Some Thoughts on Online Learning and the Humanities.

Over the last few days, I’ve been involved with the final workshop in a consortium in which I’ve been a participant. My university, along with twenty other small, private, liberal-arts schools, was part of the first cohort of the Council of Independent College’s Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction. This weekend, our two-year grant-funded experiment came to a close. A new cohort of schools starts their two-year program tomorrow, and I’m honored to be serving as a mentor for that group. The questions this project sought to answer reflected, I think, the somewhat ambiguous nature of the enterprise: can small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) use blended and online learning in a better and more mission-appropriate way than larger institutions and (especially) MOOCs have done? And is it a worthwhile and sustainable thing for us to do in these tenuous and resource-starved times?

The grant proposal listed the goals like this:

1) to explore how online humanities instruction can improve student learning outcomes;

2) to determine how smaller, independent liberal arts institutions can make more effective use of their instructional resources and whether they can reduce costs through online humanities instruction and institutional collaboration;

and 3) 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.

So did it work? What were the answers? We wrestled with these questions both this weekend and in the workshops we held on the regional and national level over the last 24 months. In doing so, we were aided by the data all of us collected over a period that saw us offer our courses (two per institution) twice-once to our own students and this past Spring, to any students in the Consortium’s membership who wished to cross-enroll, in addition to our own folks. Collected, curated, and analyzed by staff from the Consortium’s partners at Ithaka S&R, the data did some significant work toward answering those questions.


Here are my initial conclusions, gathered in the immediate aftermath of our final workshop and embracing the two years of work that led to this point. Some of them undoubtedly need to cook a little longer, but I want to get them down before the immediacy of this weekend’s session dissipates.

To begin, I’ve concluded that as trenchant and relevant as the above three questions are, and as much as they shaped the consortium’s initial work, we really ought to be asking different questions. Take the first goal, for example: can online courses improve student learning? Well, yes. And no. And maybe. That’s what we found out. The aggregated data show a rough equivalency with student performance in face-to-face classes, but it’s not a straight comparison with F2F sections of these same courses, so caveats abound. But to me, this is fundamentally a teaching and learning, rather than a technology, question. Does lecture or active learning improve learning outcomes? Well, it depends. Do “flipped classrooms” or study abroad courses or seminars or project-based learning improve student learning? Well, it depends. I’ve been struck by how much we treat blended and online learning (BLOL) as if it were a consistent application of a monolithic, unchanging set of practices. It’s not. It’s like the rest of teaching in that it embraces a wide scope of methods and activities depending upon the context. Yet, discussions about BLOL seldom dive this deep. BLOL can improve student learning, if it’s done well and in an intentional, pedagogically-sound manner that involves cognitive and social presence by both students and instructor. Many of the courses in our cohort, fascinating in their conception and imaginative in their delivery, served as excellent evidence of this. Yet in our broader discussions, we don’t ask what practices, methods, engagements, assessments, and/or tools are involved. We just wonder if BLOL “works” or not. And, honestly, that’s kind of silly. Do we ask if “classroom teaching” works? Do we ask if “university-housed learning” works? Of course not; we ask if specific techniques, approaches, and philosophies are effective. So my first takeaway this weekend is that we need to stop asking if BLOL improves learning. Instead, we need to ask what methods, tools, and approaches that may happen to involve a blended or online delivery improve student learning. 

