by Steven Taylor, Vassar College.
Steven Taylor, EdD is the Director of Academic Computing at Vassar College, where he has been since 1998. Previously, he was Director of the Faculty Information Technology Center at Emory University. (firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Since shortly after the web was developed, colleges and universities have used it for conducting distance education programs. Leaders in the practice included public institutions, whose mission included serving a wide geographical area of non-traditional students, and large universities, which were challenged to provide alternatives to courses taught in huge lecture halls. The emergence of MOOCs in 2012 brought more attention to the practice.
It has not been obvious, however, how distance learning technologies could benefit small, private, residential, liberal arts colleges. Many have doubted that an online course could offer a better learning experience than a face-to-face course with a small student/faculty ratio. A 2011 report from the Pew Research Center found that four-year, selective private colleges were the least likely of any type of higher education institution to offer online courses.
There have been some explorations, of course. Wesleyan, for instance, began offering MOOCs in 2013. And while there were some indirect benefits to their enrolled students, the initiative’s target populations were alumni and prospective students.
Other liberal arts colleges have explored the use of online courses for more limited audiences. The Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) has founded the New Paradigms Initiative, through which students in its 16 member schools will be able to cross-register for online and hybrid courses, in order to “broaden and enhance academic offerings for students.” Many of these courses are on topics that would not draw sufficient enrollment at any one school. In some cases, the instructor has a specialized knowledge not found in the faculty of the other schools. In effect, each of these schools is enhancing the opportunities of its own students by facilitating their ability to take courses offered by other schools.
At Vassar College, a recent experience has identified a use for distance learning technologies that borders on the ironic: a residential college connecting with its students when they’re not in residence; an institution known for small class sizes interacting with a student cohort of 670. We’re using online tools to enhance our summer common reading program for incoming students.