Review of “Connecting Technology & Liberal Education: Theories and Case Studies” A NERCOMP event (4/5/06)

by Shel Sax, Middlebury College


On April 5, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, NERCOMP offered a SIG event on “Connecting Technology and Liberal Education: Theories and Case Studies.” Examining the description of the event on the NERCOMP web site ( made two things immediately apparent. This was a workshop looking at a very broad topic and all of the presenters came from an academic background rather than a technological one.

The flow of the day went from the most general, with Jo Ellen Parker beginning the proceedings with a discussion of the various theories of liberal education and their impact and influence on institutional technology decisions, to specific case studies offered by faculty from Emerson, Hamilton, Mt. Holyoke and Hampshire Colleges.

Session 1: What’s So “Liberal” About Higher Ed?

Speaker: Jo Ellen Parker, Executive Director, National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE)

Jo Ellen Parker’s essay on the same topic can be found on the Academic Commons website at:

In her talk, Jo Ellen laid out a framework for thinking about the relationship between liberal education values and issues relating to instructional technology. She noted that:

  • Resistance to technology can be simply resistance, that is, defending important educational commitments from the perceived threat of technology.
  • The discussion of the role of liberal education and technology is often tangled up in conflicting ideas as to what liberal education really is.
  • Regardless of your background, being able to frame discussions of instructional technology initiatives within the language of liberal education can make you a more effective and articulate spokesperson.

Jo Ellen presented four models or theories of liberal education, noting that some are competing and some complementary. In reality, institutions reflect combinations of these theories rather than any one exclusively.

The first theory of liberal education is that it is one of content-based curriculum, studies liberated from the pressure of immediate applications and pursued without immediate practical benefits. This thread has been and remains dominant in most small, elite liberal arts colleges. In this view, the curriculum consists of pure rather than applied disciplines. Applied studies are not part of a liberal arts curriculum, e.g. accounting, musical performance, or community service (for credit). She noted an example where language acquisition is not given credit, considered simply the acquisition of a tool necessary to study literature in the foreign language.

The second theory of a liberal education comes from a pedagogical perspective and focuses on the development of intellectual skills over the mastery of content. Defining characteristics of this model are practices, not disciplines: group studies, student presentations, active learning, collaboration, and paper writing rather than test taking. This view of education is supported by research from the psychology of learning and pedagogical research. It is possible that an applied discipline can be taught “liberally.” Nursing, for example, can be taught either liberally or illiberally. If nurses are taught to solve problems and work collaboratively, then they are being taught liberally. If they are required to memorize large bodies of information and assigned content, then they are taught illiberally.

To some, liberal education is about the education of citizens. This approach values the development of literacy, numeracy, scientific and statistical proficiency, history, etc. The curriculum should target what is required to produce good citizens. It tends to value ethics and socially responsible behavior and emphasizes developing the whole person. In this model, faculty will view student life as an educational opportunity, and will value service learning and community service requirements. It encourages closer relationships between students, faculty and staff. There is greater concern about extending access, welcoming more low income students and encouraging the sharing of campus resources with the greater community. This civic focus of liberal education is often based in a religious history.

The final model of liberal education is less philosophical and more economic. It associates liberal education with institutions of a specific type. In a sense, it associates the degree with liberal education—whatever these colleges do, it is liberal education. This view tends to emphasize the physical characteristics of an institution: small size, privately funded, residential. These characteristics supposedly foster the goals of liberal educations so that any institution that does not share these physical attributes cannot deliver a liberal education. People who favor this model view the economic viability of these institutions as critical to the well-being of liberal education.

These competing theories of liberal education tend to “muddy the waters” when it comes to thinking about liberal education and instructional technology. The curricular-centric view of liberal education will regard technology as an extension of the library. The acquisition of new online scholarly resources, data sets, art objects, etc. are highly desirable and should be a priority within the technology budget. Advocates of this approach may not see value in spending technology resources on communications technology or course management systems, for example. Jo Ellen said that these folks have no understanding of Wikipedia! Those holding the curricular-centric perspective fret about the difficulty of locating quality material online and worry that students will be unable to distinguish quality materials from second rate ones. This often leads to a demand for “literacy programs.” Technology is not valued for its potential to change the nature of teaching and learning but rather values it for access to primary materials.

