When Will Liberal Arts Colleges Take Advantage of the Open Learning Initiative?

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(…snip…) In a recent study by Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group, about half of liberal arts professors said blended learning was inferior to the purely face-to-face kind; only 11 percent said it was superior. At the same time, more than a third said blended education was of equivalent quality to face-to-face. So, technically, the majority of liberal arts professors thought the blended version was as good as or better than the kind they have been delivering for centuries.

The good news is that 11% of liberal arts profs appreciate that advances like OLI can dramatically enhance learning. The not-so-good news is the 89% who think the status quo is OK. However, the better news is that the focus on learning is sharpening. Example: the encouraging news that Stanford has joined with CMU to advance both OLI content and technology.

So far I’m not having much success identifying the US liberal arts colleges that are making good use of the OLI work or similar learning technologies. Though the article is two years out of date, this Inside Higher Ed survey looks at what a couple of high visibility colleges are doing.

Online learning is no longer foreign to traditional universities, where courses formerly held in large lecture halls are migrating to the Web. But at residential liberal arts colleges, whose appeal often lies in the promise of small classes and regular face time with professors, online education has had a harder time gaining a foothold.

That could soon change. Several top-rated liberal arts colleges have begun experimenting with online course modules. Professors at those colleges hope the technology, which tutors students in certain concepts via artificially intelligent tutoring software in lieu of static textbooks or human lecturers, will help level the playing field for academically underprepared students while giving instructors more flexibility in planning their syllabuses.

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“It is not our model — we’re more into human interaction,” says Cassidy, the Bryn Mawr provost. “But the data were persuasive.”

The “data” include multiple studies by researchers at Carnegie Mellon suggesting that when students are taught an introductory statistics using OLI course, in concert with human instruction, they learn the material as well or better than in a normal lecture course — but in half the time. More recently, researchers at the nonprofit Ithaka S+R found that a socioeconomically diverse sample of students at six public universities performed as well via a “blended” model of statistics education that replaced some seat time with independent work on the OLI platform.

The goal at Bryn Mawr is not to shorten the semester, as might be the case at a community college looking to speed the rotation of the academic calendar for revenue purposes, or to satisfy a completion-agenda push to increase graduation rates. And the college has no plans to build a large online operation on top of its bricks-and-mortar campus. “Fundamentally, we’re secure with our model” of small-scale residential education, says Cassidy.

But Bryn Mawr’s foray into using online course modules hints at the online learning tools that might have a place in the liberal arts. Joey King, the president of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, had not heard of any cases where liberal arts professors were integrating OLI modules or similar technology into their syllabuses. But he said that Bryn Mawr’s leadership and pledge to support similar projects at peer colleges might catalyze the spread of new, “blended” approaches in that sector.

“In this community it’s kind of the norm that somebody will take the lead and just do it,” says King, “and, once it’s easy, people find it more compelling as far as picking it up at other institutions.”

Faculty at liberal arts colleges might be more amenable to accepting help from robo-tutors than instructors at other types of institutions, King added. Such technology often spurs anxieties among instructors that the institution is gradually supplanting them with teaching machines. But the liberal arts colleges’ value proposition still hinges on the presence of human professors. According to Spohrer, 100 percent of Bryn Mawr faculty members who used the technology said they plan to use it again.

Please let me know if you have references/studies of liberal arts colleges that have made significant progress modernizing their learning processes.