My second takeaway from our work and the data is that if you’re thinking about entering into BLOL solely to save money and find “efficiencies,” don’t. Done right, teaching and learning online requires an investment of resources in time, faculty development, capacity, and student support. (Of course, we all know of institutions that are doing it on the cheap, and that’s what’s poisoned the conversation about BLOL-most notoriously, the sketchy for-profits that worship at the shrine of “efficiency” and turn out crap courses that fail students and the general public.) This is not a conclusion that should surprise anybody. Faculty development and training takes resources. We aren’t always able to devote the necessary resources to these endeavors, but that doesn’t make the proposition any less true. I realize, however, that as a faculty member and faculty developer, I’m not the one making institution-wide decisions on the allocation or increasingly scarce (and often enrollment-dependent) resources. In the world of the SLAC, we do need to talk about ways to be creative and effective with our limited resources. But the way to have these conversations is, I’m convinced, in looking at how BLOL-selectively and carefully employed-can drive enrollment, student persistence, and timely degree completion. The principal reason students take online courses in general is for the flexibility they offer to many who work heavy hours off-campus, are raising a family, are involved in athletics, or whose day schedules fill up with internships or labs. Conducting needs analyses in our universities and looking at sticking points for students (where do total need and availability of classes in a particular area not align, for example?) is one way to identify ways for BLOL to play a valuable curricular role. Being able to market offerings to students who would love to take an advanced language, or Ancient History, or Indian philosophy course, but can’t fit the F2F class in their schedules is an area of potential. In pedagogy, we talk about meeting our students “where they are.” We ought to think about that for certain aspects of enrollment management as well. My conclusion here is that we need to stop talking about BLOL as an easy “efficiency” or cost-saver and start talking about it as a driver of enrollment and thus long-term revenue increases. A corollary: courses designed and delivered poorly will poison the well. Do it right, or don’t do it at all.

Even more importantly, I think, BLOL can offer a way out of the “four-person-class” dilemma. How many of us at SLACs are in small departments where our really cool, but somewhat narrowly-defined and specialized, upper-level classes often are in danger of not making the minimum enrollment to actually go? What if we were part of a larger consortium that could supplement that enrollment and save our courses? An example: my History department doesn’t have an Asian historian. But another consortium member’s department does. Yet his class in Han China never “makes,” and is in danger of falling out of his department’s rotation. What if a couple of my majors, and some others from other consortium members who are also in Asianist-less departments, took that class from him online? Han China survives as a course offering, and my students get an important and interesting course that my department literally cannot offer them. It’s one those all-too-rare situations where everyone really does win. But this only works if consortium offerings complement rather than replace the offerings of a single institution. That’s what was so great about this CIC Consortium; the participating faculty deployed their expertise in ways that were largely unique to their own courses. A quick perusal of the course catalog shows a range of courses that are certainly not common departmental offerings. Advanced Humanities courses are like that, though. They occupy a niche-an important niche, but a niche nonetheless in the eyes of Those Who Budget. But the niche can be a welcoming place for those who don’t have that niche in their own schools. And everyone’s niche gets a little bigger, and thus more sustainable. The takeaway here, one for which the CIC Consortium is a powerful model, is that we need to find ways where BLOL is a complement, not a replacement, for an institution’s existing programs and curricula. The power of collaboration among like-minded institutions can be great, but only if the roles each one plays are distinct and not in competition with one another.

Discussions about our collective encounters with resistance from faculty at our institutions who saw the Consortium as a threat have poignantly illustrated how skewed the BLOL conversation has become. We live in a time where neoliberal dogma is eviscerating higher education, and the Humanities are Exhibit A of how devastating this regime has been. Higher ed in general, and the Humanities in particular, are under attack. We’re constantly being told that we aren’t doing enough for our students, that our institutions are a failing model, that we’ll be disrupted and unbundled out of existence. This is not an auspicious climate to talk about online education, because at its worst, online (pseudo-) education has driven a lot of that discourse and enabled its proponents. But we need to reclaim the turf, as is the case with so many areas of our common educational endeavors. In doing so, we have to explicitly convey that offering (for example) options from a consortium to supplement our own majors and programs is a far different proposition than replacing our courses with fully online curricula imposed by our robot overlords. There’s a lot of middle between those two poles, and it’s damn well time that SLACs and their academic communities occupy that ground.

