessment—based on instructor surveys, interviews with instructors and consortia staff, and review of grantees’ reports—has yielded a number of lessons regarding faculty collaboration within and across institutions, the value of instructional technology in liberal arts education, and the conditions for building institutional capacity through collaboration and technology.

Faculty collaboration in creating new educational resources that rely on technology can serve as a catalyst for rethinking pedagogy, and has the potential to be a cost-effective means by which liberal arts colleges can provide more students high-quality learning experiences that are in line with the core tenets of a liberal arts education. Despite the time-consuming and difficult nature of incorporating technology into course creation, faculty were appreciative of the time they spent collaborating with peers. As we heard from numerous faculty, both the collaboration and the challenge of conceptualizing an academic experience in a different modality provided new insights into their pedagogy. But another important lesson of the Teagle project is that fully realizing the benefits of collaborative course design requires a lot of support—from the leadership and administrative staff of faculty members’ home institutions and from a backbone organization with the resources and infrastructure to coordinate across institutions and strategically plan how to share courses.

As Teagle Foundation President Judith Shapiro describes, “When we began this initiative on hybrid learning in a residential liberal arts setting, our focus was on how this emerging technology could be applied in a new context. As Ithaka S+R’s report lays out, we learned through the course of the program that implementing instructional technology challenges liberal arts faculty and institutions to reconsider how they teach, whom they teach, and how they interact with colleagues and peer institutions. We now have a clearer sense both of possibilities and limitations—not only of hybrid learning, but of instructional change and cross-institutional collaboration—as we consider our future grant-making efforts.”

We are eager to hear from readers about how the Teagle program lines up with their own experiences. Have you participated in a cross-institutional collaboration focused on instruction? What were the benefits and challenges? Was technology a help or a hindrance to the effort? Share your thoughts in comments or by email.

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