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. (email@example.com.)
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.
Common Reading Programs
Common reading programs seem to have become numerous during the 2000s, though some began earlier. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) publishes an annual report on such programs; in its report on the 2012-13 academic year, it listed 309 institutions with common reading programs, 23 of which were ranked among the top 100 national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report.
A 2007 survey of 130 of these programs, conducted by Andi Twiton, found that 93% were designated for first-year students. The report noted that the most common goals of the programs were to develop a sense of community and to model intellectual engagement. The NAS study determined that common reading programs were primarily oriented toward three goals: “to build community engagement, to explore a theme that fits with the mission of the college, and to set academic expectations.”
After surveying college and university web sites in 2006, Michael Fergusson reported for the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) on typical practices for following up on summer readings. A common practice is to schedule small discussion groups during the first-year orientation period– sometimes mandatory, sometimes not. Some institutions require students to submit a one-page response paper, either during the summer or in an introductory course. Many schools encourage but do not require their faculty to incorporate the book into their curriculum. Usually, the book’s author gives a talk on campus.
Vassar College has administered a common reading program for first-year students every summer since 2006. The Dean of Freshmen’s office mails a copy of the chosen book, along with other orientation materials, to each admitted student’s home address. The students are instructed to read the book, and while in some years, they were asked to write a short response to it on a form submitted to the Dean of Freshmen, there have been no other requirements. In most years, a discussion group is scheduled during the orientation period and faculty members are encouraged to integrate the book into their first-year seminars, but neither of these practices has been required. Several weeks into the fall semester, the book’s author gives a talk on campus, and the first-year students are encouraged to attend. Attendance has usually been modest.
The Online Component at Vassar
For the summer of 2014, Vassar’s Dean of Freshmen Susan Zlotnick wanted to enhance the common reading experience with some online interaction, using the college’s learning management system, Moodle. She approached the college’s Academic Computing Services group (ACS), because she had incorporated Moodle into her own teaching and had worked with that group on other instructional technology projects.
A major objective of the program has been to foster intellectual exchange among the incoming freshmen, and an online forum seemed like a way to encourage that exchange. Our basic idea was to present a few discussion prompts and ask each student to post a response to one of them. Because we wanted to enhance discussion among the students, we also decided to ask each of them to reply to two other student posts.
One idea that came up in that initial conversation with ACS was to present the discussion prompt in video form, in order to give the activity a little more visual interest and appeal. Another was to present different discussion prompts from different faculty members, ideally representing a range of academic disciplines. Besides offering different perspectives to students, we thought that this would underscore the college’s emphasis on interdisciplinarity. The Dean would take responsibility for recruiting (ideally) three faculty members to create the prompts. As this was a new idea, with no specific funding, any faculty input would have to be voluntary.
It quickly became apparent to us that, as the first academic experience these newly admitted students would have at Vassar, this initiative had a responsibility to set the tone for the coming four years. The intellectual, technical, and aesthetic aspects of the experience needed to be of the highest caliber. It was already late March and we would need to have the site available by July.
The book chosen for 2014 was Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home. A member of the English department who had experience teaching comics and graphic novels agreed to create a discussion prompt that dealt with the formal aspects of graphic literature. Because the book addressed issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, a faculty member from the Women’s Studies program agreed to offer a prompt that asked students to consider the book as a queer text. Finally, a research librarian volunteered to create a prompt that would explore the book’s intertextuality.
To our surprise, the first instructor’s video-recorded message turned out to be more than a simple prompt– it was a nearly nine-minute mini-lecture. He provided three alternative ways for students to respond, ranging from a traditional analysis to an original drawing. Because of our tight timeframe, we would have only this first video available when the site went live, but in due time, the other faculty members followed suit with similarly substantial messages and suggested activities. The three high-quality video recordings, shot and edited by a member of the ACS group, were embedded in the project’s Moodle site, each followed by its related discussion forum and reading materials. The resulting site looked quite a bit like the site for an actual course.
The three video files were stored in YouTube, but set to be unlisted, so that they were essentially restricted to those who were given links to them. YouTube provided good streaming quality, an easy process for creating and showing subtitles, and a range of usage statistics.
The members of the incoming class received their copies of the book in mid-June. We enrolled them into the site and it went live on July 1. Later on in the summer, we enrolled the faculty members who served as freshman advisors, in the role of observer.
Video Viewing. The first video eventually had 666 views, or about 1.5 as many views as there were participants. This count is quite a bit higher than that of the other videos, probably because it was the only video available for the first four weeks. The number of views that each of the other two videos received was a little less than the number of participants. (See Table 1 and Figure 1 for more video usage statistics.)
Forum Participation. Although there would be no formal repercussions for failing to participate in the discussion forums, students were instructed that participation was required, with a deadline of August 22, just before their arrival on campus. Despite this lack of enforcement, student participation was excellent: by the deadline, 427 of the 670 students (64%) had submitted posts. Participation among female students was somewhat better than among males: 68% of the group’s females participated, as did 60% of the group’s males.
Nearly every participant– 423 of the 427– posted an initial response to a faculty prompt. There were 895 replies to these initial posts, a little more than twice as many replies as initial posts. Counting initial posts and replies together, there were 1,318 posts. Some initial posts attracted no replies, but some generated lengthy discussions, with as many as 40 replies. (See Table 2.)
