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ACM Voices-Spring 2013

ACM Notes - Spring 2013

In the Spring 2013 issue of ACM Notes

What Can We Learn Online?

Guest columnist: David Schodt, ACM Senior Program Officer for Faculty & Staff Development Programs

David Schodt

David Schodt

Among other projects, David Schodt oversees the initiative he discusses here. In addition to his half-time appointment with ACM for 2012-14, he holds a half-time appointment as Professor of Economics at St. Olaf College, where he was the founding director of the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts.

At the request of its Board of Directors, the ACM has launched a pilot online course that seeks to combine aspects of the new online technology with the distinctive features of the residential liberal arts college.  The online course will be Calculus: A Modeling Approach, developed and taught by mathematics professors Kristina Garrett from St. Olaf College and Chad Topaz from Macalester College, and offered in June 2013.

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ACM President Christopher Welna refers to this pilot as a SPOC, or Small Participatory Online Course (an apt name coined by Lawrence University Registrar Anne Norman), because it seeks to incorporate the rich interactions between faculty and students that ACM colleges foster as residential liberal arts institutions.

Why experiment with an online course? The Board believes that the colleges can benefit by learning as much as possible about the learning outcomes of such courses. Given the massive publicity surrounding MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other forms of online learning, we need to know what they can and cannot achieve.

The course is conceived as a way to leverage some aspects of a MOOC, in the service of the liberal arts model.  It is a pilot that offers an opportunity for ACM faculty and their colleges to learn through the firsthand experience of ACM students. The ACM Deans named representatives from each college to a Faculty Advisory Committee, which met in February to discuss the initiative. The idea is that by sharing this initiative, all 14 ACM colleges can learn from the consortial experiment rather than conduct separate experiments on their own.

Calculus: A Modeling Approach

Although the term MOOC was apparently first used in 2008 to describe a new kind of online course, it was not until several years later that this form of education captured popular attention. By 2012, start-ups such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX had partnered with elite universities to begin offering courses, so that by October of last year Time Magazine heralded its judgment on these developments, signaling the threat they might pose to traditional on-campus education, with a cover story titled provocatively, "College is Dead. Long Live College."

Still, entry by liberal arts colleges into the MOOC world of higher education may seem antithetical to the missions of these institutions, even on a small scale (the ACM course is capped at 20 students). Indeed, with the recent exceptions of Wellesley College (edX) and Wesleyan University (Coursera), liberal arts colleges have been noticeably absent from these ventures. After all, many MOOCs have had enrollments exceeding 20,000 students, while the average class size at the ACM colleges is generally less than 30.

Furthermore, ACM colleges are residential liberal arts colleges, and we believe that an important element of the education we provide comes through the close personal interactions among students, and with faculty, over the course of four years. Any potential cost savings from MOOCs, which could be a significant attraction in a world of steadily rising college costs, simply might not be realizable by the liberal arts colleges, and this could serve only to increase the differential between already high liberal arts college tuitions and those at other educational institutions.

"[T]he comparative advantage of ACM colleges continues to lie in the high quality education they provide, something we expect this experiment to further enrich."

At the same time we and our colleagues teaching the pilot course wonder if there is potentially much to be gained from learning more about this new world of online education. As Wellesley College President H. Kim Bottomly blogged about her college's collaboration with edX, "I view this as an opportunity for a faculty known for innovation in the classroom to continue to experiment with the use of new technologies that have the potential to bring even more excitement to learning, and to enhance and enliven the classroom experience."

What can the ACM colleges expect to learn from the online course that the consortium will offer this summer? One question to explore is whether or not it is possible to replicate online the exemplary characteristics of an on-campus liberal arts college course. If so, what is required to do that? If not, what is lost?

Another question is what an online course can tell us about using blended-learning courses as a means to combine the best of residential education with online elements that allow professors to incorporate an array of digital materials, or to "flip" their classrooms. The on-campus classroom, for example, with its opportunities for rich interactions between students and their professors, is probably the best site for engaged, active, learning. But is that classroom still the best place to acquire information? Can online, interactive modules provide opportunities for students at all ability levels to work through material at their own pace until they have mastered it, unbounded by the constraints of the class period? If so, can class time then be reserved for high-touch interaction among students and their professors?

A recent ACM FaCE workshop, "Using Technology to Extend Learning Beyond Classroom Walls and Campus Boundaries" took up the topic of online collaborations across campuses among ACM faculty. Could ACM faculty share their expertise across campuses through online collaborations – as guest lecturers, for example? Could ACM faculty attract a robust enrollment for specialized seminars they want to teach by involving students from multiple campuses? Could such collaborations be structured to free up departmental funds for faculty development?

With liberal arts colleges facing an increasingly competitive economic environment, as well as rapid technological change, the comparative advantage of ACM colleges continues to lie in the high quality education they provide, something we expect this experiment to further enrich. The answers we find through this pilot – and the online modules it will make available for faculty on ACM campuses to use – may well lead to new questions.  In any case, as they have always done, the ACM colleges and their faculties will continue to engage with pressing educational questions of the day.

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This column was written for the Spring 2013 issue of the ACM Notes newsletter for faculty and administrators.

Copyright 2013