Liberal-Arts Colleges Venture Into Unlikely Territory: Online Courses

Bryn Mawr, Pa.—The small liberal-arts college in this Pennsylvania town offers students an intimate learning experience. There is one professor for every eight students, each of whom pays about $40,000 for that kind of access. Now the college wants to add courses that are partly online into this setting, and it wants other liberal-arts institutions to follow suit.

“It’s going to raise some eyebrows,” said Joseph C. Amato, a professor of physics at Colgate University, who was attending a meeting here on Tuesday about blending liberal-arts teaching with online learning.

Bryn Mawr won a $250,000 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges this spring to explore how online courseware could fit into the close-knit liberal-arts experience. The software, a sophisticated form of “computer tutor,” will be introduced into traditional math and science classes this fall to improve course-completion rates. Professors at even the most tony colleges say they are seeing completion—and math- and science-major retention—as more of a problem.

Mr. Amato was right, though. Eyebrows were indeed raised. “You have created a way to teach students without faculty,” a professor in a workshop session said.

“No,” said Candace Thille, project director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, which developed the software that Bryn Mawr and 35 other colleges will be using. “We are creating a way for you to spend time in class teaching different things, freed from the burden of teaching basic skills.” The software gives individualized instruction in 12 subjects, using sophisticated tracking of skill development and offering instant feedback and help based on the student’s mastery of concepts. The idea is to use this to teach basic statistics, say, instead of using a professor’s lectures—and time—on the fundamentals.

“We don’t see this grant as replacing our most precious product, which is student-faculty interaction and student-student interaction,” said Kimberly Cassidy, Bryn Mawr’s provost and a professor of psychology who is the principal investigator on the project.

“We want professors in these courses, which are first- and second-year classes, talking about more sophisticated ideas with the students,” Ms. Cassidy added.

One of the issues professors face in large courses “is the diversity of backgrounds of the students coming in,” said Lisa Dierker, a professor of psychology at Wesleyan University who has used the Carnegie Mellon software. “Some are really well prepared, and some are lost and panicked.” In her psychological-statistics class, she said, the software module has given her a much better idea of who knows what, and lets her direct extra help where it is needed.

Research published on the Carnegie Mellon course modules indicates that they are effective. At a large public university, 99 percent of students taking the program’s formal-logic course online completed it, compared with 41 percent of students in the traditional course. At Carnegie Mellon, students who took an accelerated-statistics course in hybrid form completed it in eight weeks, and learned as much material, and performed as well on tests, as did students taking a traditional 15-week course.

Just how professors could make use of time in their classes, if the computer took over some of the basics, was something that everyone wondered. And nobody had good answers. “We’re in uncharted territory here,” said Ms. Cassidy. In the coming academic year, Bryn Mawr intends to experiment in biology, chemistry, and statistics classes, to find out if there are indeed better things for professors and students to do.

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