Can Online Courses Make Humanities Courses More Accessible in Small, Independent Colleges?
The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), with funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, established a Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction in 2014. Twenty-one colleges that constituted the consortium agreed to develop online or hybrid courses that could be shared by all participants in the consortium and had three major goals for this project:
- To provide an opportunity for CIC member institutions to build their capacity for online humanities instruction and share their successes with other liberal arts colleges.
- To explore how online humanities instruction can improve student learning outcomes.
- To determine whether smaller, independent liberal arts institutions can make more effective use of their instructional resources and reduce costs through online humanities instruction.
Ithaka S+R was retained by CIC to assess the results of the project. At the end of the first year, Rebecca Griffiths, Jessie Brown, and Christine Mulhern produced an evaluation report that shows significant progress toward all three goals.
In the spring semester, Consortium members offered 41 online and hybrid courses, 16 of which were entirely new courses. Nearly three-quarters of the instructors for these courses had little, if any, previous experience with online teaching. So, it is clear that the goal of capacity building was successfully advanced in the first year of the initiative.
In terms of learning outcomes for students, the results are somewhat mixed. Instructors gave their students high scores on the learning objectives they had identified, with an average of 3.17 on a four-point scale, but peer assessors rated the student artifacts that were submitted with an average score of 2.61. Student engagement was high for these courses, but several students commented that they missed face-to-face interaction with fellow students. Faculty expressed some disappointment that the quality of student postings on course discussion boards did not meet their expectations. Students were almost evenly split in their views on how the online/hybrid courses compare to traditional courses: one-third rated them better, one-third rated them worse, and one-third rated them about the same.
In terms of the third goal, increasing efficiency, it appears that any eventual economic benefits will come later when participating institutions begin to share courses. In the first year of the program, there were additional start-up costs incurred by faculty planning time and bolstering the technology infrastructure to support online teaching. The prospect for greater efficiency will come from increasing enrollment in upper division humanities courses. At the moment, 65% of the consortium courses had enrollments of fewer than ten students.
Ithaka S+R gathered five types of data to prepare this report: instructor surveys, instructor time sheets, student surveys, instructor scores on learning outcomes, and peer assessment scores. The report contains detailed analyses of all of these dimensions of the project. For details, please take a look at the full report.
The ultimate success of this project will depend upon the extent to which participating colleges make use of the courses developed by others. Ithaka S+R will follow this initiative for the next two years and will provide updated analyses along the way.