Lessons Learned From a Consortium That Fizzled

Four liberal arts colleges teamed up to work together on MOOCs. Their paths diverged, but the experience was far from a waste of time and energy.

June 27, 2018
 
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A lot can change in three years.

Back in May 2015, four liberal arts institutions -- Davidson College in North Carolina, Colgate University and Hamilton College in New York, and Wellesley College in Massachusetts -- formed a consortium designed to foster collaboration around massive online open courses and other online learning options. Donald Trump was still a month away from announcing his candidacy for president, MOOC mania had only just begun to taper off and skeptics of online education existed in far greater numbers than they do today.

Fast-forward to June 2018, and the picture looks somewhat different. Higher education as a whole no longer views MOOCs as a panacea. The formal consortium has largely ceased to exist, though representatives of the institutions keep in touch and share resources from time to time. Consortia themselves are hotly debated -- while many believe collaboration and resource sharing can help struggling institutions stay afloat, others worry that such arrangements present daunting logistical challenges that can’t easily be overcome.

Leaders of the institutions that participated in the consortium don’t view the temporary partnership as a failure, though. All have been able to extract lessons from the arrangement, and some have further pursued MOOCs or homed in on the institutional identity of their online output.

“If we identified an opportunity to engage these schools again, or others, we absolutely would do so,” said Raechelle Clemmons, chief information officer at Davidson since February 2016. “So in that sense, I think the consortium is more dormant than dead.”

Initial Goals

The winning pitch for the consortium’s inception was for instructors at the different institutions to form organic collaborations that would lead to MOOCs. These four institutions were the first liberal arts colleges in the nation to sign up for the online learning platform edX, and they were eager to explore the possibilities of the arrangement.

The chief information officers had already been holding regular calls to discuss innovation, according to Ravi Ravishankar, CIO at Wellesley. This consortium seemed like the logical next step, and an opportunity to analyze a data set of student outcomes larger than any of the four institutions could have examined on their own, Ravishankar said.

Early work was centered around informational meetings in which the four institutions shared their progress and theorized paths forward. Davidson and Wellesley faculty members ended up co-teaching two courses offered to students from both institutions, and Colgate and Hamilton also started moving in the direction of having instructors collaborate.

Almost immediately, though, it was clear to those involved that the path forward was uncertain. Because none of the institutions had taken decisive action on their MOOC plan, each looked to the other for guidance.

“That’s a funny space to be in,” Ravishankar said.

Within a year of the consortium's inception, several chief information officers left their positions for other universities. Without a strong foundation in place, institutional knowledge went with them.

Diverging Paths

Davidson and Colgate took to the possibilities of MOOCs more so than their two consortium counterparts did. Last year they both joined the Liberal Arts Consortium of Online Learning (LACOL).

Clemmons describes Davidson’s current MOOC investment as “limited, mostly through our Davidson Now initiative.” The focus is on free, short courses driven by timely topics in the news, such as voter fraud and "engaging in a time of polarization." Davidson’s leaders believe students outside its community benefit from the expertise of its faculty members on current issues; all of its efforts derive from that mentality.

Colgate developed two MOOCs as a result of the partnership with edX, according to Kenneth Belanger, associate dean of the faculty. They were mostly attended by alums of the institution. Colgate now sees them as one element in the institution's landscape of course modes.

“I think our focus is really on what a liberal arts college does best -- maintaining close contact with students” whether through MOOCs or other mixed-mode options, Belanger said.

At Wellesley, lessons learned from experimenting with MOOCs led the institution to secure a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for blended learning, which proved to be “tremendously successful” on campus, Ravishankar said.

The institution’s original four MOOCs were 13 weeks long, but the institution has shifted to “more modular courses” of three or four weeks and found that those are better suited to an audience looking for a quick boost in skills and knowledge.

Hamilton College also developed four MOOCs as part of a pilot experiment, but eventually opted not to pursue the medium further, according to Joe Shelley, vice president for libraries and information technology. The pilot was "totally successful" but didn't point to a need for more MOOC investment, Forrest said. The technical expertise its officials gathered from that experiment has served them well in more modern digital learning efforts, Shelley said.

“We don’t have a lot of faculty here who are doing a lot of online learning, but you see it in tiny chunks,” said Lisa Forrest, director of research and instructional design. “We’re able to take those best practices from the MOOC and bring them back.”

Takeaways for the Future

Clemmons believes the key to a successful collaboration among institutions is letting faculty members lead. She believes a top-down approach can alienate instructors who feel threatened by initiatives that portend major changes to their teaching style. While she doesn’t rule out participating in another similar consortium, she sees less potential for a model that prioritizes people in her position.

Institutions might have an easier time weathering administrative change like the turnover during this consortium if they place more emphasis on the faculty’s role, Ravishankar said.

Regardless of the vision, Belanger said he’d be more open to consortia where all participants are clearly on the same page.

In some cases, a formally organized consortium isn’t mandatory for collaboration. Educational technologists among these four institutions continue to share tips and best practices, and faculty from like disciplines exchange ideas as well.

“We probably partner with those institutions even more now” than during the consortium, Forrest said.

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