In comparison, the second theory sees technology as a change agent that enables faculty and students to do more and different things together. The focus is on a student-centered view of IT. Here, one finds more emphasis on course/learning management systems, communications tools, group study tools and new media formats. In colleges where this view has currency, IT resources will be spent on multimedia centers, collaborative classroom spaces, and developing faculty technical skills, giving these higher priority than acquiring resources. Critics of this approach are often concerned about the role of faculty and how technology may change it for the worse. Faculty pursuing this type of student-based learning can be intimidated by the technological fluency of both students and IT staff. They are concerned about the cost in time of acquiring IT skills at the expense of other scholarly and teaching activities. Faculty, having to confront what it means to become a student learning again, may resist moving in this direction. Librarians often feel threatened in this environment as there is more uncertainty as to exactly what their role should be.

The “citizenship” model of liberal education tries to extend resources. This can include tutoring high school students in the local community, using GIS to help local planners, taking on oral history projects with local primary schools and libraries, electronic portfolio projects and so forth. This view highly values those technologies that support both on- and off-campus communication and making course materials available beyond the institution. Technology in this context is evaluated by its contribution to community.

The “physical” model of liberal education sees IT as a way to overcome some of the limitations of the small size of these institutions and enables the smaller institutions to become competitive with large ones. It hopes to synthesize the virtues of small and the advantages of big. Technology may be seen as a potential cost saver and thus contribute to the economic viability of these smaller entities.

The discussion of liberal education and technology is often intertwined in the discussion of liberal education itself. Decisions about the allocation of technology resources can be most effective when the IT spokesperson has a good understanding of the different competing visions of the liberal arts institution and is able to articulate how various technologies impact these sometimes competing institutional views.

Session 2: Emerging Literacies and the Liberal Arts

David Bogen, Executive Director, Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, Emerson College
Eric Gordon, Assistant Professor, Visual and Media Arts, Emerson College
James Sheldon, Associate Professor, New Media, Emerson College

While Jo Ellen Parker presented four models of liberal arts education and demonstrated how differing models can lead to different technological priorities to support the curriculum, the Emerson team re-framed the discussion in terms of focusing on the technologies and studying how they have changed the ways in which we interact with the world around us. More specifically, David Bogen noted that the process of designing curriculum is an essential foundation of the work of educators. Technology forces us to study not only the changes in content but also changes in the “mode of delivery.”

An important part of the Emerson team’s argument is that new technologies are never without cultural ramifications. They impose constraints in some ways and open new possibilities in others. As such, one must look beyond the purpose and value of technology in the liberal arts per se and study the inter-relatedness of curriculum, technology and pedagogy. While Jo Ellen Parker would argue that clarity about an institution’s vision of itself will help to clarify the technological decisions to complement that vision, the Emerson group would argue that the technology itself can and is changing the essence of the liberal arts and as such, should be placed on the “front burner” of such discussions.

David uses the concept of “emerging literacies” to refer to the combination of literacies that are evolving. Aware of the ambiguity of this very term, David Bogen described it as a placeholder for that combination of literacies that will ultimately transform teaching and learning. In this context, the deliberateness, traditions and methodical rate of transformation in higher education are not necessarily bad things as they allow for careful study of the agents that can transform education and the identification of models that may well be inappropriate or counter-productive.

There is a plurality of literacies. Using Wikipedia as a source, David found over 69 different literacies. This is testimony to the elusiveness and ambiguity of the concept at this stage of technological and social transformation. These emerging literacies are not to be confused with the literacy initiatives referred to by Jo Ellen in her description of the content oriented liberal arts institution. Rather, they include new ways of knowing: information, cultural, visual, media, multi-modal, and scientific literacies are all attempts at describing some social/technological change that necessitates the need for new skills and expertise.

