In today’s economic climate, where there is an increasing demand from students and families for academic programs that are likely to lead to well-paying jobs, the pressure to innovate is high for many higher education institutions. This pressure is especially high for small independent colleges when part of the innovation discussion involves the restructuring of existing course offerings to increase enrollment and reduce instructional costs – which may run counter to their longstanding mission of offering small classes and providing individual attention to their students. In an attempt to address this challenge, a group of humanities faculty members, administrators, and registrars from small liberal arts colleges are joining forces to innovate together – ​with a renewed focus on enhancing student learning experience and outcomes using technology.

Since 2014, the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) has organized its Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction with a focus on developing and offering online courses in upper-level humanities subjects, first to students at their own institutions and then to students at other institutions in the Consortium. Ithaka S+R supported and evaluated the activities of the Consortium Cohort I from 2014 to 2015. (You can read our evaluation reports and a case study of Cohort I here.) We have played a similar role for Cohort II, which just completed its first academic year.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-day workshop in Washington, D.C., for members of Cohort II of the Consortium. The workshop was designed to bring all participants from the twenty-one participating colleges together to review the progress from the initial round of the courses, particularly with respect to improving student learning and achieving efficiencies in the use of instructional resources. Building on the lessons learned from the first year’s experience, the courses will be revised and opened for enrollment by students from all Consortium institutions in the 2017-18 academic year.

For individual faculty members, the workshop afforded opportunities to outline plans for course revisions based on the evaluation results, share reflections on the successes and challenges of the first iteration of courses, and network with other faculty members and mentors from Cohort I to support their individual and collective endeavors. For administrators, it was a great opportunity to gain further insight into what is needed to support faculty members and advance online humanities instruction at the institutional and cross-institutional levels, while registrars had a chance to address important questions regarding enrolling and tracking students from other Consortium institutions for the upcoming school year.

Some of the key takeaways that emerged from the workshop presentations and discussions include:

  • ​Many of the workshop participants agreed that comparing online versus face-to-face courses with just the standard learning outcome metrics, such as final course grades, is not very productive. Online courses offer different ways of engaging with the course and require a different set of preparation and tools for both students and instructors.
  • Many instructors realize that a large number of today’s students are not “traditional,” that is, outside the typical range of 18- to 22-year-old college students. Many students live off campus, work full-time, have extensive family commitments, and seek alternative credential programs. Consequently, the instructors and administrators recognize that the level of convenience and flexibility that online courses offer to students is an important factor to consider.
  • Many instructors believe that part of their responsibility as educators is to prepare students for the digital world. Some expressed that not providing students with opportunities to engage in online learning would put them at a disadvantage – especially students who already lag behind in such experience.
  • The Consortium experience allowed instructors to rethink their pedagogical approaches by becoming more intentional and deliberate about what they want to accomplish in their courses. Many expressed that teaching online helped challenge fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning that they often employ in their traditional classes.
  • The Consortium experience allowed instructors to think more holistically about assessing student learning. In addition to coming up with creative ways for students to engage with the course contents (e.g., gamifying the entire course) and demonstrate what they have learned (e.g., providing multiple options for completing assignments), the instructors are rethinking what constitutes “student engagement,” recognizing that there are various ways through which students can engage with one another in digital spaces.

Throughout the discussions in the workshop, the participants agreed that there is a need for rethinking the current humanities curricula and course offerings to better meet the needs of the students in a world that is constantly in flux. For some participants, this also meant dealing directly with resistance from their colleagues, who are skeptical about the idea of using technology to enhance quality of learning and increase efficiencies in ways that do not adversely affect faculty positions.

As Consortium Cohort II prepares for the second iteration of online courses that will be open for enrollment by students in all participating institutions, the biggest challenge they anticipate is tackling the goal of efficiency—which relates directly back to quality in terms of student learning and faculty support. Some questions that the Consortium institutions will continue to grapple with are: How can they work collaboratively to identify expertise gaps in each institution and share faculty talent effectively in order to ensure that students will truly benefit from the rich array of advanced humanities courses offered by all Consortium institutions? How can they provide adequate level of support for faculty to develop their capacity to teach in new digital environments in ways that are empowering and enriching? And how can they continue to work together to develop effective strategies for tackling some of their most pressing problems in the changing economy?