CIC Expands Online Humanities Initiatives, Holds Two Workshops in August

With a pair of back-to-back workshops in Alexandria, Virginia, on August 5–9, 2016, CIC concluded the first Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction and launched a second Consortium. The Consortia aim to explore new approaches to online education, improve teaching and learning in the humanities, and promote collaboration among smaller private liberal arts colleges. Twenty-one CIC member colleges and universities began a two-and-a-half year cycle of developing, offering, evaluating, revising, and sharing online humanities courses in 2014 (Consortium I). Twenty-one additional institutions began a similar cycle of activities this summer (Consortium II). Both projects are supported by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Ithaka S+R, a leading research and consulting service for academic innovation in the digital environment, provides advice to participating institutions and serves as the project evaluator.

Jewerl Maxwell stands holding a microphone while addressing consortium participants seated at round tables.
Jewerl Maxwell, dean of academic initiatives at Gordon College (MA), described the successes and challenges his institution faced while participating in the Consortium.


Consortium I

The program for the first cohort’s August 5–6 workshop focused on the successes and challenges faced by the participating institutions, especially in the areas of student learning outcomes, the use of instructional resources, and institutional cooperation. During the opening session, CIC Senior Vice President Barbara Hetrick summarized the project’s most significant accomplishment as “making it clear that liberal arts colleges can embrace online learning without sacrificing the fundamental quality of a liberal arts education.”
Many project participants echoed this observation while describing the impact of the Consortium on their own institutions. For example, Christine Evans, director of the humanities division at Lesley University (MA), observed that the new courses developed for the Consortium “tapped a pent-up interest for online courses” among students and faculty members alike. Linda McMillin, provost of Susquehanna University (PA), added that participation in the project had “complemented and supported a larger conversation on campus about digital pedagogy and digital tools.” But several other participants offered examples of persistent faculty resistance to online instruction at their institutions.
In a subsequent session, Deanna Marcum, managing director of Ithaka S+R, offered an overview of the formal project evaluation. Among the key findings related to student learning:
  • Faculty members and students both had positive experiences with the Consortium courses, broadly comparable to their experiences in traditional face-to-face courses, and most reported that they would participate in an online or hybrid course again;
  • The students rated flexibility and scheduling as the primary reasons for taking an online course; and
  • Despite promising findings about student learning and engagement, many students and instructors expressed concerns about the loss of personal interaction and the challenges of real-time discussion in online settings.
Ithaka S+R has prepared a final report on the initial phase of the project that will be distributed to all CIC members later this year.
Another key finding was related to costs. Although Marcum and her Ithaka S+R colleagues documented a notable decrease in the time and other resources required to teach an online course in the humanities the second time, they added that “continuing to increase efficiency and reduce costs will depend less on increased faculty efficiency and more on successful course sharing and substantial cross-institutional enrollment.” Most workshop participants did not consider the lack of demonstrable cost savings as a set-back for online education in the liberal arts, however. Cynthia Kosso, provost of Moravian College (PA), explained, “We did not save a penny. We expended resources and will continue to expend resources, because we have to…in order to prepare our students for a digital future.”
A highlight of the first workshop was a presentation by Joshua Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at Dartmouth College and a prominent education technology blogger. Kim offered a broad perspective on how liberal arts colleges can meet the challenges of new teaching and learning technologies “by doing what we do best, which is offering a relationship-based model of learning.” He encouraged the participants to lead their own institutions by sharing their new understanding of online education with other faculty and staff members; to engage the larger educational technology community, which is often fixated on arguments about “adaptive learning” and “going to scale” (through MOOCs, for example); and “to move the culture…with our argument about teaching and student-centered institutions.”
The workshop concluded with a detailed discussion about sustaining the lessons and momentum achieved by the initial cohort of colleges and universities. Participating institutions and CIC staff will continue to explore options to extend the activities of the first Consortium beyond the current grant funding. Just as important, said CIC President Richard Ekman, is that the first cohort “launched an experiment on uncharted waters” that will continue with the second cohort.

Four session leaders speak from a podium and head table with projection screen behind.
A session on Ithaka S+R’s evaluation of the project featured Deanna Marcum and Jessie Brown of Ithaka S+R, Tony Lilly of Sweet Briar College (VA), and Joyce Boss of Wartburg College (IA).


Consortium II

The second cohort’s August 7–9 workshop focused on preparing the new group of colleges and universities to develop online courses for spring 2017 and then share the courses with students from the other institutions in spring 2018. The project goals remain the same as those in Consortium I. Consortium II, however, will focus more narrowly on online courses that are potential substitutes for upper-level humanities courses in the same major at comparable institutions. Project teams for the second cohort include two faculty members, a senior academic administrator, and—in a change from the first cohort—the college registrar. “Registrars are key to absolutely everything that involves new courses and institutional cooperation,” explained Hetrick in her welcoming remarks to the group.
The workshop opened with an overview of lessons learned from the initial cohort of institutions, including a presentation by Marcum and Jessie Brown, an Ithaka S+R analyst, followed by observations from a panel of participants from the first cohort. (In all, nine veteran participants from the first phase of the project will continue to serve as mentors and advisors to the second cohort.) The panel offered two important pieces of advice for any liberal arts college that plans to expand its online offerings: keep a focus on student needs and “what we owe our students for the future” and then develop a specific plan to address the concerns of reluctant faculty members. “This is not a replacement for faculty … [or] the back door to major curricular change,” said Kevin Gannon, professor of history and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University (IA). “It’s about effective teaching and learning.”
During the workshop, participants heard presentations from three leading experts in online pedagogy: Kenny Morrell, associate professor of Greek and Roman studies at Rhodes College (TN) and a founder of Sunoikisis, the international collaboration of classics departments; Bryan Alexander, a self-described “futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher” who focuses on how technology transforms education; and Rebecca Frost Davis, director for instructional and emerging technology at St. Edward’s University (TX). Morrell warned the participants that “you will become better faculty members [through collaboration, but] you will have less autonomy and will have to rely more on others.” Alexander helped the participants explore the changing nature of students and teaching and the many practical challenges of adapting digital technology to humanities instruction. Davis focused on the intersection between digital pedagogy and liberal education, offering a provocative question—“What would it look like if we created liberal arts education today?”—and a provocative answer: It might look more like Pokémon Go. This sparked a lively discussion about curricular design.
Other sessions at the meeting included workshops and small-group discussions devoted to course planning (for the faculty members) and the practical and policy issues involved in institutional support for online instruction (for the academic administrators and registrars); a discussion of evaluation strategies; and a panel on successful models of institutional collaboration. The panelists for this last session included an administrator, a faculty member, and a registrar, who offered perspectives on a local collaboration among three liberal arts colleges, a state-wide collaboration to share instructional resources in low-demand foreign languages, and a regional consortium that has cross-registered students on a seat-available basis for decades. Jim Serbalik, the registrar of Siena College (NY), concluded the session with an optimistic prediction about the Consortium: “There will be stumbling blocks, but as long as we’re talking, we’ll make it happen.”
For more information about the project and a list of participating colleges and universities, visit the Consortium website.