Trial and Error: Small Victories and Big Questions for Blended Learning

Associated Colleges of the South has worked to expand its commitment to blended and hybrid learning. Results have been mixed, as costs haven't gone down and faculty skepticism hasn't evaporated.

August 16, 2017
Courtesy of Davidson College
Students at Davidson College in one of the Associated Colleges of the South courses

Institution: Associated Colleges of the South

The Problem: Virtually all higher education institutions now have to determine their approach to and comfort with advancing digital technology. Associated Colleges of the South, an association of 16 liberal arts institutions across 12 Southern states, wants to proactively ensure that its members remain viable in this evolving landscape. But faculty members often resist fundamental changes to their pedagogy, especially when they’re being enforced from the administrative level on down.

The Goal: Leaders across the consortium strive to develop a cross-institutional blended learning model that combines computer-mediated instruction with the interaction and engagement on which small liberal arts colleges pride themselves. Liberal arts colleges tend to be protective of their unique attributes, but they also recognize they can’t stay afloat without adapting to students’ current needs.

The Experiment: Backed by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon, Robert W. Woodruff and Teagle Foundations, the consortium has since 2011 invested in a slew of digital learning experiments, including flipped classrooms, content from massive open online courses, digital humanities and shared resources across institutions. Progress is ongoing, and the efforts have evolved from the beginning based on feedback from professors, according to Amanda Hagood, the consortium’s former director of blended learning. (Hagood left the consortium in 2014 and now serves as director of academic special projects at Eckerd College. In an interview, Hagood discussed her work with the consortium prior to 2014 and also offered impressions of later progress as an observer. She does not speak for the consortium or its plans. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to clarify Hagood's status.)

“We don’t have the resources here to do everything ourselves,” Hagood said of her thinking at the time. “We really have to be able to share some of the learning by not reinventing the wheel, and also learn what is not working, what to avoid.”

What Worked (and Why): Success stories have come in fits and starts. According to Hagood, a Davidson College professor of early-20th-century literature integrated into her courses digitized editions of primary source “little magazines,” small-circulation periodicals from the time period. At Furman University, a professor of Asia studies encouraged students to comment and analyze course materials over Facebook; the same class also included nonlecture elements like a trip to a campus temple. Washington and Lee University created an extensive digital humanities program with contributions from faculty members, technology professionals and library professionals. An extensive list of case studies detailing various efforts within the consortium is available here.

Proposals to expand the curriculum generally attract vigorous support from instructors, Hagood said. For instance, faculty members in Chinese departments at several of the association’s universities frequently exchange ideas and course materials. One of them who specializes in ethnomusicology offers a lecture over video chat to students taking Chinese at other institutions in the consortium.

“The next step would be to actually have the ethnomusicologists develop a Chinese ethnomusicology class, a full class, and then allow students at all the different institutions to take that class,” Hagood said.

Hagood joined the program in 2013 at the height of a craze over massive open online courses that has since abated. MOOCs haven’t proved as successful or popular as initially anticipated, and Hagood is proud to see that the Associated Colleges of the South expanded their online efforts beyond that model once it proved insufficient.

“Even though there was an idea that blended learning and liberal arts education were antithetical to one another, there was sort of a parallel idea that if liberal arts institutions are going to shift into using blended learning, that they ought to be spaces for great innovation,” Hagood said.

What Didn’t (and Why): As with any major procedural changes, responses from faculty members have been decidedly mixed. According to Pat Schoknecht, chief information officer at the consortium’s Rollins College, in Florida, some are reluctant to fundamentally alter their pedagogical approach, while others aren’t yet comfortable collaborating with instructors from other institutions. For instance, professors of German at Rollins think their programs would be stronger and larger with contributions of materials and knowledge from instructors at other universities. But some instructors see those efforts as foreshadowing a grim future.

“They are having a hard time convincing their fellow German faculty around ACS that that’s a true statement,” Schoknecht said. “Where faculty feel that their job is on the line, we run into problems.”

Schoknecht acknowledges the instructors’ concerns as reasonable. Her job, nonetheless, is to offer equally logical counterarguments, in the form of support from university leadership and demonstrations from successful examples. She admits the overall process has taken longer than she initially envisioned.

Logistical challenges also got in the way of sustained progress, even when instructors were eager to innovate. Each institution has a slightly different semester schedule, which makes coordinating courses from one college to another cumbersome. In some cases, according to Dave Morton, the consortium’s director of communications and technology, one institution in a partnership benefited from an initiative more than the other. Morton describes that development as “troubling.”

Some instructors also like the concept of incorporating technology into their lessons but struggled to devote adequate time to making those adjustments, according to Schoknecht.

Schoknecht had hoped to see the colleges cut costs in the process of connecting students to programs elsewhere in the consortium. But so far those results remain elusive, particularly for the association's small liberal arts colleges, which lack the funding of larger institutions.

“That was the holy grail, right? That we were going to save money,” Schoknecht said. “We’re not saving money.”

Next Steps: With such a diverse collection of institutions under the consortium’s umbrella, collecting data and information on each institution’s various initiatives can be a challenge. The consortium plans to strengthen its methodology and measurement tools going forward, according to Jennifer Dugan, the consortium’s director of faculty programs. More robust feedback will also make it easier to pitch new ideas to instructors, with concrete evidence backing up their new ideas.

ACS officials said the responsibility will fall on the leaders to craft more productive professional development opportunities for faculty members, many of whom long to be more technologically savvy but need an external push as motivation to improve. Eventually, a broader institutional framework for such opportunities will be available for faculty members, alleviating feelings of alienation.

During her time with the consortium, Hagood saw evidence of the challenges the consortium continues to face.

“We’ve seen more faculty who are interested in trying new technology,” Hagood said. “But it takes an enormous amount of time to learn a new technology.”

Another dream project for the consortium is offering professors one-on-one sessions with instructional designers who can help them carefully craft their courses with digital tools in mind. Dugan wants to improve relationships between instructors and information technology departments. Once more faculty members get engaged, she believes, more skeptics will fall in line, especially if blended learning proponents are enthusiastic about their new approaches and willing to share best practices.

No solutions have emerged for the cost issue, but the problem may become less acute if blended learning takes hold more broadly.

“You have to take the long view, all the time,” Schoknecht said.


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