In the face of mounting financial challenges, some small colleges are hoping that -- together -- they can be as innovative in the online education space as the big guys.
The Council of Independent Colleges and the Teagle Foundation, which supports undergraduate education in arts and sciences, are among some of the organizations pushing for a liberal arts approach to online or hybrid education through recent initiatives that invite small colleges to work together and learn from one another.
The question they hope to address, as spelled out in Teagle’s request for proposals: “How can institutions work together to integrate forms of online education into residential liberal arts settings in productive ways that maintain or enhance the effectiveness of learning and address issues of institutional capacity?” (The organization is willing to dole out grants as large as $280,000 to small groups of collaborating institutions for answers.)
The CIC’s initiative, which will launch next year, plans to bring 20 of the organization’s members together in a Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction. Each college or university will commit to creating two upper-level humanities courses that use or reuse online educational resources, or feature technologies that enable automated grading or online collaboration. The hope is that these courses could soon be enrolling students not only at their home institution, but also from other CIC members, which could help curb costs.
For all the "dos" listed in the announcement , there is only one "don't": Pitching a massive open online course.
“When MOOCs sprang onto the scene, I kept asking myself what the CIC should do to position itself,” said Richard Ekman, president of the CIC. “For the longest time, I thought we should make a special deal with a major MOOC provider. Then I realized that I was barking up the wrong tree.”
MOOCs have so far proved to be more popular in the STEM fields than in the humanities, and with tens of thousands of students enrolled, student-faculty interaction is often limited to a post on a discussion board. Ekman said MOOCs have yet to address the needs of many of the students studying at CIC member institutions. “Rather, the problem for us is: What do you do about ... upper-division courses that are essential for majors, but at small colleges don’t attract a lot of students?” he said.
The CIC will accept applications through March, then choose the 20 participants by the end of April. After spending the summer developing the courses, the institutions will then pilot them on campus. If the courses prove effective, Ekman said, they will be opened to any student studying at a CIC member institution by the 2015-16 academic year.
The consortium is funded by an $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the courses will be evaluated by the consulting firm Ithaka S+R.
Eugene M. Tobin, the Mellon Foundation’s program officer for higher education, said in an email that the foundation’s involvement stems from its interest in curbing the rising costs of higher education, exploring the growth of online education and emphasizing best practices in teaching.
“We believe this is the moment to explore whether liberal arts colleges can effectively use online learning to enhance their core missions,” Tobin wrote. “In order to do so, we need to learn more about the kinds of developmental programs that will encourage faculty members (beyond early adopters) to embrace the potential of new digital pedagogies in their teaching and scholarship and whether the use of new approaches improve student learning outcomes without increasing costs.”
'Bigger by Not Going Big'
“Collaboration is hard,” said R. Richard Ray Jr., provost of Hope College in Holland, Mich. “Everybody wants to collaborate, everybody can see the value in collaboration, but when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty of having to do it, it often means changing what you’re doing in the present to do something different in the future.”
Yet Hope will apply both to the CIC and to Teagle, Ray said. The college has yet to come up with specific plans, but Ray said he looked forward to taking advantage of small colleges’ “natural affinities” and “shared DNA” to help one another.
As both organizations are still accepting finalized proposals (Teagle, for example, recently responded to the first round of concept papers), details about participating colleges and universities are still unclear. Some institutions said they have already recruited faculty members to create the courses, while others said they only know for certain that they will apply.
Leaders of the most enthusiastic institutions, however, said they believe collaboration may be the best strategy for small colleges to pool their resources and create a small-school approach to online education.
“It helps us go bigger by not going big,” said Jo Ellen Parker, president of Sweet Briar College. “We want to teach more than we can. We know that the strength [of small colleges] is the very personalized kind of learning -- the high level of learning, the intensity of the relationships. We know there’s that strength, but operating at that scale that we’re deeply committed to, it does sometimes limit some of the topics, some of the courses that we might be able to offer.”
Sweet Briar, a women’s college in the Virginia town of the same name, may contribute with courses on gender studies, Parker said. In return, the college may look for courses in Africana studies, the sciences or comparative literature in foreign languages not offered at Sweet Briar, she said.
Parker came to Sweet Briar from the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, or NITLE , where she served as president. As the name suggests, the organization helps liberal arts institutions include more technology in their courses.
"It's been one of my priorities at Sweet Briar to help people begin to think about how initiatives like these can help us both expand what's available to our students without expanding our own campus curriculum, and also make some of the wonderful work that our faculty are doing -- in, maybe, some specialized topics -- available to other folks," Parker said. "I think it helps address one of the inherent limitations of being a small college."
Sweet Briar may be farther into development than many other applicants. Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., is planning to develop a history course on the development of the American family, but the instructor has yet to figure out how the course will use technology, said Karen A. Talentino, the college’s vice president for academic affairs.
In explaining why her institution will likely apply to the CIC consortium, Talentino also addressed the challenges facing small, private colleges  -- including the cuts, layoffs and rising tuition costs that could threaten the future of some of those institutions.
“Small colleges have generally held back and not tried to be on the bleeding edge of technology,” Talentino said. “Things are changing so quickly I don’t think we can wait any longer.... It’s the small colleges that are most at risk of disappearing, so we really can’t sit back and wait for someone else to figure this out.”