Open Courseware in the Liberal Arts

Saint Michael's College thinks persuading its faculty to use free courseware from peer institutions could improve its liberal arts curriculum.
March 22, 2010

Open courseware has been a transformative boon for do-it-yourself learners and institutions — particularly foreign universities — that lack the resources to develop top-flight courses and course materials on their own.

But does it have anything to offer liberal arts colleges?

Top officials at Saint Michael’s College think so. In an interview last week with Inside Higher Ed, John J. Neuhauser, the president of the Roman Catholic, 2,000-student Vermont college, said he is considering encouraging certain faculty to use open courseware in their classes. Doing so, Neuhauser said, could spare them time spent designing courses and compiling course materials — time that could be reinvested in teaching.

Neuhauser also said incorporating open courseware into certain parts of the Saint Michael’s curriculum might give the college the option of reducing the total number of faculty over time. But “the real advantage is to take advantage of better content,” he said.

“I think it’s hard to convince many faculty of this,” Neuhauser said. “But I think its something that the small, liberal arts colleges are going to have to consider” in order to remain competitive, he said.

William Anderson, the chief information officer at Saint Michael’s, emphasized that leveraging the resources made available by professors at other institutions in order to streamline its own faculty is not currently part of the college’s technology strategy.

“My version of this vision,” says Anderson, who taught business and computer science at Saint Michael’s for 27 years before becoming CIO, “isn’t that I would no longer have class preparation to do, it’s just that the classroom preparation would be in the highest value-added area.” In other words, a professor could delegate basic lessons to tutorials or lectures posted by, say, a Yale professor, then use class time to explore the concepts in greater depth.

But Anderson does say that utilizing open courseware could allow Saint Michael's — and other liberal arts colleges — to streamline faculty at the margins. “[Open courses] might be effective substitutes for adjunct faculty in very highly specialized areas where it’s hard to find them,” he says. For example, the college’s accounting program could use open courseware to help teach taxes, rather than hiring an adjunct tax specialist. Ditto certain specialized scientific fields.

Selling Professors

The Saint Michael’s experiment is still a seed of an idea that has only been discussed in preliminary terms, Anderson says. It could be several years before the college moves to formalize any sort of open-courseware plan; the faculty have not yet been consulted, and getting them to buy in to the plan could take some massaging.

“It really is a thought experiment,” Anderson says. “But it’s one [the president and I] both like.”

The notion of using technology to spare professors the task of walking students through the fundamentals so they can spend more class time discussing concepts at a higher level is not new. Carnegie Mellon University, for example, has researched the possibility of using e-tutoring software to teach the basics, thereby optimizing the time professors and students spend together.

But so far, such strategies have been explored mostly in the context of larger universities, says Roger C. Schonfeld, manager of research at Ithaka S+R. Faculty at liberal arts colleges, where teaching is the focus of professors’ professional lives, might be more reluctant than their research-minded university colleagues to cede portions of course design and delivery to a commoditized version prepared by a peer at another institution.

William Karstens, chair of the physics department at Saint Michael's, says he would be open to incorporating lectures, worksheets, and other open courseware into his courses — as long as he is given the autonomy to dictate how he uses the materials, and to what extent. But if the administration went beyond open-ended encouragement and tried to mandate specific ways it wants professors or departments to use open courseware, Karsten says, he and his colleagues would almost certainly resist.

Attempting to systematize the use of open courseware across a campus probably would not work anyway, since the utility of certain open courses will likely vary from course to course, department to department, and institution to institution, says Reza Ramazani, chair of the college's economics department. If Saint Michael's wants to experiment with standardization, Ramazani says, it must proceed cautiously.

High Time to Adopt?

None of the experts contacted by Inside Higher Ed, including Steve Carson, president of the Open Courseware Consortium, had heard of a liberal arts college adopting open courseware into its teaching strategy.

That is not to say that they should not be exploring the possibility, says Anne-Marie McCartan, executive director of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences. “We are continually urged to rethink our models for delivering higher education,” McCartan says, “and to think that we can continue to sit back and do classroom education exclusively, and to think that only our faculty can develop the best courses, is a little nearsighted.”

W. Joseph King, executive director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, says he has been "shocked" by how sluggish liberal arts colleges have been to incorporate open courseware into their curriculums. “It would simplify things for faculty members in terms of getting together a base course plan," he says, "and it certainly would be cheaper.”

Cheaper not just for faculty, in terms of time spent pulling together materials for courses, but for students as well. “I don’t understand why [professors] would choose a $100 textbook over online resources that can certainly be bound and printed if someone needs a book," says King. He points out that a search for the word "statistics" on the open courseware database Connexions turns up 4,205 hits — including a composite textbook that visitors can download for free or order in print for $32.

"They’re really just stuck in the older model, in which textbook publishers of course highly encourage and court professors,” King says.

As higher education continues to grow and colleges are required to educate more students, sharing commoditized course content might be something professors will have to become comfortable with, says McCartan. “If people can develop modules that have agreed-upon content, in some ways that can free faculty up to think about how to engage students interactively,” she says.

“If a liberal arts college were able to come up with a distinctive way to deliver what sounds like sort of a blended education,” that would be “very exciting,” says Schonfeld.


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