How to Scale the Liberal Arts

Looking beyond the truly advantaged.

January 9, 2017

The question is not if a liberal arts education is the best education.  It is.  Evidence will continue to accrue.

The latest data point we can cite is the article Making the Case for Liberal Arts Colleges. According to research by Richard A. Detweiler, liberal arts graduates are significantly more likely to take leadership roles in their careers, engage in lifelong learning activities, and (eventually) earn into the six figures.  

The real question should be if the benefits of a liberal arts education be reserved to only the most privileged?

Will our US postsecondary future be one where those families with the most resources are able to underwrite an education that prioritizes learning how to learn?

Will training in the lifelong habits and skills of communication, collaboration, and critical thinking be the reserved for only the truly advantaged?

This is where technology comes in. One of the goals of our edtech profession, (some of us think it is an emerging discipline), should be to expand access to a liberal arts education.

3 ways of thinking about scaling the liberal arts:

Small Scale:  

A small scale approach to the liberal arts is all about improving the resiliency of our liberal arts institutions.  We can’t have a robust liberal arts ecosystem if our existing liberal arts colleges are not economically viable.

Educational technologies can align with the core mission of liberal arts institutions when (and only when) these technologies are utilized in support of a relational model of education.  This means that technology is utilized to enable educators to get to know their learners as individuals.  In this model, technology complements the educator - it is never a substitute.  

Educational technologies - as well as the knowledge gained from the interconnected disciplines of learning science - can make important contributions to the economic viability of liberal arts schools.  Every campus-centric small residential institution should be looking at ways to leverage technology to have every class “feel” more like a seminar.  

There are opportunities at every school to move to blended and low-residency teaching models to enlarge the number of learners that can be served.  Even small schools can look to creating specialized low-residency programs - both for traditional residential learners and non-traditional students - that can bring both revenues and new competencies to the core residential educational programs.

Medium Scale:

The medium scale for growing access to the liberal arts is, I think, the sweet spot of digital learning practices.  Here I am thinking of the opportunities to create specialized online and low-residency master's programs, as well as non-degree programs for both alternative credentialing and lifelong learners.

Should liberal arts colleges that traditionally focus on residential undergraduate education get into the business of offering online / low-residency master's degrees for adult working professionals?  The answer depends on the existing structure and the strength of the individual school.  If the college is already offering residential master's degrees, then moving to a low-residency format is a no-brainer. 

Liberal arts schools are particularly well positioned to offer online and low-residency master's degrees as they already have a tradition of creating relational models of learning.  What every student should avoid is matriculating at a school that takes a transactional approach to education.  Liberal arts schools focus on learning - they are strong in the supporting the educator / learner relationship - and are therefore ideally suited to developing new online and low-residency degree programs.

Every school, no matter what there current focus, should be looking to broaden their educational offerings through online learning.  Here again liberal arts schools have an advantage.  They can bring there philosophy about teaching and learning - one that emphasizes the skills of learning how to learn - to their non-traditional educational offerings.  They can focus on quality learning, independent of that learning being attached to credits and degrees.  Alternative credentials, (non-credit and degree bearing programs), represent a great opportunity to extend the philosophy of a liberal arts education to a larger number of learners.  

Big Scale:

Figuring out how to extend a liberal arts education at (large) scale is challenging.  The entire value of a liberal arts education is predicated on not scaling.  Of being a small and intimate sort of eduction - one where educators and learners form relationships.  

This does not mean, however, that we shouldn’t try.  I’m intrigued by how we can integrate what we are learning about open online education at scale (MOOCs) with the traditional affordances of a liberal arts education.  Can we use free and open online courses to enable students to learn foundational content and skills - reserving the more intimate (and expensive) educational interactions for higher-order learning?  Can we think of ways to shift introductory courses to high quality online environments, freeing up resources and time to focus on investing in small scale courses and seminars?

Finally, I don’t think that we are done in trying to bring a liberal arts approach to the MOOC.  Just because we have not figured out yet how to build an open online course around educator / learner relationships does not mean that we should stop trying.  The big scale of learning is an ideal place to do educational R&D (research and development).  Open online learning is a great place to learn about learning, as well as to evolve teaching and learning in the liberal arts.

How do you think about scaling the liberal arts?


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