Teaching the Humanities Online: Lessons from a Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges

Teaching Humanities Online report cover

​The CIC Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction was launched in 2014 with a series of specific questions about the quality, effectiveness, and efficiency of online teaching and learning. As this report documents, many but not all of the questions were answered during the course of the project. Students and faculty members from 42 independent colleges and universities benefited directly from the project. CIC hopes that other independent colleges and universities will take heart from their successes, will appreciate the challenges the Consortia members faced (and usually overcame), and will apply the lessons learned to their own campuses. This report offers good advice for institutions that are new to online instruction in the liberal arts as well as institutions with significant experience in the area.

The answers to a few key questions addressed by the Consortium are worth repeating: Yes, thoughtful instructors can develop and teach excellent online courses that support the same student outcomes as the upper-level humanities courses they have traditionally taught in classrooms. Yes, smaller independent colleges can find effective ways to share online courses, recruit and serve visiting online students from like-minded institutions, and collaborate to support the needs of students, faculty members, and institutions. No, online courses will not cut instructional costs immediately—indeed, it usually costs more to develop an online course than a traditional course. There are, however, clear indications of long-term gains in efficiency as students take advantage of flexible course scheduling to graduate on time and institutions take advantage of willing collaborators to coordinate course offerings and build richer, more sustainable humanities programs. Institutional collaboration and online instruction are tools that independent colleges and universities can use right now to attract more students to the humanities by offering a wider range of advanced courses than most small institutions can provide on their own while offering students the flexible scheduling they desire.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned from the Consortium is that online instruction can help small liberal arts colleges “do what we do best, which is offering a relationship-based mode of learning” (to quote again one of the workshop speakers). Students can succeed in small, focused, upper-level courses, whether the courses are offered in classrooms or through online platforms. Faculty members were rightly concerned about the limits of student engagement in online courses, but they found innovative, replicable ways to make sure that students remained engaged with the subject material, the instructor, and other students. The result was that most students, even visiting students from other campuses, felt just as engaged by online humanities courses as they did by traditional classes.

In the end, the Consortium reminded us that “good teaching is good teaching.” Many participants in the project found, to their surprise, that developing online courses forced them to think more clearly about pedagogical assumptions and best practices in every instructional setting. As one faculty member concluded, “I thought my tech skills would become amazing and my teaching wouldn’t change much. In fact, it was the opposite.” That is a positive benefit for instructors, their students, and any institution that prides itself on the quality of the learning experience it offers. Faculty members who still have doubts about the efficacy of online learning should listen to what their colleagues who participated in the Consortia have to say about online teaching—especially since many of them began as skeptics, too.

​Council of Independent Colleges
Barbara Hetrick, Deanna Marcum, and Philip M. Katz
July 2019

Academic Experience; Faculty; Student Outcomes