In closing his part of the presentation, Bogen described three approaches to emerging literacies:

  • “Politics of loss” seeks to document the negative impacts of contemporary technology on the traditional liberal arts institution.
  • “Politics of scaled solutions” represents the force within education that represents a technological utilitarianism, trying to deliver the greatest good to the greatest numbers.
  • “Politics of transformation” focuses not on what has been lost, but rather on the creation of a new medium of expression (the integration of visual, multimedia and digital communication) worthy of study in its own right.

David clearly favored the third approach, arguing that it offers the opportunity to study “a whole new semiotics of expression.”

David’s opening remarks were followed by James Sheldon, Associate Professor of New Media at Emerson. James’s presentation featured a “Digital Culture” online first year program developed at Emerson that was team-taught with David Bogen and included the production of electronic portfolios.

James observed that students have changed since 1996. Then, students were proficient in oral, verbal and written expression. Their ability to use a computer, navigate the web, and incorporate technology into their work was very limited. In comparison, today’s students are comfortable authoring web pages, using image manipulation and editing programs like Photoshop, online communication, etc. Every student knows how to use Instant Messenger.

In this class everything was done electronically. Every student needed to produce an electronic portfolio and become proficient in making visual documents. While the students knew how to create material digitally, James noted, they had no idea of visual history. They did not understand how we have arrived at our current state and what the development of technology has allowed.

James then gave a slide presentation. The first slide showed 2 images: an early photograph and a painting clearly influenced by the photograph. The pair of images showed how technology changed the way in which an image could be produced and how the technology subsequently influenced artists. Another slide provided an example of how the slow shutter speed in a photograph influenced a landscape painting. James provided an example of early motion (a famous animation of a horse trotting) with the idea that to create motion, one had to first stop motion. He then described the influence of real color photography in the late 1930’s and 1940’s and compared images from that period to contemporary images that could only be produced with today’s technology, using as an example the image of a bullet traveling through an apple. All of his examples reinforced his contention that not only is contemporary art influenced by new media, but new media can remediate older media,absorbing it and minimizing discontinuities. That is, new media remains dependent on older media both in acknowledged and unacknowledged ways.

After the slide presentation, James talked about a Davis Foundation grant that Emerson had received to develop online learning communities. A key component of this project was the development of electronic portfolios. These portfolios raised a host of interesting questions: how does the instructor assess students’ multimedia work? How does the student see the path of his/her development? What does it mean to be working in digital media? With the electronic portfolio, all of a student’s work is in one place, facilitating faculty evaluation, the ability of students to learn from each other and students thinking of themselves as artists.

The third presenter from Emerson was Eric Gordon, Assistant Professor of Visual and Media Arts. He demonstrated MediaBASE, a tool that he and colleagues at USC’s Institute for Media Literacy developed for creating and working with media objects. The real conceptual innovation is that this is a tool for teaching/learning about media rather than teaching/learning with media.

MediaBASE is a platform for the development of media compositions that enables users to transform, manipulate and arrange media objects according to the intent of the creator without changing the state of the original object. MediaBASE was described as a social software package for use both within archives and classrooms.

The object of MediaBASE is to enable students developing electronic portfolios to include a variety of manipulated images while maintaining the integrity of the original images, the metatagging of all objects and the ability to search contextually while in the authoring environment. It is an attempt to provide a functionality to creators of multimedia, one comparable to that which is currently available to authors of text works.

Overall, the Emerson presentation was a thoughtful assessment of the current state of the liberal art curriculum in light of sweeping technological changes, the need to contextualize current development with a historical understanding of the relationship between changing tools (technology) and creativity, and an exploration of a tool developed to further the articulation of concepts needed to encompass these changes within the educational lexicon.

Session 3: A Different Mission, A Different Method: Assessment of Liberal Arts Education

Speaker: Dan Chambliss, Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor, Department of Sociology, Hamilton College

Liberal arts colleges do not like assessment, period! Faculty dislike assessment more than administrators, but by and large, in the liberal arts environment, assessment is seen as outside interference. Some opponents think that assessment is essentially a business exercise, its rationale underlied by a political antipathy to left-wing intellectuals. Further, many examples of assessment are not intellectually rigorous and faculty see them as a “lightweight” activity.

