​Can Online Teaching Work at Liberal-Arts Colleges? Study Explores the...

Digital Learning

​Can Online Teaching Work at Liberal-Arts Colleges? Study Explores the Pros and Cons

By Tina Nazerian     Oct 4, 2017

​Can Online Teaching Work at Liberal-Arts Colleges? Study Explores the Pros and Cons

When Jack Musselman taught his first-ever online course this past spring, he missed seeing his students’ furrowed brows.

He had the opportunity to teach legal ethics online because St. Edward’s University, where he works as an associate professor of philosophy and the director of the Center of Ethics and Leadership, was one of the 21 institutions taking part in a study to explore teaching upper-level humanities courses online. (The Council of Independent Colleges directed the Consortium in partnership with Ithaka S+R, which helped develop the program content and was the project’s evaluator). The report lists one of the study’s goals as determining if “smaller, independent liberal arts institutions can make more effective use of their instructional resources and/or reduce costs through online humanities instructions.”

The findings paint a complicated picture of whether online teaching can work for humanities courses at liberal arts colleges, and how much effort they take to produce. For some students (45 percent of the respondents), the online or hybrid courses were somewhat better or much better than in-person. But the vast majority (37 out of the 39) faculty members responding to the survey reported that online courses take “more time or much more time” to teach.

Deanna Marcum, one of the lead researchers, says the finding that she found the most “puzzling” was that the “instructors were quite worried about student engagement, but the students didn’t seem to be worried about student engagement.”

Musselman says in some ways, student engagement in his online course was “more robust” than when he teaches in person. His students had to respond to detailed prompts, for one thing, and they knew how he’d be evaluating their responses. And writing out answers later rather than answering in the spur of the moment in class gave students time to ponder their answers. “Some of that was really rich, and I think it was because they were sitting down five days later in full view in a written form to capture their thoughts,” he explains.

But Musselman says the online discussion format meant losing certain nuances that face-to-face classes have, such as being able to see a student’s “furrowed brow.” In the end, his experience changed his opinion on some aspects of online courses, but didn’t change his opinion on other aspects of online courses.

“I knew it would be hard, so that part I got,” he says. “I knew it would be different, so that part I got.” He was “kind of pleasantly surprised” to see that the students who were self-paced and responsive to “gentle reminders” got “more or less” out of the online course what they would’ve gotten from a face to face course. But he says what got reinforced was that for students who lacked that kind of self-discipline, the online course “didn’t work so well.” He was also “pleasantly surprised” to come to believe that “good teaching online isn’t much different” than good teaching in face-to-face courses. He says online “asynchronous” teaching doesn’t allow for eye contact. And during discussions in face-to-face classes, “you can track the “give-and-take” in real time, in a way that isn’t “exactly the same as you’d adopt” on an online asynchronous class discussion board. But he says apart from that, “good teaching is good teaching.”

Musselman said that he was one of the faculty who felt it took more time to teach an online course. He had to convert a course he’d taught for several years into an online version. He had to “scaffold” the assignments differently, and had to record “30 separate lectures” with the idea that people would be playing, pausing and replaying them as they wished.

“The kind of planning required for that, versus planning a lecture, walking it and giving it—at least for a class that you’re converting—that was substantial,” he says.

But he points out that his university gave him access to two instructional designers, the CIC gave him two mentors from a previous cohort to work with and he attended a two week fellowship workshop St. Edward’s held in May 2017 that focused on adopting IT tools. The CIC gave him stipends in fall 2016 and spring 2017, and he says he’ll get stipends in fall 2017 and spring 2018. He says there’s a concern about instructors teaching online courses without assistance or pay.

“And so you’re like, well, if I have to record, which I did, 30 twenty minute lectures over Christmas break, someone’s paying me to do it.”

He stresses, however, that a colleague of his who created an entirely new class might have different thoughts on the time factor—perhaps building a new face-to-face class and a new online class from “the ground up” are on par with each other.

Marcum says the finding about online courses taking more time is “very understandable.”

“Because online learning in these institutions is still relatively new, I think many of them are having to find new ways of providing instruction, and online is a different kind of delivery mode for them, and many of them are having to learn new technology platforms, they’re having to learn things about instructional design that maybe they haven’t had to worry about in the past,” she says.

This spring, Musselman plans to teach another online course. But instead of only being open to students at St. Edward’s, this time, students from the other schools in the consortium can sign up to take it. He thinks it’ll take him less time to develop this next version because he learned a lot undertaking that first course. And of course, he won’t have to re-record all of those lectures.

Does he see himself continuing to teach online after that? A “modified yes,” he says. He thinks that the study was “supposed to be like a boutique program,” not a substitute for the “main, core educational model which is central to our mission as a liberal arts college.” A “boutique program” could fill a gap for some undergraduates, such as those those studying abroad or those on the road for athletics, he says. He also thinks that online courses can work for graduate students who may not want to commute in. But he points out that faculty are in charge of the curriculum at American colleges. He thinks professors, along with the administration, will need to discuss whether and how online courses (as with face-to-face courses) will count in the first place as courses in the students’ majors.

Marcum thinks many small liberal-arts colleges hope that online courses will give them a new source of revenue, though it remains to be seen “whether or not that’s going to prove to be realistic.” Most of them are looking to expand their student populations without having to hire more professors or otherwise increase operating costs.

“I just give these liberal-arts colleges such credit for trying this,” Marcum says. “There's nothing in their DNA that would lead them to experimenting with online, upper level humanities courses.”

Musselman still sees face-to-face instruction for the humanities as the ideal. But that’s not an option for everyone, such as for rural students, and he wants the humanities to be available to all.

Teaching the humanities online can work, he says, but it requires experience, preparation, thoughtful discussions and some technical details.

Of course, an in-person humanities course requires all of that too. “It just doesn’t work because you’re sitting there,” he says. “It works because you planned it, and they read, and you intrigued them and you made it relevant to their lives.”

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