For Small, Private Liberal Arts Colleges, What’s the Drive to Go Online?

Digital Learning

For Small, Private Liberal Arts Colleges, What’s the Drive to Go Online?

By Sydney Johnson     Apr 24, 2018

For Small, Private Liberal Arts Colleges, What’s the Drive to Go Online?

When financials are steady and a college doesn’t have a desire to expand its reach beyond a physical campus, is online learning necessary—or even relevant?

That was a question posed last week by Janet Russell, director of academic technology for Carleton College, at a session at the Online Learning Consortium’s Innovate conference.

“We are investigating online learning, but it still makes us a little bit nervous,” Russell said to a group of about 30 academic-innovation officials. Many who were in the room work at small liberal arts colleges that are grappling with similar questions around whether or not to pursue online learning—and, if so, how to get campus buy-in.

Located in Minnesota, Carleton College serves about 2,000 students, the majority of which are white and hail from the Midwest and New England. “We are trying to do what many institutions are trying to do, get a more-diverse student population,” said Russell. Digital learning is one way Russell is interested in serving a more inclusive group of students.

So far, the school has only offered one online course, a summer bridge program called CUBE (Carleton Undergraduate Bridge Experience) focusing on quantitative skills. CUBE was met with positive feedback, Russell said, and received permission to run again this past summer in 2017. But the course is “a significant departure from college policies and practices, including having no summer courses and no online courses,” she said.

Now the college is deciding what happens next to CUBE. But despite some success with the online learning experiment, faculty and administration at Carleton are resistant to expand the online presence of the small, private liberal arts school.

Part of that pushback has been due to a perceived lack of necessity. At Thursday’s session, Russell shred that Carleton College is relatively “healthy in terms of its finances,” compared with many academic institutions struggling with decreased funding. As Russell put it: “We would be retired or dead before we felt the pressure that other schools are feeling.” Starting an online program in order to drive revenue just doesn’t resonate.

Another popular narrative from digital learning advocates—that offering online courses can allow an institution to reach and educate more students than before—hasn’t been a very successful argument, either, Russell said. Many faculty at her institution believe strongly in the intimate nature of a small liberal arts college, and tout its ability to offer a uniquely “high-touch” and in-person learning experience. “We are so nervous about using the word ‘online learning,’” she said. “Could this tarnish our brand?”

Russell struggles with these issues. Not because she disagrees, but because she understands well where wary faculty and staff are coming from—and she shares some of their concerns. At the same time, she worries that the campus may hold students back by not allowing them avenues to explore online learning in an increasingly digital world. “There are things our students and faculty could be missing out on by not dipping their toes into this world,” Russell said.

Ask Me Anything

The session on Thursday turned into somewhat of an advice group for the academic officials present, who were seated in a circle and offered Russell insight about their own anxieties and approaches to digital learning.

Eric Hagan, director of distance education and instructional technology at DeSales University, in Pennsylvania, shared how his university previously balked at the notion of online learning. “The original mindset was ‘parents don’t send their kids to live in the dorms and work on their computers.”

Faculty at DeSales began to change their opinions, however, after noticing an increase in the number of fully-online and blended graduate programs, Hagan said. And they wanted to give students an opportunity to experience an online course in preparation for that.

Today, undergraduate students at DeSales have the opportunity to take two online courses. There have been challenges getting those courses set up, “but we thought we were doing students a disservice by not giving them opportunities online,” Hagan said.

Others in the group said that their campus warmed up to offering online courses after realizing that students were turning to other institutions for distance courses anyway.

“We were losing our summer school to larger universities” like Southern New Hampshire University, said Kim Round, director of instructional technology at Saint Anselm College, in New Hampshire. Some faculty at the college were interested in teaching online over the summer to make extra money, so Saint Anselm piloted a digital summer course, and it caught on quickly. This year will mark the fourth year of Saint Anselm’s online summer courses, Round said, and now the college is working on an online winter session as well.

Others shared similar stories. One college official said it was “astonishing” to find out how many transfer credits the school accepted from online programs—and yet none were offered at their own college. Rather than revenue loss, the main worry at her college was whether or not students were receiving an education on par with what they could receive on campus.

“We don’t have control of the quality, and we don't’ know the syllabus [for external online courses],” she said. “If we want quality, why don’t we make online courses ourselves.”

Since adding the online courses, the official claimed that the school’s registrar has noticed less online transfer credits from outside institutions.

Russell was also familiar with the narrative. At a previous institution where she worked, she said, administration began offering online courses after becoming aware that students were taking online courses in the summer through other campuses for cheaper and more flexible options. It was part quality control and part revenue driver that ultimately swayed campus officials to try a program of their own.

Carolyn Speer, at Wichita State University, suggested gauging faculty to see if there is an interest in doing research about online learning, and grounding programs in that. “There is tension around the real and online world, and we are at a point of transition and that is an interesting place for research,” she said. “We aren’t getting less online as a culture, so that’s a potential area for research.”

The idea might work. “Our faculty stay active as researchers and publishing and students are immersed in research off the bat,” Russell said. “I think research is an interesting possibility.”

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