Although there was no requirement concerning the length of posts, most students made more than a minimal effort. Forum #2, which asked students to reflect on social issues related to the book, garnered the longest posts, by all measures. (See Table 3.)
Two of the three suggested activities in forum #1 called for students to share original drawings: to compose a page of their own graphic memoir or to create a map of themselves. Forty of the participants (nearly 10%) chose to share a drawing.
Faculty participants who were interviewed after the project was completed had a variety of things to say about the experience, but a few thoughts were common among them. One was that planning and creating the video lectures was a lot of work– specifically, one instructor said, to concentrate a lecture into such a short video. Another spoke about the iterative process of refining the lecture and the student activities. As mentioned earlier, all faculty participants donated their time to this project, but that may not be a sustainable model for the future.
Another common theme among the faculty was their pleasure at seeing that students managed to figure out the appropriate etiquette for responding to each other’s opinions, so there was none of the incivility that often erupts in online discussions among strangers. This was in spite– or maybe, in part, because– of the sensitive subject matter of the book.
Finally, the instructors mentioned how impressed they were with the academic quality of the student responses, as well as the degree of participation. They felt that students got a good sense of how readings are treated and how discussions are handled at the college level. Some freshman advisors also noted that the forum posts gave them a good sense of their advisees’ writing abilities.
Students offered their opinions on the initiative as part of their online assignments and, in some cases, in response to an anonymous feedback request. Some made recommendations for organizing the materials in a more navigable way, and for providing access to all of the videos at an earlier date. Most, however, praised the experience. While not everyone loved the assigned book, everyone seemed to appreciate hearing the thoughts and reactions of their fellow students and several mentioned how the experience got them excited about coming to college.
One student’s response was everything the planners could have hoped for: “I enjoyed having this summer assignment because it gave me the opportunity to interact on an intellectual level with the students in my class even though we haven’t formally met each other yet. I also enjoyed the glimpse into Vassar– the kind of work/discussions we’ll have, even the kinds of readings and resources available through the library.”
It’s also worth noting that, while past authors of common readings at Vassar have attracted fairly small audiences at their speaking events, the audience for Alison Bechdel was standing room only. Of course, that dramatic increase may be due to many factors, but certainly one of them could be the greater involvement that students had with the reading.
Other members of the college community who have learned about the project have been particularly impressed with the level of student participation. Alums have even reflected on how this approach could have benefitted their common reading experience and that, for a college that typically has an average class size of about 17 and a maximum class size of about 42, this was possibly the largest scale of learning experience the college has ever offered.
Each of the faculty members who participated in the project noted the amount of work called for to produce the video and the discussion prompt, as well as the benefits of close collaboration with their academic computing colleagues. Any effort to scale up of this type of work would need to consider the level of resources that would be required.
Having a small number of students meet in a classroom with a college professor several times per week is an ideal way to offer a course, and as long as colleges can afford to maintain this model, they will not easily be tempted to offer courses online. They may, nonetheless, find other opportunities to take advantage of the technologies developed for online courses. The summer common reading program clearly is one such opportunity, but some of its characteristics hint at other uses.
One of these characteristics is place. Even if students all live on the same campus and meet in the same classrooms, there are times when they are far away. Mid-semester breaks, inter-semester sessions, summers, and even sick leaves and emergency leaves are times when proximity is no longer available. Another of these characteristics is the size of the target group. Though classes may include a relatively small number of students, there may be other areas of college life where learning and interpersonal engagement are needed for a group that’s too large to gather together. Online learning technologies can bring together a cohort like a freshman class or the entire student body or even the entire college community, to share information and opinions.
If we look beyond our traditional courses, we may be surprised by the types of activities that can be enhanced by technology.
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Notes and Bibliography
 Kim Parker, Amanda Lenhart, and Kathleen Moore, “The Digital Revolution and Higher Education,” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project (August 28, 2011): 9. http://www.pewinternet.org/2011/08/28/the-digital-revolution-and-higher-education.
 Lauren Rubenstein, “The Future of MOOCs,” News @ Wesleyan (blog), May 28, 2013, http://newsletter.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2013/05/28/the-future-of-moocs/
 Michael Roth, “Why a Liberal Arts School Has Joined Coursera,” The Huffington Post (September 20, 2012). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-roth/why-a-liberal-arts-school_b_1901321.html.
David Baird and Jolee West, “MOOCs and the Liberal Arts: Wesleyan’s Coursera Experience,” presented at the Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges Conference, June 27, 2013, in Worcester, MA. http://college.holycross.edu/conferences/clac2013/clacpres/clac2013-mooc.pptx.
 “Consortium Describes New Paradigm Initiative,” Palladian (Spring 2011): 4. http://www.colleges.org/palladian/spring2011.pdf.
 Ashley Thorne, Peter W. Wood, Crystal Plum, and Tessa Carter, “Beach Books 2012-2013: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?,” National Association of Scholars’ Center for the Study of the Curriculum (August 2013): 5. http://www.nas.org/images/documents/BeachBooks-2013.pdf.
 Andi Twiton, “Common Reading Programs in Higher Education,” Gustavus Adolphus College (January 2007). https://gustavus.edu/library/Pubs/Lindell2007.html.
 Thorne et al., “Beach Books 2012-2013,” 8.
 Michael Ferguson, “Creating Common Ground: Common Reading and the First Year of College,” Peer Review 8, no. 3 (Summer 2006). http://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/creating-common-ground-common-reading-and-first-year-college.
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