Ithaka S+R has been working with the Council of Independent Colleges for nearly two years in creating a consortium for online learning in the humanities. We have written extensively about the project, in a previous blog post, a report on the findings after the first year of the program, and a case study in which we featured a few faculty from the project and their experiences with the program.

Last week, the Council of Independent Colleges held its Institute for Chief Academic Officers in Baltimore. In one of the panel sessions, I joined three of the provosts who have been involved in the project (from Hiram College, Saint Vincent College, and Saint Michael’s College) to discuss the project, the individual institutional experiences, and the research findings from the first year of work. Since Ithaka S+R was responsible for the evaluation process, I was pleased to describe the positive findings from the first round of offering the online or hybrid courses. The indicators were positive: faculty said that their online students had achieved the same level of learning as their traditional, face-to-face students. Grades were as good in the online courses. A group of faculty peers rated the student artifacts as good, although the peer group did not rate the students as highly as their home professors rated them. I also commented on the concern that was shared by faculty and students in the online courses: engagement. Both groups missed the opportunity to engage directly with one another.

These results are well documented in the reports mentioned above. The provosts who spoke at the conference added their own helpful perspective. Each of them explained how the CIC-sponsored consortium provided an opportunity for faculty eager to experiment with online learning a reason to do so. CIC’s workshops helped them learn the skills and techniques to be successful, and, even more importantly, they formed bonds with colleagues from other institutions. A community of faculty interested in experimenting with online learning was born.

The provosts were happy to report on the successes of the participating faculty, but each of them also reported that the consortium provided the occasion to have extended conversations on campus with faculty who are skeptical about online learning, or who are opposed to it. Assessment data provided a point of entry for these conversations. And both official and casual opportunities for participating faculty to discuss their experience in the consortium with their colleagues added personal testimony to what can often be an abstract debate.  The point is not that participation in the consortium won over opponents to the cause of online learning.  Rather, it stimulated and provided a focus for serious and grounded discussion of pedagogy, cost structures, and campus technology.

The difficult conversations with skeptical faculty would have come up eventually, but the consortium has been a useful backdrop for them. All of the provosts agreed that the conversations have been one of the most useful outcomes of the project.