The final takeaway for now: I am convinced more than ever that there is a place for blended and online learning. That’s not to say that we (speaking about higher ed in general) have always put BLOL in the right place, but what “the right place” looks like must be seen as contingent upon its being authentic to particular institutional cultures. The college-student population is larger and more diverse than it’s ever been. The days of “college” meaning 18-22 year olds, all in one classroom at one time, moving through fairly regimented curricula, are long gone (and were somewhat of a myth to begin with). Our student demographic varies widely by race, citizenship, age, experience, language, cultural capital, level of privilege, and socioeconomic position. We’re quick to embrace a “diverse student body” in theory. We find it much harder to do in practice. We’re all about “access” to higher education in the abstract, but bitch about those “underprepared” students who “shouldn’t be here” in our classes. Well, it’s time to put our money where our mouth is, I think. Blended and online learning is one way (not the only way, but an important way that holds significant potential) to meet our students “where they are.” If we mean what we say about access, about embracing a diversity of students, and higher education as a democratizing and emancipatory proposition, then we need to be talking about doing blended and online learning, doing it right, and doing it for the right reasons.

What the future of BLOL looks like is anyone’s guess. But my suspicion is that it (and blended learning in particular) is going to play an important role in small-college sustainability. In order for SLACs to harness its potential, yet keep it in its place as one forum among several for teaching and learning, we need to be asking the right questions about it, and we need to be mindful of the ways in which we discuss and debate it. The terrain here is still fraught in many ways, and the conversations have not been, nor will they be, easy. But they have to occur. If we don’t talk about blended and online learning for ourselves, others will talk for us.

It’s time to get to work.


3 Replies to “Some Thoughts on Online Learning and the Humanities.”

  1. I have been taking college-level courses on an intermittent basis since I graduated high school in 1992. I have taken online courses ranging from “code this and turn it in” C++ programming in the late 1990’s, to Englis Composition makeup courses in 2012 & 2013 through College of Lake County and finally a wholly-online Liberal Studies program through the University of Illinois Springfield. Briefly, I finished 14 courses over 4 semesters of work to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree in a program of my own design. These courses ranged from a seminar designed to help me lay out a course of study and articulate it’s value through philosophy courses to a survey of the basics of nutrition. No hard sciences were involved and no college-level math. This was a designed, dedicated liberal arts course of study.

    So, a few thoughts. First, not all courses are equal. This almost goes without saying, but the material to be delivered can vary widely and should be a strong consideration in any BLOL environment. The content may require delivery along multiple means. Second, not all instructors are equal. Different pedagogical techniques, different familiarities with the technology at hand, different levels of engagement. Third, not all students are equal. BLOL is still at point where students self-select into these courses for many reasons (as touched on in the original post), but some of those reasons also imply that students may need to work harder to get individual support in given topics or classes. Some struggles become more obvious, some less. (It was clearly obvious when a student was having trouble contributing in a discussion forum; less obvious that my time-management suffered greatly at points).

    Again, these are probably each fairly obvious, but I felt like the BLOL opportunities I had to finish my degree were often uneven and occasionally subpar. There are more points of failure in a BLOL setting, or at the very least, the ones that exist are less understood. I have had courses where I had to suffer through videos of in-course lectures; courses with poorly-organized content; courses with little to no instructor participation or feedback during discussion; courses where the instructor was clearly uncomfortable with the system in use. Not having experience with any online course software from the instructor side, I have no idea whether it is more or less frustrating than that from the student side (I suspect the answer is more). But my experiences with BLOL lead me to believe that institutions are repeatedly failing to give instructors the vitally necessary support to make BLOL as successful as it could be. Simply, if a number of people make the same/similar mistake, it’s probably not a person problem, it’s an institutional or systemic problem.

    Every successive mediation introduces errors in transmission of ideas. BLOL is no different, there are a significant number of new stumbling blocks that we are only just now beginning to see, and grapple with. This sort of work is important, necessary and probably overdue.

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