There is no obvious reason why liberal arts colleges should like assessment. They are doing pretty well already and there is no correlation between doing assessment and being a good college. Swarthmore, for example, does assessment because it has to, but Swarthmore does very well without it. It has a huge endowment, and people are willing to pay the tuition costs to send their kids there. Swarthmore students clearly value their school and their education, donating and bequeathing cash and assets as alumni. Dan noted that very few businesses can claim that level of customer loyalty. So, it is not clear that Swarthmore needs assessment; its survivability without assessment is excellent.

Some of the hostility to assessment in the liberal arts relates to its origins in business/efficiency models that do not transfer well to colleges. The usual assessment drill includes:

  • state clear mission, goals, objectives
  • state in advance what students should get out of a course
  • provide clear links between the goals and the means (every course, program, etc. needs to explicitly state goals and actions to achieve them)
  • motivation is never considered a variable

The entire model has a “throughput” mentality – students are fed in at one end of the process and come out the other end with the requisite skills, thus fulfilling the mission, goals and objectives. While this works well for certain fields, it does not make a lot of sense for liberal education.

Seven years ago, Dan reported, Hamilton was funded by the Mellon Foundation to study the assessment of student learning outcomes at a liberal arts college. A panel study, in the fall of 2001, drew a random sample of 100 students from the class of 2001 and has tracked them ever since. Each student is interviewed every year and grades are tracked.

The findings, discussed below, provide some interesting insights into the uniqueness of the liberal education. Alumni in this survey responded that the specific knowledge that they acquired as undergraduates was virtually irrelevant. This is not job training. Unlike the U.S. military, the liberal arts institution does not know where all of its graduates are headed. We like the fact that our graduates will do all sorts of amazing things with a huge variety of positive outcomes. We are looking for long term results and life long learning. Other goals are uncertain to the point of unknowable. While college presidents may talk about creating “citizens” or great thinkers, the goals are not mutually agreed on. Nor is it clear that what faculty do every day has any impact on any goals that may exist.

As a result, Dan argued, we must have a different approach to assessment for liberal education. We want to have minimal interference and not expect faculty and students to change what they are doing to accommodate the assessment. The assessment should represent sound social science methodologically and be multi-modal, since it is not clear exactly what we are looking for. The assessment must be useful – we should learn something that will help people with their work. Finally, an appropriate assessment should be true to the mission of the liberal education institute; it should be open to possibilities and serendipity.

The Study:

1. Writing samples were collected from the last year of high school through the senior year. Some 1100 student papers were selected and a team of outside evaluators assessed the writing to see if students’ writing actually improves.

2. The outside evaluators were able to rank order the writing of students from high school through the senior year, although they could not differentiate between junior and senior level writing (the sample excluded senior theses).

3. The study also revealed that first and second year advising was not as good as junior and senior advising. Freshman advising is not the same job as senior advising. Freshman advising is more about course selection and is heavily influenced by the academic calendar, more so than the relationship between the student and advisor. It is the interaction of the student’s initial interest and the offering and scheduling of courses that is the most critical relationship in first year advising.

4. Friendships and friendship networks are crucial. The people a student meets in the first semester has a big influence on the student’s academic development.

5. All life is local—if students have 2 or 3 good friends and 1 or 2 good professors, students are in good shape. Students can like almost nobody on campus as long as they have a few good friends and professors. Most faculty can, as Dan described, “be awful,” as long as students take courses from the “good” teachers during the freshman year. A very few professors have a huge impact on a large number of students. At Hamilton, he said, 12 professors out of 180 would do the trick!

6. Happiness is a legitimate outcome of college—students after graduation tend to cherish their undergraduate experience, although in the assessment realm, this is not considered at all. Nonetheless, students, family and parents are very aware of the value of the undergraduate experience and the importance of feeling good about life. These are important ingredients of success.Confidence, optimism and a sense of well-being are very good things with which to leave college.

