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Why Hamilton College is collaborating with Colgate University and joining edX

Exploring the use of online technologies to enhance the mission of residential liberal arts

Hamilton College has joined the online learning platform edX as a contributing member through a unique partnership with its liberal arts neighbor, Colgate University. Hamilton’s Patrick Reynolds, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, and Dave Smallen, vice president for libraries and information technology, discuss how this collaboration positions Hamilton to explore the use of online technologies to enhance its residential liberal arts mission.


1) Why is Hamilton joining in this edX venture as a partner with Colgate?

Reynolds: As we disseminate our experiences with the edX platform back to our respective faculties on campus, we can draw upon each other, building on current academic collaborations between the institutions. Our campuses’ proximity in terms of location means that we can share production costs and expertise in developing our online offerings. The scope of membership in edX, especially in terms of the number of offerings we can provide, is such that a partnership makes sense given our relatively small size.

Smallen: We have a tradition of partnering with Colgate in the application of technology to our academic program. In the 1990s we jointly received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to focus on technology and language learning. This led to the implementation of videoconferencing on both campuses and a shared course in Italian taught via that technology. Through the years our libraries and IT organizations have continued to partner in support of teaching and learning. The edX partnership will further working relationships between our faculty and educational support staffs.


2) How will the college joining edX benefit members of the Hamilton community?

Reynolds: Our participation with edX will allow us to reach our global alumni network, offering them intellectual engagement with the college and professors who in many cases had a profound impact on their education while on College Hill. Our faculty will also have the opportunity to bring their scholarship and pedagogy to the public, engaging an expanded community with their unique contributions. The greatest potential benefit is to the pedagogical development of our faculty; the experiences we gain from our edX offerings will deepen our understanding of the online learning environment, provide opportunity for adoption of online tools that complement our on-campus pedagogy and engage our faculty directly in the national conversation on online education and the role of the liberal arts within it.

Smallen: For our faculty, it is an opportunity to highlight their teaching and scholarship to a world-wide audience, while enabling them to experiment with technologies that can enhance the intimate environment our classrooms provide. Offerings to alumni can provide a great way to connect faculty with our students around intellectual pursuits while our career center can use these technologies to connect the same audiences around professional development. Students working with edX faculty will become research and teaching partners as they help monitor discussion forums and develop interactive exercises that will be part of the offerings.


3) How does becoming an edX contributing member fit with Hamilton’s use of technology to enhance learning?

Reynolds: Hamilton faculty members have a strong record of incorporating online and digital technologies that bridge distance into their teaching. For example, majors in Chinese language practice their speaking skills with tutors in China; geology students participate in a seminar with students in Egypt; faculty run online workshops for their professional peers across the country; and others have offered short courses to small groups of alumni in parallel with their on-campus courses. Our edX experiment will expand the range of online tools with which we have experience and, as such, is a natural step in the constant pedagogical development, in multiple dimensions, in which our faculty members engage.

Smallen: Our faculty regularly experiment with new technologies to enhance learning. We were one of the early adopters of course management systems, and one such system continues to be heavily used by our students and faculty. More recently, experiments with mobile technologies, gaming and virtual reality have been supported through the Hillgroup, our library/IT collaboration. We see the use of edX as a continuation of this experimentation, supported within a structure that has more than a decade of demonstrated success.


4) Why is Hamilton joining edX now?

Reynolds: As with many partnerships, ours is due to having a serendipitous collection of people to help make it happen. Collaboration between normally competing institutions is not easy, but Doug Hicks and I, the chief academic officers, and Dave Smallen and Kevin Lynch, the information technology officers, at our respective institutions of Colgate and Hamilton, have developed a strong working relationship that has elevated the potential mutual benefits over our normal competitive spirit. Even still, our collaboration is only possible because our faculty members, who have a commitment to excellence in teaching and the success of our students and a confidence in their work to engage with this innovative and possibly disruptive online environment. Of course, the support of our respective presidents has been critical.

Smallen: We are excited about partnering with Colgate and our other liberal arts peers, Davidson and Wellesley, to share expertise and learn from each other. The current focus of massive online learning is about efficiently providing content. The liberal arts is about developing critical thinking, effective communication, knowledge creation and thoughtful decision-making to address important global issues. I think Hamilton has an opportunity to explore the development of these important capabilities on a new technological platform and demonstrate the value of liberal arts graduates to solving real-world problems. Hamilton has been a national leader among liberal arts colleges in the application of digital technologies to humanities research. Our Digital Humanities Initiative has collaborated with peer institutions to create a sustainable infrastructure for faculty and student research on campuses worldwide.


5) How will the courses Hamilton offers through edX be determined?

Reynolds: Several faculty members have already expressed strong interest in participating in the edX project. I will be inviting the entire faculty to consider their interest in participation, with particular reference to our proximate goals of connecting with alumni, public scholarship and educational outreach, and to our higher goals of learning about online technologies from the edX platform and considering what the liberal arts educational model has to offer to online education in the world today. I hope for a broad range of offerings that will address these various goals so that we can get the most out of our engagement with edX.

Smallen: Already there are many ideas and small projects underway at Hamilton that are making connections between faculty and alumni, students and alumni/parents and entering students and the campus community. EdX will enable us to explore these opportunities “at scale.” Our faculty have been creative about using interdisciplinary approaches to prepare our students to be global citizens.

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