Study: Digital learning may not be the answer to liberal arts institutions' woes
- While many traditional liberal arts schools are turning toward online education options amidst criticism they are not providing student return on investment, incorporating online programs may actually not yield higher student enrollment, are resource-demanding and may be hindered by a learning curve from faculty, finds a new report from research group Ithaka S+R. The group used data from a two-year project from a Teagle Foundation initiative that funded a consortia of institutions to test the outcomes of technology-enhanced educational resource adoption and whether they improved the quality of education in a cost-efficient manner.
- The report notes that for successful technology adoption to occur, institutions were focused on having faculty work with teams of instructional designers and creating opportunities for broad faculty collaboration. For benefits of online course design to be realized, write the authors, support from administrative staff is necessary, as well as support "from a backbone organization with the resources and infrastructure to coordinate across institutions," with the backbone group being a party handling technology integration.
- Among the positive takeaways from the report are that institutions experimenting with digital learning within the liberal arts framework created new opportunities for creative discussion and increased access to the liberal arts curriculum for more diverse students, while allowing faculty to become more open to instructional technology more broadly.
The appeal of online education as an addition to the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom setting is gaining steam throughout the industry, but figures showing the unstable state of online student retention indicates that merely just investing in online courses may not be the right approach.
Though, the effectiveness of the online program, and scaling that to be efficient and cost-effective for the institution, isn't a matter of whether digital learning is popular, said Alana Dunagan, a researcher at Clayton Christensen Institute.
"We need to contextualize the low enrollment numbers from this study with what we are seeing," she said. "Across higher ed, we're seeing over 30% of students take one or more courses online at both the undergraduate and a graduate level. So the idea that online enrollment isn't appealing to students needs to come with some major caveats."
Michael Horowitz, president of the TCS Education System, a nonprofit group of colleges where the backbone organization handles economies of scale for partner institutions, including investment in online professional degree programs, spoke with Education Dive this week about how to decide whether it's the right time to develop a digital learning presence. He explained it's important to consider context and invest slowly.
"The online component is supposed to be additive to the quality of instruction. In our approach, online is organic and layered in. We first and foremost ask, 'Do the students want this?" said Horowitz.
"The Chicago School, in our system, is [opening a location in] Dallas, for example," he said. "They are going to figure out what the local community wants. What's the format the students want? Do they want all ground? Do they want to come at night?"
"When it comes to our students, they are in their 30s," he continued. "They are committed and they know what they want and are more receptive to online."
Dunagan also noted the appeal of an online class within liberal arts schools depends on the value added. So, when institutions are considering whether to adopt, it's critical to consider what the options are, rather than investing wholesale.
"Enrollment was only open to students already enrolled in a (likely residential) liberal arts college. The courses weren't cheaper than other courses," she explained.
"Typically students who enroll in an online environment do it because it's more affordable or more convenient. For these students it was likely neither. This is what happens when schools use online technology as a hybrid Innovation as opposed to wrapping it inside of a disruptive business model."
And it's for this reason one of the report's lead authors, Martin Kurzweil, told Education Dive that effectively implementing an online program requires context and strategy. If those pieces can come together, then it could mean a lot of benefits for the liberal arts institution.
"In most of those cases, there was a logistical hurdle that limited enrollment — academic calendars didn’t match, the course was left out of the course catalog," he said. "So at least in the context of the Teagle project, the cross-institutional nature of the courses seemed to be a more significant hindrance on enrollment than the online nature of the courses."
"Context and strategy matter a lot. Small liberal arts colleges and programs may face a number of situations in which they are unable to meet student demand for courses: the course isn’t offered frequently enough, is offered with too few seats for the number of students who want or need to take it, or isn’t offered at all because there are some students who need it but too few to justify offering it," said Kurzweil.
However, he explains, "a digital solution, developed in partnership with other institutions with the same or complementary needs, has the potential to help in each of those cases."
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