Some lessons from assessment:

  • Because externalities abound, it is a mistake to look at only a single department. Assessment should not be department-based.
  • The student’s point of view is crucial:
    • They have no idea as to what has gone on in the past, so “innovative” curriculum does not register.
    • Small classes are great for the people who are in them, but not so wonderful for the people who cannot get into them, and take larger ones instead. Classes may be small because they have unpopular topics, pre-requisites, etc.
  • For a residential liberal arts college, what is sold is the  “uniqueness” of the experience, the advantage of not being in a mass market.

In closing, Dan emphasized that small colleges are not businesses in the usual sense of a business; as a result, traditional assessment methods must be modified to fit the needs of the liberal arts institution. When done appropriately, assessment can provide useful insights and information to further the objectives of the liberal education.


Session 4: The Liberal Arts College and Technology: Who Captures Whom?

Speakers: Bryan Alexander, Director for Emerging Technologies, National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE)
Donald Cotter, Associate Professor Chemistry, Mt. Holyoke College
James Wald, Associate Professor of History, Hampshire College

Bryan Alexander’s study of emerging technologies focuses on gaming, mobile devices and web 2.0 (which he described as a mixture of micro-content and social software). There are similarities among some of the characteristics of liberal education and emerging technologies. They are becoming increasingly trans-disciplinary and require critical thinking.

In a notion similar to David Bogen’s, Bryan argued that while we can speak about teaching with technology, we can develop a better understanding of the process if we study the technology itself using the traditional methodologies of the liberal arts. Thus, it is possible to apply the intellectual heritage of liberal arts to technology. Bryan used the example of Robinson Crusoe to exemplify someone who has no need for a liberal education but rather for specific technical skills. Such informatic needs are often highly individualistic.

The liberal arts approach to technology itself tends be a collectivist one. Echoing one of Jo Ellen Parker’s themes, Bryan noted that if liberal education has a civic engagement thread, then technology is an integral part of the process. Bryan noted that there is now a new wrinkle: students are both producers and consumers of technology.

Donald Cotter then used the example of having his students engage in the xml tagging of source documents in the teaching of the history of science. Donald said that one of his motivations is to incorporate the work of professional historians of science into his course to emphasize how technology makes us behave as cultural beings and to provide a context within which to study both chemistry and the history of chemistry. In the same way that James Sheldon addressed the issue of students being adept with the technology without having an understanding of how we arrived in our present state, Donald Cotter felt the similar need to ground his chemistry students in the history of chemistry.

Fortuitously for Donald, Mt. Holyoke has played a substantial role in the development of science, and particularly the development of women scientists. Science has been taught to and by women over the last 100 years, and its faculty has included a number of pre-eminent women chemists. Mt. Holyoke has rich resources in terms of primary materials related to the history of science. Using xml tags on these original documents enables the students to illuminate and notate this content.

Refining his course over time, Donald now asks his students to develop a project based on what they find in the College’s archives. They cannot begin the project until they know something about the history of chemistry. The students learn the historical context in which to understand science, combined with technical sessions (led by the College’s archivists) to teach them the technical aspects of XML tagging. The technical sessions are conducted during a weekly lab period.

Donald has several objects in mind with this project. He wants the students to develop a taste for doing primary source work and wants them to appreciate that this is reasonable intellectual activity. He noted that students struggle somewhat with the nebulousness of the activity (which they have never done before). He finds that advising them to tell the same story twice, first in standard text and then in the markup of the source document, helps to clarify the objectives of this activity. In closing, he noted that while the outcome of this initiative remains uncertain, he is pleased with the process.

The third participant in this panel was James Wald from Hampshire College. Not only is James an associate professor of History at Hampshire College, he is also the Director of the Center for the Book. In his opening remarks, he noted that he is a historian, not a technologist nor scientist. His research interests include the history of the book and the evolution of the book vis-à-vis technology. As he became more proficient with technology, expanding from email and word processing to the development of course web sites, he became increasingly interested in the technology as it related to his research. Continuing a common thread articulated by David Bogen and Bryan Alexander, he, too, argued that one should not possess merely the technological skills but also an understanding of the underlying concepts of communication and the history of communication.

