Online Humanities Consortium Meets to Fine-Tune Courses for Broader Offering

Participants in CIC’s second Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction met in Washington, DC, in August to share progress reports and prepare for the final phase of the project. This spring, each of the 21 participating colleges and universities (see list below) offered two new online courses in the humanities to its own students, on subjects such as Shakespeare, British history, legal ethics, feminist thought, Spanish-language cinema, and philosophical themes in science fiction. The institutions will offer revised versions of the courses to students across the Consortium in 2017–2018. (View a list of the courses offered.)

The workshop participants discussed a detailed evaluation report of the first round of courses prepared by Ithaka S+R, a research and strategy organization that specializes in the application of digital technologies to teaching and learning. (For the report, visit the program site.) Ithaka S+R senior advisor Deanna Marcum and research analyst Jenna Joo offered the following conclusions, drawing upon surveys of students and instructors, a faculty-peer analysis of student work produced for the online courses, interviews with faculty members and administrators, and institutional data on enrollments and instructional costs:

  • Faculty members engaged in the project learned a great deal about teaching by designing and delivering online courses. As Paula Reiter, associate professor of English at Mount Mary University (WI), noted during a panel discussion, “I thought my tech skills would become amazing and my teaching wouldn’t change much. In fact, it was the opposite.”

  • Learning outcomes in online humanities courses are similar to those in face-to-face courses, whether measured by student and faculty survey responses or external peer review of student work.

  • High-quality online humanities courses, however, require a different approach to assignments and activities for students than traditional face-to-face courses. As one anonymous instructor quoted in the Ithaka S+R report reflected, “teaching online works particularly well for a facilitation model in which you want every student to contribute. Making sure that all students contribute…was much easier in the online environment. The discussions, however, were not quite as robust.”

  • Faculty members with access to instructional designers on their own campuses—about three-quarters of the total—perceive it to be a tremendous benefit to their teaching, although it does not necessarily reduce the time it takes to teach online. In fact, faculty members consistently report that developing effective online humanities courses requires more time and resources than face-to-face courses, at least in the beginning.

  • Students place a high value on the convenience of online courses, but they also note that online courses require much more independent learning than an in-person class.

  • Faculty members are concerned that student engagement is less in online courses than in traditional courses. Although they commented on the loss of personal interaction between students and faculty, students in the spring 2017 courses rated engagement in their online courses as comparable to their engagement in face-to-face courses.

  • Administrators see tremendous strategic value in online instruction for small independent colleges. One administrator explained, “One of the goals in our strategic plan is to grow online programs to reach diverse students. Another strategic goal is to raise the profile of our academic programs. This project allows us to reach those goals.” Tresmaine Grimes, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Bloomfield College (NJ), added during the discussion session that “we need to help one another in areas where we have [curricular] gaps—and we all have gaps, because we are small.”

  • Finally, some of the aggregate data collected by the U.S. Department of Education and analyzed by Ithaka S+R suggests that there is a negative relationship between the percentage of online course offerings and institutional spending on instruction at the institutions involved in the Consortium. It is difficult, however, to identify specific cost savings, if any, that can be attributed to courses offered through the Consortium.

two photos of paticipants seated at roundtables
Left: Bryan Alexander (left), a higher education consultant and futurist, helped faculty members at the workshop prepare to revise their online courses. Kevin Gannon (right), professor of history at Grand View University (IA), is a veteran of the first Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction (2014–2016) and coordinates the ongoing collaboration among those institutions. Right: Workshop participants used breakout sessions to discuss what worked well and what could be improved during the final phase of the project.

In addition to the mid-term project review, the August workshop included a lively demonstration of online courses; breakout sessions on course revisions, institutional resources necessary to promote online education, and policies for enrolling and tracking students from other institutions; a panel discussion devoted to effective practices in institutional collaboration; and presentations by three prominent experts in higher education and online learning.

CIC launched this second cohort of the Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction in 2016 with three main goals: to explore how online humanities instruction can meet desired student learning outcomes, especially in under-enrolled majors; to determine whether smaller independent liberal arts institutions can make more efficient use of instructional resources and reduce costs through online humanities instruction; and to promote institutional collaboration around shared curricular offerings. The second cohort has built on the success of the first cohort of institutions, most of which continue to share online courses through a separate collaboration. Participants in the Consortium will use the fall 2017 semester to revise online courses, finalize policies for enrolling students from other campuses, build support for the Consortium on their own campuses, and recruit students. Consortium members will meet once more in July 2018. CIC will release a report on best practices for online humanities instruction later that year. This project has been supported by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


Bloomfield College (NJ)
Carlow University (PA)
Carroll College (MT)
Carroll University (WI)
Claflin University (SC)
Clarke University (IA)
Concordia University Texas
Gettysburg College (PA)
Lasell College (MA)
Mount Mary University (WI)
Northwestern College (IA)
Randolph-Macon College (VA)
Rosemont College (PA)
Shenandoah University (VA)
Siena College (NY)
Simpson College (IA)
St. Edward’s University (TX)
St. Olaf College (MN)
Ursuline College (OH)
Walsh University (OH)
Wesleyan College (GA)