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Online Courses Meet Specialized Needs of Small, Independent Colleges

The Council of Independent Colleges, with funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, invited its 700 members to apply to be part of the Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction. Even though the hallmark of CIC member institutions is their personalized learning for their students in small classroom settings, many of them wanted to understand more about online learning as it was receiving so much press coverage at the time. Twenty-one institutions were selected from 100 applications in the spring of 2014. Each institution was obligated to commit to developing two online or hybrid upper-level humanities courses to offer first to their local students in fall 2014 and then to other students in the consortium the following year. Because upper-level humanities are often under-enrolled, CIC selected these as an area of special need for its member institutions.

Relatively few of the participating faculty had experience with online learning when the project began, but the national and regional workshops developed by CIC provided both training and networking opportunities that gave humanities faculty the confidence to develop excellent courses for their students. CIC identified three goals for the project:

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

The two-year pilot project concluded with a workshop in August 2016. Ithaka S+R, evaluators for the project, reported findings based on surveys of faculty and students and in-depth interviews with faculty, students, and administrators. The complete report can be found here, but these highlights illustrate how positive the experience was for the members of the consortium:

  • In the second year of the program, instructors spent less time in planning and delivering the course. All faculty felt more comfortable with online learning pedagogy.
  • Students had positive learning outcomes in these courses, and faculty and peer assessors ranked student outcomes favorably.
  • Although there were no face-to-face instantiations of these online courses, both faculty and students rated the online courses as comparable.

The participating faculty and students continue to place high value on the personalized learning experience, and both groups regretted the loss of personal interaction and real-time discussion. A large proportion of students rated convenience of online courses as the reason to take these courses, and all of the participating institutions acknowledged the importance of scheduling flexibility, especially for their non-traditional students.

The cross-enrollment aspect of the pilot project was less successful. While all 43 courses developed in the project were made available for consortium enrollment, 40 percent of the courses had no cross-enrollment. Most institutions reported that campus faculty had been concerned about their local courses not meeting enrollment thresholds, and so discouraged their advisees from enrolling in consortium courses. The better news, though, is that when students did take advantage of the consortium courses, both faculty and students were pleased with the outcome.

CIC has done an outstanding job of managing this project and making the lessons learned widely available to the academic community. We encourage our readers to look carefully at the report and offer their own ideas about ways to enhance the humanities offerings on small campuses and to provide more opportunities for their students.

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