Education Trends

The Secret to Digital Innovation in the Liberal Arts

Small liberal arts colleges looking to innovate with technology in education are finding strength in numbers.

Liberal arts colleges are at something of a disadvantage in the pursuit of digital technology innovation because they don't have the size or resources of large research universities. But some are finding strength in numbers as they collaborate on projects involving MOOCs and other online learning strategies.

During a Dec. 8 Future Trends Forum video chat hosted by futurist Bryan Alexander, several liberal arts technology leaders spoke about their efforts to define their colleges' approach to digital innovation.

Kristen Eshleman, director of digital innovation at Davidson College (NC), said her campus dipped its toes in the MOOC experience by joining edX along with Wellesley College in 2013. Hamilton and Colgate joined them soon after. "Because we are resource-constrained, it made sense to team up and collaborate on resources and ideas," she explained. "There are challenges for us since we don't have Schools of Education or graduate students. We recognized that our voices don't carry same weight in edX as larger institutions. We were seeking strength in numbers to express what we wanted to get out of the platform."

But Eshleman admitted that those four schools never quite got their collaboration off the ground in the way they had hoped. Part of the problem was that all four institutions started contracts with edX at different times — and some had access to their data, while others did not. Collaborative research was a challenge, because the schools were renewing contracts at different times, and each college had a different focus to its work.

As an example of a more promising liberal arts partnership, Eshleman pointed to LACOL, the Liberal Arts Consortium for Online Learning. LACOL's nine member institutions comprise Amherst, Bryn Mawr, Carleton, Haverford, Pomona, Swarthmore, Vassar, Washington and Lee and Williams. LACOL is an effort to create an experimental framework that supports project work across the nine campuses. There are interesting experiments happening on each campus, and LACOL provides opportunities to use a digital network to take those to a new level, said Elizabeth Evans, LACOL's director, who joined Eshleman on the Future Trends Forum virtual stage to describe the consortium's setup.

One example involves course creation and teaching in upper-level math. All of the member campuses offer advanced math, but being smaller schools, they can't offer every course every year. "Math faculty started having conversations about what it would take to share the courses — and, for instance, open up a course at Haverford to students at partner institutions to take it in a liberal arts way," Evans said. The schools are now entering a proof-of-concept phase to determine how to do that, including using lecture capture tools. This involves a multi-campus team of faculty and instructional designers, all organized around a central project, which has its ups and downs, she added. "There are things that are great and others that are challenging. The mode of working across institutions is becoming more common, but it is not automatic. It takes practice."

Another effort she mentioned is a working group around improving students' quantitative skills. In January, the group will hold a three-day workshop to explore a shared framework for review of modules designed to strengthen students' quantitative skills and quantitative reasoning. One goal is to identify aspects of existing QS/QR curricula, frameworks and methods to be adapted as an online module/program by participating colleges.

In another example of cross-institutional collaboration, Hari Stephen Kumar, director of instructional and curricular design services and associate director of the teaching and learning collaborative at Amherst College, described how a STEM project developed at Amherst by a faculty member and her students has now spread to other schools.

In 2015, there were protests on Amherst's campus that focused on the pain and marginalization felt by students of color, recalled Kumar. Sheila Jaswal, an associate professor of chemistry, worked with students to co-develop a project called "Being Human in STEM." The students did research on educational challenges at Amherst, exploring everything from admissions to graduation to teaching patterns, Kumar explained. They surveyed faculty and found resources on inclusive teaching practices in STEM. "It was so successful that Yale picked up on it," he said. "Its Physics Department has launched a similar course." This semester, Jaswal and her students have broken down the project into six modules that other schools can adopt. "I can see that spreading across a network in the liberal arts," Kumar said. "It is student-powered. It recognizes these challenges and pain points and channels them into research that institutions can use."

A Space for Innovation

At Davidson, Eshleman has been charged with creating a virtual R&D space to foster innovation on campus.

This followed what she described as two or three years of frustration in trying to make changes quickly. "We were stuck with slow budget cycles and shared governance. I would have to make budget requests in October and not find out about funding until April and not get the money until July. That is a third of a tech lifecycle." Mentioning this frustration in a conversation with the university president, Eshleman said, "This is why we need R&D in education." The president said, "Why don't you design that?"

She is starting to work with Davidson's Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and an entrepreneurship initiative to foster projects that are "bottom-up from students, faculty and staff who want to experiment with models of innovation."

Eshleman said one lesson Davidson has learned is that it is important for faculty to tinker in the for-credit space. She called that a "social justice line in the sand. If we didn't, and this work was done on the margins, they would tend to end up designing things for students who are already successful. We would end up with things designed for making great students even greater."

Eshleman was asked how she fosters faculty participation in digital innovation projects. She said she has learned to keep the focus off of technology initially. She asks faculty members to think about what have they wanted to do around student learning and why. "It is about that first, and technology second," she stressed, adding that she has moved away from quantitative evaluation of projects and more toward storytelling. "Our students are already doing well," she said. "It is not that compelling to put numbers in front of faculty. They spent a lot of time redesigning a course for a small move of needle. But from a focus group, if one minority student said they changed their major because of that class, then the faculty member is all in."

As networks of liberal arts colleges come together, Eshleman wants them to consider becoming part of the solution to bigger societal issues around access and equity in higher education. While these colleges are good at using the residential experience and small classes to make good students better, she said, "there is this other problem that we are not engaging — millions of people who want access to a good quality education. Places like Arizona State University are trying to figure this out by experimenting in ways we tend to dismiss as not high-quality teaching. But here is a question for the liberal arts: Why aren't we participating in this bigger question of providing access to degree-bearing programs? I am throwing down the gauntlet to say, should we be doing this? If not, why is it a good idea not to participate? What could liberal arts colleges be doing to address this big social need? The activist in me wants to see us participate."

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