CIC Report Says: Online Learning = Effective Learning at Small Colleges

Online learning report cover​CIC’s new report, Teaching the Humanities Online: Lessons from a Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges, draws upon the experience of 42 independent colleges and universities whose faculty members, administrators, and registrars collaborated to offer shared online disciplines between 2014 and 2018. Highlighting the difficulties they encountered (and mostly overcame) and the lessons they learned through the process, the report is designed for institutional leaders, academic administrators, and faculty members at independent colleges that offer, or plan to offer, online courses for undergraduates in the humanities and other liberal arts disciplines.

“This publication shows that dedicated instructors can make online instruction support the student-focused learning that small colleges have always valued,” said CIC President Richard Ekman. “But it also shows how thoughtful collaboration among independent colleges can support the strategic goals of individual institutions through flexibility and the efficient use of teaching resources.” The July 2019 report was co-authored by Barbara Hetrick, CIC senior advisor, and Deanna Marcum, former managing director of Ithaka S+R and former Associate Librarian of Congress, who served as primary evaluator of CIC’s Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction initiative.

Teaching the Humanities Online combines detailed evaluation data with practical recommendations derived from the four-year project, which was supported by two generous grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, totaling over $2.2 million. Some of the results were unexpected—such as the observation by one faculty member that “I thought my tech skills would become amazing and my teaching wouldn’t change much [when I began to teach online]. In fact, it was the opposite.” The topics include student learning outcomes, with a comparison of traditional and online humanities courses; student and faculty perceptions of online instruction; ways to help students and faculty members succeed in the online environment; the administrative costs and capacities needed to support effective online instruction; and the sustainability of collaborative consortia.

The most significant findings, some of which are highlighted below, may be those related to student learning and satisfaction.


Faculty members involved in the project found that their students consistently achieved the learning objectives set for online courses. This was confirmed when faculty members from other institutions independently reviewed student work produced during the courses. The grades awarded to students in online courses also were consistently high through the four years of the project. Faculty instructors did not see a significant difference between the student outcomes achieved in traditional humanities classrooms and those achieved through online courses. Online instruction, however, is not for every student: Instructors observed that students who do not work well independently (or lack sufficient discipline) can fall behind in online coursework, so they have to be encouraged to log into courses regularly.

In the end, many students appreciated the benefits of online courses but saw no reason to make comparisons with traditional face-to-face courses. Instructors and students both indicated that determining whether online or hybrid formats were objectively or measurably more effective than traditional face-to-face courses is a futile endeavor. There are simply too many variables—such as instructor, subject matter, level, and course materials—to claim that traditional and online courses are equally effective or that one approach is more effective than the other. Like lecture courses and seminars, both traditional and online courses have an important role to play in the curricula of independent small colleges and each has value.


The students who took upper-division online humanities courses were quite satisfied with the experience. In spring 2016, 60 percent of students reported that online courses were valuable in helping them appreciate different perspectives, and 80 percent reported that online courses motivated them to explore questions raised by the course. In spring 2018, 88 percent of students who enrolled in online humanities courses as part of the Consortium rated the online courses the same as or better than traditional classroom courses.

Students reported that having the option of enrolling in more humanities classes online provided more flexibility and might help them complete their degrees in a more timely fashion. Students who ranked online courses as better than face-to-face courses typically gave as their reason the flexibility of scheduling that the online format affords. “Flexibility” may have been the biggest driver of student satisfaction, with half the students reporting that they enrolled in an online course primarily because “it fits my schedule” (see Figure). Unfortunately, some students also thought that online courses would (or should) be easier than traditional courses.

Students’ Top Reasons for Enrolling in Consortium Courses

Bar graph listing students' top three reasons for enrolling in Consortium courses  


One of the biggest concerns expressed by faculty members who are unfamiliar with online instruction is that students won’t have the same amount or quality of engagement with faculty members as they usually have in face-to-face classrooms. Indeed, this turned out to be a challenge for faculty members involved in the Consortium, with just a quarter of them reporting that they were able to “form personal relationships with students in [an online] course similar to the kind of relationships that I have with students in traditionally taught courses.” But the report explains how, “over time, faculty members found that their increasing capacity to use online tools and to teach online helped them enhance student learning and engagement.”

Students, on the other hand, reported quite a high level of engagement in online courses; nearly 80 percent reported that instructors “helped to keep students engaged and participating in productive dialogue.” Some students commented on evaluation surveys that they were able to engage more with course content and to perform better in an online course because they felt more comfortable participating online than they did in a classroom setting; faculty members also noticed that some usually quiet students spoke up and “became stars online.” Students and faculty members alike indicated that student learning improved when instructors provided a substantive introduction to an online course, explaining how it might differ from traditional courses and how students could learn well and efficiently in this setting.


Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the Consortium was managing the logistics of course enrollment across institutions. More study is needed to determine whether different academic calendars, cultural norms, or academic expectations account for difficulties experienced by external students when they enrolled in the online courses. Faculty perceptions of the performance of external students was mixed, with over half reporting essentially no difference between home and visiting students’ performance, 13 percent reporting better performance by visiting students, and 31 percent reporting poorer performance by the visitors. Nonetheless, students and instructors both viewed the cultural experience of having students from other institutions taking courses with them as a clear benefit.

View the full report.

View information about exploring online learning opportunities through CIC’s new Online Course Sharing Consortium.