Getting Online: Lessons from Liberal Arts Colleges
Many of the colleges and universities that are transitioning away from face-to-face courses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are residential institutions that have not historically provided widespread online instruction. Through multi-year evaluations of the Council of Independent Colleges’ (CIC) Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction and the Teagle Foundation’s Hybrid Learning and the Residential Liberal Arts Experience program, Ithaka S+R has worked with similar institutions as they have taken their first steps towards online and hybrid learning. For both projects, participating institutions worked together to develop online resources and courses that could be shared across institutions. While institutions that are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic to move online are likely focusing in the short-term on providing resources and courses for their own students, we believe the lessons learned from the CIC and Teagle projects are still relevant. Below we sketch out some of those lessons.
What challenges should institutions anticipate?
Incorporating technology into a course for the first time can be time-consuming and resource-demanding, and faculty may face a significant learning curve.
- For many faculty, this could be their first effort in developing a technology-enhanced course or resource. Past projects indicate that the time and effort required to incorporate technological modifications is likely to exceed the time and effort spent on developing a comparable face-to-face course. For instance, when asked how much time it took them to plan and develop the Teagle-funded course relative to a comparable face-to-face course, 100 percent of respondents answered about the same time or greater, including 80 percent who answered more time or much more time. In addition to technical challenges, faculty members may face a learning curve in conceptualizing how they would structure the learning process and translate content to an online format.
- However, with more online teaching experience under their belt, coupled with ongoing institutional and peer support, faculty can incrementally reduce their learning curve and develop online courses that are on par with other in-person courses in terms of rigor, quality, and student engagement. For example, faculty participants in the CIC Consortium reported that planning for their online humanities courses in the second iteration was less onerous than it was in the first iteration. Many also reported feeling more comfortable guiding their students toward understanding course content and helping them clarify their thinking in the online environment.
Students with no or limited online course experience may also face a significant learning curve when it comes to consuming academic content through online text/videos, and receiving timely feedback from faculty to guide their learning.
- Compared to in-person classes where faculty can guide students in real-time to navigate complex content and intervene to clarify any misunderstanding that may emerge, online courses by their very nature can have limitations with real-time faculty intervention. Even small misunderstandings of course content or assignment requirements, if not addressed in a timely manner, can have repercussions on student learning.
- However, there are a set of well-established best practices around online instruction that can be employed to mitigate some of these challenges and keep students engaged online, some of which we outlined below. These strategies require careful design and some nontrivial up-front planning, but when done right, can have a lasting impact on student learning. As a faculty member in the CIC Consortium noted, “Course design is critical, as is a willingness to invest considerable ‘upfront’ time at the beginning. When done properly, however, online/hybrid courses can engage students and help them develop the skills they need for life-long personal and professional success at the same rate as traditional courses.”
What strategies can faculty use to keep students engaged online?
Below are some of the instructional strategies that have worked especially well for faculty participants in the CIC Consortium:
- Learning goals are at the heart of any course design and should be made clear from the earliest stage. Use the learning goals for students as a roadmap to prepare an online class. Carefully align these goals with course activities, assignments, and assessments while being mindful of the feasibility of accomplishing them from the perspective of students, some of whom may have limited access to technology and study spaces outside of campus.
- Front-load course materials ahead of time so students can have the flexibility of working at their own pace. Present a mix of resources and a variety of assignment types and options each week to make the learning experience more flexible and interesting for students. Provide detailed instructions and rubrics for each assignment given. Also, instead of assigning one long-term project that is due at the end of the term, consider breaking it up into smaller chunks with structured guidance and feedback to support students’ learning journey throughout the semester.
- Provide a virtual orientation at the beginning to set clear course expectations for students. Use mini-lectures throughout the course to model the kinds of critical thinking, reading, and writing that are expected of students. Provide recordings of these meetings for students who cannot attend them in real-time.
- Require regular interactions in a weekly pattern – e.g., posts due on Mondays, reading quizzes due on Thursdays, replies to posts due on Friday – to help students integrate the course into their daily routines. Students appreciate well-organized courses, as one student from a carefully structured CIC course noted, “The course was organized very effectively, I liked that there were certain days for specific assignments each week because it helped me stay on top of my work, as well as manage my time to make sure I got each assignment done. I also like how I had many interactions online with my peers.”
- Give weekly updates/overview to the whole class to help them understand what the class as a group needs to focus on. As needed, give helpful hints about how to approach a particularly difficult reading or assignment.
