Blended Learning at Small Liberal Arts Colleges

This report was submitted by NITLE to the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) on December 5, 2011. The ACS now makes it available as context for its January 2014 call for proposals for case studies in blended/hybrid learning (deadline for submissions: February 21, 2014). This report was developed by Rebecca Frost Davis, then program officer for the humanities at NITLE. Dr. Davis is currently the director for instructional and emerging technology at St. Edward’s University.

Historically one of the strengths of liberal arts colleges—their small size—has also been one of their weaknesses: They are limited in the number of classes they can offer, and courses with small numbers may not have the critical mass to justify the expense of offering them. Despite these challenges, however, small colleges can expand their course offerings while retaining their “high-touch,” personal approach to education through shared academics, which are academic experiences that transcend the borders of a single campus by connecting students, faculty, and staff in pursuit of common academic goals.  By partnering with other institutions and leveraging technologies such as high definition video conferencing and collaborative software, colleges can connect students to learning experiences beyond their local contexts and faculty to larger educational communities. Furthermore, by strategically pooling resources, small colleges can collectively develop a shared academic program with the depth and breadth needed to meet the needs of today’s students.

In order to teach effectively in a technology-mediated or “blended” environment, faculty members at small liberal arts colleges require professional development to restructure or design courses for this digital context.  They need to think beyond the face-to-face context and consider how to best take advantage of the opportunities provided by an expanded academic network.   Topics to be covered in such development opportunities should include:

Liberal Arts College Models of Networked, Blended Shared Academics

Sunoikisis, a virtual department of Classical Studies that started in the Associated Colleges of the South, has offered inter-institutional team-taught courses for over a decade.

  • Course design: These courses in upper-level Greek and Latin combine weekly shared, live, online sessions via desktop videoconferencing led by content experts (from the team of faculty or guest experts), with asynchronous threaded discussion, readings, and local campus class sessions.
  • Planning: Faculty meet in summer workshops to develop content expertise and adapt curriculum for inter-campus delivery.
  • Student benefits: According to a three-year longitudinal study, these inter-campus courses enable students to enjoy a wider range of course offerings, learn from specialists, benefit from a variety of perspectives, collaborate with peers, engage more with course materials, and become more comfortable using new technologies.
  • Faculty benefits: Likewise, by collaborating with colleagues at other institutions, faculty learn about new pedagogical techniques, hone their teaching skills, develop their professional expertise, and are energized through their participation in a broader peer community.
  • Evaluation report: Frost, Susan and Deborah Olsen, Sunoikisis: Program Evaluation and Model Design (ACS, 2005),

Blended Learning: What and Why?

How do we define hybrid or blended learning? What distinguishes it from distance education? What is its value?

  • No significant difference: Some studies of online vs. classroom education argue that there is “no significant difference”, i.e., that online education is no worse than classroom instruction. (“No Significant Difference – Presented by WCET”, )
  • Online learning modules: Experiments by the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative have shown that hybrid learning—a combination of online and face-to-face—actually had better learning outcomes than face-to-face alone.  This initiative found that students could complete the same material in half the time as face-to-face only.  (Kolowich, Steve. “Hybrid Education 2.0.” Inside Higher Ed, December 28, 2009. )
  • Additional learning time and resources: A Meta-Analysis by the Department of Education found that while blended conditions produced greater student performance on learning outcomes than face-to-face or online-only, these conditions often included more learning time and additional resources. (Department of Education, “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning : A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies” This extra time and resources promises to benefit liberal arts colleges students.
  • Other arguments: These arguments for value should be considered in the context of other motivations for blended learning, including current calls for reform of higher education, a desire to use technology to engage students, and a need to prepare students to live and work in a digital world.

Learning Objectives, Learning Outcomes, and Liberal Education

Before transforming courses for online delivery, faculty should consider desired learning objectives and outcomes for both their courses and liberal education in general. The Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has defined essential learning outcomes for liberal education and high impact practices for achieving those outcomes.

  • Essential learning outcomes:

○      Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world

○      Intellectual and practical skills (inquiry and analysis; critical and creative thinking; written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, information literacy, teamwork and problem solving)

○      Personal and social responsibility, including civic knowledge and engagement both locally and globally

○      Integrative and applied learning.

○      First-Year Seminars and Experiences

○      Common Intellectual Experience

○      Learning Communities

○      Writing-Intensive Courses

○      Collaborative Assignments and Projects

○      Undergraduate Research

○      Diversity/Global Learning

○      Service Learning, Community-Based Learning

○      Internships

○      Capstone Courses and Projects

  • Learning outcomes and course objectives: Participants should examine learning outcomes defined by their local institutions, consider how their own courses or projects fulfill local and national outcomes, and establish learning objectives for their own courses.  Once learning objectives and outcomes are established, faculty can consider what pedagogical strategies can best fulfill them.

