R1 Online Learning vs. SLAC Online Learning

Steve Kolowich’s essay in Inside Higher Education this morning demonstrates an online learning model for small liberal arts colleges. Although Wesleyan and Bryn Mawr, the two liberal arts colleges he cites, are highly selective schools, a variety of small liberal arts colleges across the country could benefit from the OLI (Opening Learning Initiative). Adapting these online learning models is not an attempt to make small liberal arts colleges more like the large public universities that have offered courses online for years. Rather, this approach is exactly how small liberal arts college can justify their human component.

Traditional online courses do offer an efficient and cost-effective alternative to the lecture hall, and this can enhance the value of the liberal arts college not cheapen it. An integrated approach provides students with more individualized instruction, particularly those students who are struggling in adapting to college level expectations, while allowing for more project-oriented learning and professor interaction in the classroom As Jeff Selingo suggested in his NY Times op-ed earlier this week, networks of small liberal arts college like the New Paradigm Initiative, can collaborate on online courses that lend themselves to experiential learning components during class time.

As the Collegiate Learning Assessment and other recent studies have shown, millennial students are not prioritizing study time outside of class; this has put the burden on many professors to use the classroom to accomplish work students could and should do on their own. The integration of online instruction will guide students through these steps, providing the professor with individualized data on and customizable options for student progress, and encourage low student-faculty ratios to really shine in the classroom. This approach will actually help small private institutions justify their value even more, as the hands on learning that is difficult to conduct in the large lecture hall is now the primary focus of the classroom.

As a sample, I envision a highly interactive music appreciation course hosted at several small colleges. These faculty members–who typically wear a lot of hats–can upload online components such as talking point videos, graphs and heuristic models, annotated scores, and clips from primary sources in their area of specialty and benefit from the wealth of sources from their colleagues with different specializations. Discussion forums, Twitter feeds, and Blogs linked across multiple campuses, as well as a series of content and listening quizzes will provide professors with data on the progress of their individual students. Designated tutors and review groups will offer additional resources for struggling students. All of this can occur on the students’ own time. The benefits of the small class are now prioritized. Class time can be given to students learning instruments, constructing opera scenes, engaging in community arts programs, conducting research projects, delivering presentations, and attending concerts.

3 responses

  1. I like this post. I am teaching a course online right now that I normally teach in person, and I’m finding that the online environment certainly offers affordances for personalization and creativity that are not as easy to create in the traditional classroom, and which I didn’t expect. I’m still ambiguous about moving large numbers of students and courses online, especially at SLACs, since my own undergraduate experience at a SLAC was dominated by the feeling that I was known, visible, integral to the discussions and team activities. I find that feeling harder to create online, and I think it’s the one thing the “traditional” classroom still offers that, to me, makes it my favorite way to learn and teach. I don’t find discussion forums, for example, to create the same kind of energy as in-class debate and interaction. Do you know of any really effective means of making that happen?
    Thanks again–this is really thought provoking stuff.

    1. I’ve found discussion forums to be a challenge in small classes if the entire discussion is to occur online. Usually I assign weekly source readings with required responses (@250 words) as a preparation for classroom discussion. The public exposure of posting requires students to do the reading and formulate some initial ideas. So in other words, the online discussion forum is not a substitute for classroom discussion; it’s just the first step. I grade posts on a 5 point scale and students receive the rubrics as well as some samples that earned different ratings at the beginning of the semester.

      Thanks for reading! I agree that online learning cannot entirely replace the traditional classroom. My hope is that it will enhance it.

    2. One additional thought: If your course is entirely online, then perhaps you could combine prepartory posts to a discussion forum with a live chatroom follow up debate. Students could be graded on their posts as well as their participation in the chatroom. The cut and paste feature can allow for direct reference to the ideas put on display in advance.

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