Online learning is no longer foreign to traditional universities, where courses formerly held in large lecture halls are migrating to the Web. But at residential liberal arts colleges, whose appeal often lies in the promise of small classes and regular face time with professors, online education has had a harder time gaining a foothold.
That could soon change. Several top-rated liberal arts colleges have begun experimenting with online course modules. Professors at those colleges hope the technology, which tutors students in certain concepts via artificially intelligent tutoring software in lieu of static textbooks or human lecturers, will help level the playing field for academically underprepared students while giving instructors more flexibility in planning their syllabuses.
Professors at Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University, two colleges that stake their value on intimate classroom experiences, have begun experimenting with online courses developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative  (OLI), a project that is more frequently discussed in conversations about the power of artificially intelligent learning platforms to take over certain teaching functions from human instructors. The OLI modules are designed to guide students through the equivalent of textbook material while quizzing them frequently along the way. By constantly gauging comprehension, the software gets a detailed read on the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and generates new tips and exercises aimed at closing gaps in their understanding.
Many of the OLI’s current projects involve working to successfully usher more students through community college in less time. But the successful deployment of the online modules at Bryn Mawr suggests that the technology may be good for more than simply getting students to the finish line as efficiently as possible. Deployed with nuance, the champions of these initiatives believe, a “blended” model of online and classroom learning could reinforce liberal arts colleges' hands-on teaching ethos rather than subvert it.
Lisa Dierker, a professor of psychology at Wesleyan, has been experimenting with the OLI course modules to help her teach statistical concepts relevant to one of her courses. Dierker says she hopes the technology might help her teach bedrock concepts more efficiently, leaving more time at the end of the semester for the students to apply those concepts to actual research projects. Having the freedom to add something like that to the syllabus would help Wesleyan distinguish its introductory psychology curriculum from others at less-expensive institutions, Dierker says.
“At a place like Wesleyan, where it’s competitive to get access to the school, we really want to do something special when they get here,” says Dierker. “The way we’re using it is very appropriate for that kind of environment.”
The online learning modules could also help students from less advantaged backgrounds succeed alongside their classmates from more privileged secondary schools, says Candace Thille, the director of OLI.
Liberal arts colleges, especially top-tier ones such as Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, face the perennial challenge of trying to admit promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds without setting them up for failure. The OLI modules, which are designed with underprepared students in mind, could make sure those students get the personal attention they might need to keep up in certain subjects, says Thille. Theoretically, this “would allow [those colleges] to admit a greater diversity of students in terms of background knowledge and academic preparation, future goals and current relevant skills,” she says.
Kimberly Cassidy, the provost at Bryn Mawr, and her staff have made this a focus of that college’s “blended learning” pilots. “[W]e are particularly concerned about the impact the interventions might have on the success of low-income and first-generation college students,” wrote Jennifer Spohrer, an instructional technologist in the provost’s office, in a report she prepared for Inside Higher Ed.
Bryn Mawr’s deployment of “blended learning” technologies such as OLI modules is somewhat scattershot and not intended to produce robust data for comparison to face-to-face outcomes. (Cassidy says she did not want to deter experimentation among professors by circumscribing the conditions under which the technology could be deployed for the purposes of experimental rigor.)
But in a preliminary analysis from the first two semesters in which Bryn Mawr professors used “blended learning” strategies, comparing the success of students who were eligible for Pell Grants with that of students who were not, Spohrer found that in most cases the Pell-eligible (read: lower-income) students earned passing grades at the same rates as everyone else -- and, with one exception (Chemistry 103), the persistence rates among those students were close to 100 percent.
As for all students, Spohrer compared their performance in the “blended” courses with the historical averages for the traditional versions of those courses. “In all but one instance, students performed better in the blended variant than the historical mean” -- in some cases, “significantly better,” she wrote in her report.
Machines and Professors
The Carnegie Mellon team is not actively trying to seed liberal arts colleges with its online course modules. On the contrary, Bryn Mawr came to them -- with a $250,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a pledge to help other curious liberal arts colleges implement the OLI courses.
After originally planning to experiment with the modules in four courses, the prestigious women’s college ended up using the tutoring software in 10 courses in the biology, chemistry, economics, French and mathematics departments. The college has since brought other “smart” tutoring software from commercial providers such as Cengage Learning into the fold and expanded into several other departments.
“It is not our model -- we’re more into human interaction,” says Cassidy, the Bryn Mawr provost. “But the data were persuasive.”
The “data” include multiple studies by researchers at Carnegie Mellon suggesting that when students are taught an introductory statistics using OLI course, in concert with human instruction, they learn the material as well or better than in a normal lecture course -- but in half the time. More recently, researchers at the nonprofit Ithaka S+R found  that a socioeconomically diverse sample of students at six public universities performed as well via a “blended” model of statistics education that replaced some seat time with independent work on the OLI platform.
The goal at Bryn Mawr is not to shorten the semester, as might be the case at a community college looking to speed the rotation of the academic calendar for revenue purposes, or to satisfy a completion-agenda push to increase graduation rates. And the college has no plans to build a large online operation on top of its bricks-and-mortar campus. “Fundamentally, we’re secure with our model” of small-scale residential education, says Cassidy.
But Bryn Mawr’s foray into using online course modules hints at the online learning tools that might have a place in the liberal arts. Joey King, the president of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, had not heard of any cases where liberal arts professors were integrating OLI modules or similar technology into their syllabuses. But he said that Bryn Mawr’s leadership and pledge to support similar projects at peer colleges might catalyze the spread of new, “blended” approaches in that sector.
“In this community it’s kind of the norm that somebody will take the lead and just do it,” says King, “and, once it’s easy, people find it more compelling as far as picking it up at other institutions.”
Faculty at liberal arts colleges might be more amenable to accepting help from robo-tutors than instructors at other types of institutions, King added. Such technology often spurs anxieties among instructors that the institution is gradually supplanting them with teaching machines. But the liberal arts colleges’ value proposition still hinges on the presence of human professors. According to Spohrer, 100 percent of Bryn Mawr faculty members who used the technology said they plan to use it again.
Other liberal arts professors might need some convincing. In a recent study  by Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group, about half of liberal arts professors said blended learning was inferior to the purely face-to-face kind; only 11 percent said it was superior.
At the same time, more than a third said blended education was of equivalent quality to face-to-face. So, technically, the majority of liberal arts professors thought the blended version was as good as or better than the kind they have been delivering for centuries.
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