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Love and Measurement: Online Learning in Small, Independent Colleges

Dr. Robert Wachter, professor and interim chairman of the department of medicine, University of California, San Francisco, wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times on January 17 in which he argues that measurement in both the health care and education industries has failed us. He concludes by saying, “The secret of quality is love.” He worried that our efforts to measure and improve quality somehow block the altruism that motivates both doctors and teachers to do their work.  As I read his moving commentary, I found myself wanting to introduce him to the members of the Council of Independent Colleges’ Online Consortium for Online Learning in the Humanities.

This program was created originally out of a concern that the smaller independent colleges faced a special challenge in offering enough humanities courses, especially advanced courses, for their small populations of humanities majors. The consortium provided a way for colleges to create online courses that could be shared with other participants in the consortium, increasing available options without increasing the number of faculty or adding adjuncts.  The Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction has three goals:

  1. to explore how online humanities instruction can improve student learning outcomes;
  2. to determine how smaller, independent liberal arts institutions can make more effective use of their instructional resources and whether they can reduce costs through online humanities instruction and institutional collaboration;
  3. to provide an opportunity for CIC member institutions to build their capacity for online humanities instruction and share their successes with other liberal arts colleges.

These institutions wanted to use technology to expand the offerings for their students, reduce the financial burden on both students and institutions, without sacrificing the commitment (the “love”) they have for their students.  In this program, measurement of outcomes has enhanced, not reduced the focus on individual students’ learning or on the interaction faculty have with their students.

In December 2015, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation agreed to fund a second consortium of another twenty independent colleges. The funding came after an initial assessment of what had been accomplished by the first consortium. Ithaka S+R is proud to be serving once again as evaluator for the project.  We have already issued the report on our interim evaluation of Consortium I. In the second round, the CIC hopes to encourage the participating schools to push even harder to achieve the goals.

One of the clear findings from the first round is that it does not matter what format the course takes; the faculty in these institutions are committed to the premise that liberal education involves deep and personal connections with the students.  Ithaka S+R, in its evaluation role, will be looking for the extent to which the newly developed online and hybrid courses allow the Consortium institutions to provide humanities courses that meet the needs of their students. These independent colleges are also interested in stabilizing institutional costs and, if possible, reducing students’ costs. Ithaka S+R will be monitoring ways in which the institutions rely on online courses developed by other members of the Consortium in order to avoid hiring additional adjuncts or adding faculty to their payrolls

In the next round of Consortium participation, we expect that the colleges that apply will propose courses that can clearly serve as substitutes for courses on other campuses. Instead of the exotic, they will need to develop online versions of the commonly needed courses for graduation. We will continue to monitor results from Consortium I, as courses are made more widely available to students on other campuses while we begin to evaluate the success of Consortium II.

The small independent colleges know that they face challenges to meet enrollment targets and balance their budgets. They are offering online learning opportunities both to increase course options for their students, but also to prepare them for working in the digital world. The participating colleges also recognize that measurement and evaluation is the only way they can fully understand the impact online and hybrid learning has on their students. They are not doing this at the expense of personal interaction with the students. They are learning to use technology to enhance that interaction.

Comments on: Love and Measurement: Online Learning in Small, Independent Colleges

  1. As a consortium member, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments expressed in this posting. The rigorous formative and summative assessment that we have been doing in course development and delivery has improved my teaching greatly–online and face-to-face.

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