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At Liberal-Arts Colleges, Debate About Online Courses Is Really About Outsourcing

Lifetime residents of Maine tend to look askance at people who are “from away,” an epithet reserved for transplants, summer vacationers, and college students. Such people might mean well, the thinking goes, but ultimately they do not belong.

Bowdoin College, a 220-year-old institution in Brunswick, Me., takes a similarly protective view of its curriculum. At a time when online education has blurred campus borders—and institutions face growing pressure to train students for specific jobs—Bowdoin and many other liberal-arts colleges have held the line. When I matriculated there, a decade ago, Bowdoin didn’t even have online course registration. (The college finally added it last year.)

So it was a significant move last week when Bowdoin decided to offer, in the spring, a partly online course in financial accounting led by a professor at Dartmouth College’s business school.

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As many as 50 Bowdoin students will take the course, for credit, from the Maine campus. The Dartmouth professor, Phillip C. Stocken, will teach largely from his post in New Hampshire, holding weekly class sessions and office hours online. Meanwhile, an economics professor at Bowdoin will lead weekly face-to-face sessions on its campus. Bowdoin will pay $60,000 for the course—significantly less than it would cost to develop a course “of this quality” from scratch, according to Scott Hood, a spokesman.

Not surprisingly, the Dartmouth course has met with resistance from some faculty members at Bowdoin; 21 professors voted against the decision to offer it as a one-semester pilot.

“I am skeptical of how a course like this reinforces the student-faculty dynamic, and remain to be convinced that it can,” wrote Dale A. Syphers, a physics professor, in an email interview.

In the grand scheme of online education, Bowdoin’s collaboration with Dartmouth is relatively conservative. Many traditional institutions now offer fully online courses, and have done so for a long time. But liberal-arts colleges, which stake their prestige on the offer of an intimate, residential experience, have been wary of fielding courses with significant online components, even on a trial basis—especially if those courses are “from away.”

2U, a company that helps colleges put their programs online, tried last year to build a coalition of elite colleges that would develop online versions of their undergraduate courses that students at member institutions could take for credit. But Duke University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Rochester all dropped out after faculty members objected, and the remaining colleges voted to dissolve the consortium.

Other experiments in sharing online courses among liberal-arts colleges have produced more-encouraging results. Last year a theater professor at Rollins College, in Florida, taught an online course on voice and diction to students at Hendrix College, in Arkansas. Eric Zivot, the Rollins professor, used high-definition videoconferencing technology to hold class sessions, where he appeared on a projection screen at the front of the Hendrix classroom.

Only once did the professor visit his Hendrix students in person, said Amanda Hagood, director of blended learning at the Associated Colleges of the South, a consortium that has continued to facilitate the exchange. When Mr. Zivot does visit, “it’s always an underwhelming moment because the Hendrix students always feel like they already know him,” said Ms. Hagood. “It’s not a big deal that he’s there in person.”

Another consortium, the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, has supported an online calculus course, led by an associate professor at Macalester College, that is open to students at the association’s 14 member colleges.

The eight-week course had its first run in the summer of 2013. Sixteen students enrolled, hailing from eight colleges in the consortium. “We were never in the same place, ever,” said Chad Topaz, the professor. One student took the course while traveling in India, Mr. Topaz said.

He taught the same course again this past summer. Mr. Topaz said the course went well both times, but it is still in a pilot phase. He said he had yet to be told whether he would be teaching it again next summer.

Recent conversations about online higher education have revolved around how colleges can and should blast their courses out into the wider world. But for institutions that sell an intimate, localized experience, a more-pressing question might be how they can and should integrate courses from elsewhere.

Cristle Collins Judd, dean of academic affairs at Bowdoin, said she understands the anxiety that comes with an experiment that could reasonably be seen as “outsourcing.” But Ms. Judd, a music professor, said the college must be careful not to “inadvertently close the door” to online opportunities due to an excess of caution.

“We’re not going to suddenly import a whole curriculum,” she said.

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