Can Online Learning Find a Place in the Liberal Arts?

Anthony Collamati’s classroom experiments with digital tools both reinforced the limits of new technologies and helped him see how they might strengthen small colleges and expand their reach.

July 11, 2018
Alma College
The author with the Jamboard

To debate the future of liberal arts colleges often means to discuss the role of technology in the classroom. These conversations -- whether forecasting the demise of smaller colleges or outlining their path back to viability -- tend to confirm a central idea of pioneering media scholar Harold Innis: if you want to understand a system’s longevity, you should look to its media.

Innis arrived at this conclusion after studying the rise and fall of empires. He observed that ruling powers usually demonstrate a bias toward either time or space, which is reflected in their use of media. Military powers, for example, often prefer lighter, space-based media like paper, which can quickly be deployed over vast territories. On the other hand, empires based in religious rule favor time-based media, like oral storytelling or the construction of cathedrals, which trade mobility and reach for durability and community.

Innis’s key point was that the greater an empire’s bias toward one type of media, the more susceptible it would become to challenges from new media. The most famous example is perhaps the medieval monastery, whose scribes, with their illuminated manuscripts, enjoyed a “monopoly of knowledge” until the arrival of the printing press.

Higher education’s monopoly is facing a similar uprising. From massive online open courses (MOOCs) enrolling more than 80 million students each year to the advent of online tools like Google Drive and Moodle, new media are disturbing traditional models of the classroom. Though optimists are right to tout technology’s potential for distance and adult learners, its future in the liberal arts is more uncertain. Can the liberal arts institution uphold its strengths -- small class sizes, close collaboration with faculty, collaborative and open discussion -- and prove its distinction to students when higher ed classrooms move online? Or will clumsy attempts to “modernize” education render us irrelevant?

I confronted these questions head-on this spring when Jeff Abernathy, the president of Alma College, where I teach new media studies, came to me with a proposal. He had been talking with Google about their latest Jamboard, an appropriately flashy digital “whiteboard” and mobile app that enables remote users to collaborate in real time. Alma, along with Albion and Calvin Colleges (each more than 100 miles away), planned to use the Jamboard in seminar-style classes, with about a dozen students from across the three campuses participating in simultaneous discussion. The consortium pilot would start with just one class on each campus, including my upper-level course, Media Theory. But the format might eventually expand to share resources among campuses across a variety of disciplines, from languages to computer science.

I agreed, curious and excited, but also skeptical and prepared for failure. I had taught online classes before and had not been eager to repeat the experience. While some people prefer the post-and-response format, I missed the experience of an in-person encounter. Interacting with students’ unique voices, witnessing their struggle with material, sharing in their excitement of discovery -- these were the moments that first attracted me to teaching, but they were notoriously elusive in the online format.

Concern about reaching online students is not unfounded. The growing literature on the MOOC, one of the newest and now most pervasive forms of online education, shows persistent struggles with retention. Enrollment numbers also indicate that skill-based preprofessional classes tend to attract students, while liberal arts and humanities classes usually do not thrive in online settings.

But as the pilot progressed, my doubts began to fade. The new format was not as much a revolution, it turned out, as it was a rebalancing of the liberal arts’ strengths. Modeled for collaborative, small-group discussions, Google’s system emphasizes face-to-face language that would be familiar to any teacher: the light in a student’s eyes when they grasp a difficult concept, the furrowed brow that signals some rephrasing is in order, the chatter that stirs around group work at a whiteboard (or Jamboard, in this case). At the same time, students at the table and onscreen exhibited a generosity that was unusual for a classroom setting. They seemed even more attentive to one another. As three different student communities came together, class meetings began to feel more like class events.

Ironically, in its success, the experience has reminded me of the limitations of technology. Today with so many doomsday scenarios circulating, we often hear calls to reboot higher education, reimagine the classroom or revolutionize the liberal arts. And more often than not, these reinvented pedagogies are packaged within a new app, a new device or a new subscription service.

But, taking a note from Innis, what if we think about education technology more in terms of redistribution than revolution? For centuries higher education has invested in hard media -- long-lasting, fairly static structures like campuses, academic calendars and course catalogs. Google’s course-share format doesn’t disrupt these investments as much as it translates them into lighter media. A campus community, a seminar discussion, a collaborative exercise now are no longer rooted in a single place. Pieces of these liberal arts experiences can instantly travel.

With online learning just beginning to make its way into the liberal arts classroom, the value of lighter media for a college is still open to debate. At smaller institutions where some departments struggle to find enough students, virtual classrooms might help upper-level classes meet enrollments.

My students gained critical skills communicating in a digital space that, in their careers, will likely be more ubiquitous than the conference table. And beyond higher education, media that extend our ability to connect meaningfully and remotely hold great possibilities for health care and legal aid, particularly in rural communities.

What is certain is that once we unhitch new technologies from our desire for a cure-all in higher education, we’ll be better able to examine the biases of our tools and use them more deliberately to empower our students and question our own pedagogies.


Anthony Collamati is an associate professor of new media studies at Alma College.


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