Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a recent Babson survey that found that “The most-drastic recent shift in the perceived importance of online education was at small colleges (i.e., those with fewer than 1,500 students). In 2012, 60 percent of academic leaders at small colleges said online education was strategically crucial. Now that number is 70 percent—nearly the same as at universities with more than 15,000 students.”

What accounts for this shift? Practical considerations are surely a factor; we know of many small colleges that have launched online courses for summer or winter sessions in order to avoid losing student credits to other providers. There is likely a concern about staying technologically relevant. But it could also be a sign of growing confidence that online learning can be implemented in ways that are consistent with the student-centric values and missions of these institutions.

Ithaka S+R is serving as advisor to the Council for Independent College’s Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction, with funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. A year ago, CIC invited proposals to participate in a consortium, the aim of which is to create and share online courses in upper level humanities courses. CIC members responded with enthusiasm, submitting nearly 100 proposals for 20 spots in the consortium. Many submissions stated that this initiative dovetailed perfectly with the strategic directions at their institutions. In working with the consortium, we have been struck by the range of creative, innovative concepts for using technology to serve pedagogical objectives, such as incorporating digital humanities collections into student research and using advanced tools to stimulate student engagement and build a sense of engagement. These courses bear no relation to the old notion of online learning as a course website with powerpoint slides and reading assignments! It will be interesting to see how students rate these experiences in the survey we will conduct at the end of the semester.

To learn more about the project, please see my recent interview with CIC President Rich Ekman exploring his perspective on the motivation and goals for this project – and what he has found most surprising thus far.