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Shimer College
Students at Shimer College in Chicago participate in a class discussion.

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Strategies for the Small

February 19, 2014

Liberal arts college, 161, seeks scalable, highly customizable online education solution. Must like Socratic method, small group settings. Let's enjoy Great Books together.

Shimer College in Chicago, where classes of about a dozen students and an instructor pore over Great Books, will this spring pilot as many different technologies as possible in an attempt to create an all-online version of its discussion-based classroom. While Shimer students "have their noses in old fashioned books," President Susan E. Henking said, they "go out into a world that’s digital" -- and the college has a responsibility to prepare them. 

Small, private colleges are generally the least likely institutions to consider online education, and a recent study found colleges without any online offerings are also growing more negative toward the medium. Yet the low interest in online education isn’t always motivated by hostility; some of the smallest institutions simply see it as irreconcilable with their mission statements.

“Deep Springs has no plans whatever to take any instruction online,” said David Neidorf, president of the all-male, two-year college in rural California, where roughly two-dozen students combine studies with ranch duties. “But not even that fact reflects any judgment about online instruction. It’s just that our program combines academics with involvement with democratic governance of both the institution and student life, and a labor program that embodies direct material responsibility for ongoing community life. As long as that’s what we do -- and for the foreseeable future it’s the only thing we want to do -- it’s impossible to imagine developing an online version.”

Ranching isn’t the only experience technology has so far been unable to recreate. Institutions such as Thomas Aquinas College, another Great Books institution, have yet to find technology that replicates the classroom experience -- let alone everything that happens outside it.

“If there were technology available that could closely approximate the interpersonal dimension of conversations, I think it would be something we could probably look at,” Michael F. McLean, the college’s president. “But for us, the community aspect and the ability to develop a real and meaningful friendship is an important part of education in our judgment. That, I think, will always be our priority and primary focus.”

Shimer us trying to solve at least the classroom portion of the challenges defined by McLean. The college's list of pilots includes online classroom software from 2U and videoconferencing through Adobe Connect, and also social reading tools that share comments and marginalia between students. The right technology for Shimer -- if it exists -- could be rolled out this summer, but Henking compared the ed-tech experiments to car shopping. “When you go look at cars, every single car is perfect except for one thing,” she said.

Regardless of what student and faculty members conclude, Shimer has committed not to grow to more than 300 students from the current 150. Instead of outgrowing itself, Henking said, the college wants to take advantage of its size.

“I actually think we’re trying to go to a place where small colleges have not gone before,” Henking said. “In some sense, we’re trying to resist the idea that the whole point of technology is ‘bigger.’ Sometimes it’s also ‘deeper.’”

'An Enhanced Experience'

Small colleges such as Shimer, Thomas Aquinas and Deep Springs have carved out niches in the higher education landscape, and perhaps as a result, their online education strategies are equally personalized. Among the colleges that offer some form of online education, the use of technology often targets a specific need.

Eugene Lang College of the New School has for the last two years partnered with Global Citizen Year, a gap year program similar to the Peace Corps where students spend an academic year doing community-based work in countries such as Brazil, Equador and Senegal. Students, if accepted to both, earn a freshman year’s worth of academic credit while abroad.

Stephanie P. Browner, dean of the college, described the experience as a freshman seminar on globalization. Students spend about a week on campus before and after their trip, and Browner visits them a little past the halfway point. The rest of the year is limited by students’ internet connections. Some may be able to access the Canvas learning management system or even videoconference using Skype, Browner said, but in many cases, students only have the bandwidth to email back and forth.

“It does raise the question: Am I replicating the Lang experience?” Browner said. “In some ways, I would say I am. I’m replicating and honoring the values of Lang -- the engagement, the liberal arts education that connects you to the world and helps you think and act well in the world. In some ways, you could say it’s an enhanced experience.”

The program has six students this year, and Browner said she hopes half of every incoming class will in the future spend freshman year abroad.

“I would say what I’m doing right is using online to make possible something that would have been impossible,” Browner said. “What we now have is diversity of place in our online classroom. What does that mean, and how can we use it?”

Successful at Being Small

If Shimer finds the right technology and answers questions related to assessment and methodology, the next step may be to help other small institutions do the same. Henking said she has entered into “very preliminary conversations” with a handful of other small colleges -- including Eugene Lang -- to gauge the interest in such a network.

“There are a lot of institutions that have 500 or fewer students, and there’s not a clear organization of them,” Henking said. “Having a network where we can do some things together without homogenizing us could help.”

The meetings would respect the diversity among the institutions’ mission statements, Henking said, and the fact that “we vary on the political spectrum from somewhere to the right of the tea party to somewhere to the left of Trotsky.” In other words, the meetings would be an opportunity for leaders of small colleges to discuss how to be successful at being small -- and if technology can help.

“There’s a story out there that says how large you have to be sustainable,” Henking said. “On the one hand, we may not deserve to survive -- it may not be possible to survive -- but we’re also very significant to the diversity of higher education.

“Intellectually, I could see arguments why the truly tiny should not exist. On the other hand, what happens when you lose whole genres? I think technology can have two kinds of consequences: It’s homogenizing some things and wildly diversifying others.”

 

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