Learning Outcomes in a Digital Age

What do liberal education learning outcomes look like in a digital context? What skills do students need to be citizens in a networked world?

  • Participatory learning: In the Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, Cathy Davidson and David Goldberg argue persuasively about the need for students to engage in participatory learning to match the potential for shared and interactive learning built into the Internet.  “Participatory learning includes the many ways that learners (of any age) use new technologies to participate in virtual communities where they share ideas, comment on one another’s projects, and plan, design, implement, advance, or simply discuss their practices, goals, and ideas together.” (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning. MIT Press, 2009.
  • Connectivism: George Siemens, in his connectivist theory of learning, argues that in a digital age characterized by an over-abundance of information, learning should be a collective experience mediated by technology. (“Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.” elearnspace, December 12, 2004.
  • ACS learning network: Faculty and their staff partners should consider how they might develop an extended learning network among member institutions in the Associated Colleges of the South as a model for students developing their own personal learning networks.

Blended Learning in a Liberal Arts Context

Faculty, technologists and librarians should examine the appropriate deployment of blended learning strategies on a liberal arts campus.  Online learning is a broad category encompassing multiple tools and strategies.

  • Self-directed online modules: The Carnegie Mellon open learning initiative deployed learning modules designed by experts in learning science and instructional design that integrate assessment, metacognition, and interactive quizzing, as well as instructors dashboards.
  • Online resources: Recorded lectures, online readings, etc., work effectively for basic knowledge transfer and instruction and may be accessed across multiple platforms, including mobile devices.
  • Live interaction:  Whether face-to-face or virtual, live meetings should be reserved for times when immediate interaction  matters, e.g., group discussion, Q&A, collaborative creation, immediate feedback and mentoring, etc.
  • Asynchronous interaction: Asynchronous technologies, like blogs, wikis, threaded discussion, etc., may be deployed where immediacy is not as important.  These tools allow interaction spread across time, and allow for thoughtful feedback and revision.  They also facilitate reflection on learning, which helps students become intentional learners.
  • Collaborative projects: Collaborative creation, whether in a course wiki, shared digital story, second life exhibit, etc., facilitates the social construction of knowledge, cultural interchange, and student creativity.

Synchronous Communication Technologies

When live interaction is required, an ecosystem of video tools exist for synchronous communications.

  • One-on-one: Tools include Google Chat, iChat, FaceTime, Skype, etc.
  • Web Conferencing: Tools like Elluminate or Web Ex provide for efficient one-to-many interaction that replicates the lecture experience.  These web conferencing tools typically include chat to provide a back channel of written interaction.
  • Telepresence: Participants can sit across the virtual table and interact as if at the same table.  Small liberal arts colleges now have a realistic opportunity to take their high-quality face-to-face interaction on-line and tap into remote expertise without compromising the value of their traditional modes of teaching and learning.  (Ruben Ruiz, “Telepresence: Navigating the Landscape”. NITLE, 2011.
  • Back channel: Tools like Google Docs for collaborative document creation and editing or Twitter provide a back channel that can enrich live interactions.

Collaborative Projects

The advent of participatory media has allowed for widespread, amateur content creation.  Professional media makers are no longer the main producers of content online. Participatory culture matches well with social constructivist learning theory that encourages active and collaborative learning.  Students can use social software like blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, social networking, etc. to aggregate materials, learn collaboratively, and form learning networks.

  • The Center for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) at the State Univeristy of New York at Purchase has been “using blogging, videoconferencing, and video production to create cultural bridges between students at Purchase College and students in Marseille and Bogota”. Students can now use collaborative software to manage their projects and high definition video conferencing to present their work to each other. Networked technologies enable students to find new conversational partners so that they could log the contact hours that they need to develop mastery of a language.  (Brudzinski, Marc. “Creative Telecollaboration and Language Acquisition Curriculum.” National Endowment for the Humanities Funded Project Query Form, September 1, 2011.
  • The “Looking for Whitman” project engaged classes at four academic institutions in a concurrent, connected, semester-long inquiry into the relationship of Whitman’s poetry to local geography and history. (

Finding Course Materials

Faculty must also consider how their students will access course materials.  How can library resources be shared across the consortium without violating copyright?  Can instructors find and use open educational resources (OER) to convey knowledge?  How do you identify, access, and organize course materials in a programmatic way across a consortium in order to empower learning networks?

  • Instructors can use tools such as OER Commons ( to find relevant open educational resources that they can integrate into their courses and, often, adapt for their particular objectives.  Faculty may also consider what materials they can create themselves and offer under a creative commons license.
  • Faculty should work with librarians to determine course materials common across institutional collections, including physical materials, electronic materials, subscription databases, etc.

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