Small liberal arts colleges take pride in the personalized instruction in small classes they offer their students. Why would they consider online learning for undergraduates? The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) has just completed the first phase of a pilot project that goes a long way toward answering this question.
In 2013, when MOOCs dominated higher education discussion, the Council of Independent Colleges wanted small colleges to be part of the conversation. As a result, CIC considered pursuing a grant program that would allow its member institutions to collaborate on the development of a MOOC. Discussion about the kind of MOOC to create helped the CIC group focus on the actual problem it was trying to solve. One of the greatest challenges for small colleges is the capacity to provide enough upper-level humanities courses, especially for majors, at a time when enrollment in the humanities is declining. With this shift in direction, the Council proposed creating a consortium of small, independent colleges that were willing to develop upper-level humanities courses that, once tested on the local campus, could be shared with other members of the consortium. A two-year pilot project gave these colleges a platform for experimenting with online learning.
They wondered: Would any of the CIC members be interested? When the call went out for proposals to take part in the project that required faculty to develop two online upper-level humanities courses, offer them at the local institution the first year and make them generally available to the consortium in the second year, one hundred colleges submitted applications. While very few of the applicants had experience with online learning, all were convinced that they should know more about this new form of teaching and learning.
We at Ithaka S+R had the privilege of working with CIC on the assessment of the program, and now that the pilot project for the Consortium for Online Learning in the Humanities is drawing to a close, we’d like to highlight some key findings from the recently released report:

  • Both faculty and students enjoyed the online courses in the humanities. Both groups thought that student learning in these courses was equivalent to any traditional face-to-face class in their experience.
  • Learning outcomes for students were equal to or better than face-to-face humanities courses.
  • Faculty reported that in the second year of teaching the online course, they spent much less time in preparing course material, and they felt far more confident in their facility with online teaching.
  • Faculty in the consortium institutions were happy to have students from other institutions enroll in their courses, but they were less enthusiastic about promoting external consortium courses to their local students.
  • The number of students enrolling in other institutions’ courses was relatively small.
  • The chief reason students cited for taking online courses was convenience.

Our findings, drawn from surveys, interviews, and institutional data, are rich and complex, so I hope all readers will look carefully at the report. We are excited that this initiative has yielded positive results and that our findings show that online courses offer liberal arts institutions an opportunity to provide more choices and greater breadth of courses for their humanities students without increasing the instructional costs for the institution.