Noting that writing is a technology (even though we take it for granted and do not think of it as such) James designed his course to increase his students’ understanding of the evolution of writing and technology. He invited a book artist to the class who taught the students how to create a book by hand, using techniques from the 15th and 16th centuries. Using their own writing, they would produce a handmade book. At the same time, in a creative juxtaposition of technologies, they were required to create a web page that discussed and documented the creation of the book, covering topics such as authorship and binding. This exercise engaged the students in considering the different aspects and issues of presenting text on paper and on a computer screen. James Wald is hopeful that students taking this course now have a better understanding of how writing, printing and computers are not competing and different phenomena but rather the same act of expression using different tools.

In closing, Wald remarked that the role of the librarian in the Middle Ages (and until fairly recently, one might add) was primarily to preserve information. Now there is too much information and the focus has shifted to applying search strategies to find relevant information. He argued that the technology revolution helps one to understand the revolutions that came before it, such as the print revolution. There is benefit to studying what was written and predicted about the development of the printed book and its impact on society to see what was accurate and inaccurate. This can provide useful contextual background with which to assess what the current technological revolution will mean to us.

Session 5: Introducing The Academic Commons

Speaker: Mike Roy, Director of Academic Computing & Digital Library Projects,
Wesleyan University

The Academic Commons ( ) is a recently-launched web publication and community that brings together faculty, technologists, librarians, and other stakeholders in the academic enterprise to foster collaboration, and to critically examine the complex relationship of new technology and liberal arts education. This session provided a brief introduction to the Academic Commons, and highlighted ways in which NERCOMP members can both benefit from and contribute to this initiative.


This was one of the best NERCOMP workshops that I have attended. My interest in the interaction of technology and pedagogy was well met by presentations combining strategic thinking about what constitutes and shapes a liberal arts education and examples of technology being used in the classroom in a traditionally “liberal” manner.

Bryan Alexander stated the need to study technology in an academic manner and the case studies presented by faculty reflected this approach. Both NITLE presenters effectively set the stage for the presentations that followed.

Dan Chambliss from Hamilton provided very useful insights based on survey data from a Mellon funded survey and set the findings within the context of why liberal arts institutions tend to be dismissive of traditional assessment techniques coming from the business sector. Of particular interest was the survey result that in retrospect, alumni considered discipline-specific learning to be relatively unimportant, compared to the entire undergraduate experience. This finding seemed particularly relevant when compared to Jo Ellen Parker’s contention that the primary model of a liberal arts institution is “content-based.”

The Emerson presentation was very thoughtful and provided excellent examples of faculty grappling with these issues within the context of “teaching media.” Complementing the morning presentation by the Emerson faculty, the Mt. Holyoke and Hampshire faculty reinforced the need for a contextual understanding of technology and how students may be involved in projects that combine the acquisition of new technical skills with a greater understanding of the evolution of such tools and their societal impact.

All in all, it was a very useful event, with high quality presentations and a strong intellectual bent. I suspect that SIGs such as this, emphasizing pedagogical and broader institutional considerations, will become increasingly important and valuable in the future.

Review of “Connecting Technology & Liberal Education: Theories and Case Studies” A NERCOMP event (4/5/06)

by Shel Sax,  Director of Education Technology at Middlebury College’s Center for Teaching Learning and Research.

Originally Published September 26th, 2006

On April 5, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, NERCOMP offered a SIG event on “Connecting Technology and Liberal Education: Theories and Case Studies.” Examining the description of the event on the NERCOMP web site ( made two things immediately apparent. This was a workshop looking at a very broad topic and all of the presenters came from an academic background rather than a technological one.

The flow of the day went from the most general, with Jo Ellen Parker beginning the proceedings with a discussion of the various theories of liberal education and their impact and influence on institutional technology decisions, to specific case studies offered by faculty from Emerson, Hamilton, Mt. Holyoke and Hampshire Colleges.

Session 1: What’s So “Liberal” About Higher Ed?