- Give targeted and timely responses to individual students on each assignment performed – e.g. point out certain tendencies and any misunderstanding of the course material.
- If the course requires online discussion, encourage students to make more meaningful responses to others’ posts, such as raising questions rather than simple agreement and disagreement.
- Where appropriate, employ different ways to “humanize” the interaction with students to enhance their learning experience and satisfaction. For example, consider incorporating virtual meetings and office hours, providing opportunities for students to learn more about you and each other. This quote from a faculty in the CIC Consortium captures the importance of humanized interaction in promoting student learning: “Showing my real self—my frustrations as the instructor, hopes, and expectations for students—really makes the students pay attention more. My face-to-face method uses a lot of ‘informal’ types of discourse and allows for the class to go off a bit on tangents. Though that seems like it would distract from the content, it makes them internalize it more. I found that I can do that in the online sphere as well and it works in a similar way.”
What supports do faculty need when they transition their classes online?
Faculty collaboration can reduce the burden of developing instructional technology resources.
- While the coordination challenges of involving multiple faculty members have the potential to increase the burden of technology development, faculty participating in past projects found that the collaboration, in fact, reduced the overall burden on each participant. Sharing the work not only allowed faculty to divide tasks that a single faculty member would otherwise have had to handle on their own, some reported that it also allowed partners to specialize in areas in which they had the most expertise. And participating faculty members consistently reported that having the opportunity to work with colleagues within and across their institutions on course design was a valuable—and rare—experience.
Project teams consisting of instructional designers and IT staff for faculty within the same department can facilitate collaboration and provide other valuable support.
- Coordinating work across faculty can take considerable effort, especially if faculty are remote. Providing a space online where faculty can meet virtually to share ideas, best practices, and challenges has served as an effective communication tool in past projects. As a faculty member participating in the Teagle project shared, “I also benefited from hearing what others in the group did for their projects.” Beyond facilitating communication among faculty, instructional designers and IT staff can offer their expertise on a range of issues, such as what technological tools are best to use in various settings and how to ensure that all students can easily access resources and course materials.
Are there pedagogical benefits to online instruction?
Among the many potential benefits of online courses on student learning, the two that stood out in past projects included (a) imparting students with important skills (e.g. self-discipline and time management) and (b) providing opportunities for less-outgoing students to fully participate in class discussions. The following quotes from a faculty member who participated in the Teagle project and a student shed some light on these benefits:
- “It was also quite satisfying to see every single student’s voice equally represented in the online/hybrid format, as opposed to the traditional classroom discussion where not all students participate on a day-to-day basis.”
- “I think learning online with other students lets me be more open in my discussions because the fear of others’ opinions of my opinions has decreased due to not having to be in a classroom face-to-face with my classmates […] I also think I learned to motivate myself and [developed] more discipline having to do work on my own and meeting deadlines […] online classes require more work because you’re not in a traditional classroom where time is limited so you have to use different methods to make sure you’re learning what you need to learn.”
Moreover, despite intensive effort and other challenges that faculty are likely to experience, participants of past projects generally reported having a more favorable view of instructional technology than when they started. For many faculty, the effort to incorporate technology or design a course with technology forced them to reflect on course structure and their pedagogy in a way they rarely had the opportunity to do. As some faculty participants from both projects noted, technology makes one think about a course differently, in a productive way:
- “I would encourage my peers to engage in hybrid/online teaching because it not only benefits the students, but also the faculty members who participate in this additional mode of teaching and learning!”
- “Perhaps the biggest lesson is simply the mindset of the shift from the face to face classroom to the virtual classroom that everything that I want to do in this course is present to the student only in what they experience when they enter the class on their computers. The assumptions that I often employ in the traditional classroom setting cannot be assumed here. More than ever, I have to remind myself to enter the mind of the students and try to think of what they experience when they enter this virtual classroom. In that sense, another lesson is what it can also teach me about my assumptions in the traditional classroom. The online course has helped to challenge assumptions I’ve employed, assumptions that are not necessarily things I should assume. In other words, it has challenged my entire pedagogical approach to teaching—period. It has forced me to become less mechanical and more deliberately conscious of what I’m trying to accomplish.”
We invite you to contact us to share your experiences getting online, especially if this blog shaped and influenced your approach. We would love to learn more about what worked and what challenges you faced, and whether you’d be willing to be profiled in a case study on how institutions transitioned from face-to-face instruction to completely online.