Does Sharing Online Course Development Work?

Consortium of small colleges makes progress in launching online humanities courses, but report shows that collaboration has not saved institutions money and instructors time yet.

September 27, 2017

An early progress report on the second iteration of the Council of Independent Colleges’ Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction suggests the project team has learned from some of its earlier mistakes -- but that more work remains on the goal of expanding online capacity at small liberal arts colleges.

Ithaka S+R, the project’s designated evaluator, last week released a report synthesizing feedback from close to 40 of the initiative’s second cohort instructors, who indicated that their online students so far have largely earned high marks and remained enrolled for the entire semester. Still, the consortium hasn’t resolved all the questions it was created to address -- in particular, whether sharing online courses and students among participating colleges ultimately cuts expenditures of time and money.

“These are short-term projects. The ideal experiment would be to track the consortium over five to 10 years,” CIC's president, Richard Ekman, said in an interview with “Inside Digital Learning.” “That’s not the way grant-funded projects work. We hope in the continuation of consortia that these courses will prove more and more cost-effective to offer.”

Opportunity to Learn and Launch

The first cohort of the consortium, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, offered 21 CIC member institutions that had few or no online courses the opportunity to learn how to cost-effectively develop and launch upper-level online humanities classes. Those participants also envisioned the shared online courses as a way to attract more residential students to their small, sometimes rural, campuses by giving learners access to courses not available in their own curricula.

The first cohort operated from 2014 to 2016. The second began last year and is funded through 2018.

According to the Ithaka report, 80 percent of students who have so far participated in the second cohort’s online offerings in the second half of the last school year finished with passing grades, and 55 percent of the consortium’s students earned A grades in those courses. Retention was high -- 90 percent of students remained enrolled in the online courses throughout the spring 2017 semester, according to the report. The report states that grade distribution data for comparable face-to-face courses during the same semester are not yet available.

Instructors surveyed attributed those encouraging numbers in part to the fact that all 21 institutions in the second cohort had some prior experience offering online courses, even if they weren't in the humanities. Some institutions in the first cohort had never offered online courses before, making the learning curve steeper. Keeping participating institutions on a level playing field this time helped ease initial technical stumbles, according to Ekman.

“We weren’t smart enough [the first time] to emphasize that in our selection criteria,” Ekman said. “If we had done that, it would have made the whole group move along somewhat faster in the development of our courses.”

Instructor experience plays a key role in the early days of a new online course, according to Anisah Bagasra, associate professor of psychology at Claflin University, in South Carolina. The historically black college began dabbling in online humanities courses a couple of years before adding online versions of two face-to-face courses in the second cohort.

One of those two Claflin professors had been involved in previous online efforts, while the other had virtually no distance education experience. The latter, Douglas Root, an assistant professor of English at Claflin, found the task significantly more difficult, initially leaning too heavily on an ethnography project he had given to face-to-face students. In person, Root typically walked students through each step of the process, but online, he found most students decided to turn in all of their work in one file at the end of the semester, often without getting feedback along the way.

"There was a huge learning curve and a lot of trial and error," Root said.

Still to Come

Other goals of the consortium’s efforts haven’t yet been realized, though. The prospect of institutions saving money and instructors saving time remains only a theory, as launching an online course has proved even more time-consuming than crafting one that’s face-to-face, according to Ekman. He hopes online courses will be less work long term once the initial groundwork has been laid.

“We only have hints that that is going to be proven true,” Ekman said. “We’ll just have to wait and see on that.”

The Ithaka report also hints at a philosophical disconnect between instructors and students. Some in the former group said they felt the online courses don’t offer enough opportunities for student engagement and community building, whereas 81 percent of 280 queried students rated the online experience as good or very good, and roughly 45 percent of the 280 students said the online course was somewhat or much better than a face-to-face experience.

Gretchen McKay, a professor of art history at Maryland's McDaniel College, who participated in the first cohort and has mentored instructors in the second cohort, heard similar comments at the consortium’s August in-person meeting in Washington. But she’s not convinced that the solution to those concerns is to emphasize a less digital format. Some instructors have suggested allowing students from elsewhere in the consortium to Skype into their face-to-face humanities courses at their scheduled time.

“In my opinion it privileges the students that are there face-to-face and makes another barrier for students who have to Skype in or get some kind of program to be there virtually,” McKay said. “I think that that actually takes away from the leveling of the playing field that an online class provides.”

Douglas Palmer, provost at Walsh University, in Ohio, thinks the perceptual gap about the interactivity of online courses evident in the second cohort -- of which Walsh is a member -- might represent a generational divide that might not be overcome.

“They’re more accustomed to a community that is virtual. I’m not sure our generation really understands that yet,” Palmer said. “That might be one of these seismic shifts that we might need to start thinking about.”

Meanwhile, even when students enrolled in online courses offer positive reviews, other learners balk at the prospect of taking an online course delivered by an unfamiliar professor at an unfamiliar institution. The CIC has taken steps to address that reluctance: students can now peruse a catalog of the consortium’s entire slate of online offerings, and participating instructors meet more regularly than the first cohort did, in the hopes of convincing peers at other institutions to talk up consortium courses to their students.

Thus far, 546 students have enrolled in the second cohort’s online courses, according to the report. Enrollment this past spring was limited to students at the institution where the online course was being offered, in order to give instructors a semester to hone their teaching practices before offering them more broadly.

“My guess is it would take some years before the grapevine worked so that it would make courses taught on other campuses well enough known that they would shop for courses” the same way they do at their own institutions, Ekman said.

Another hurdle to overcome is making course credits easily transferrable from one institution to another. The council has encouraged participating institutions to keep registrars looped in as early in the online course creation process as possible, so that credit disparities are kept to a minimum.

During the grant period, all of the consortium’s online course credits transfer to participating institutions. But once funding runs out, it’s up to each institution to make that effort on its own.

Broader Introspection

For some instructors involved in the consortium’s second group, creating online courses has generated existential considerations. The report says some students were taken aback that online courses proved more demanding than their face-to-face equivalents.

“Instructors have begun to rethink what constitutes ‘student engagement,’ recognizing that there are various ways that students can engage with one another in digital spaces,” the report reads.

McKay said her work in the online space has prompted her to incorporate more activities into her pedagogy -- case studies, role play, problem solving. She still starts with a short lecture, but within a few minutes she pitches it back to her students.

“It really has made me rethink every class I teach,” McKay said. “I now go in with a much broader idea of what’s possible and what the students can do.”


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