Small Talk from the VP: A Digital Teaching and Learning Collaborative

By Dave Smallen

Dave Smallen
Dave Smallen

In March 2014, Hamilton and Colgate joined edX, and one year later professors Doran Larson and Brent Plate offered Hamilton’s first two massively open online courses (MOOCs). During that year we began regular conversations with our counterparts at Davidson and Wellesley, two other national liberal arts colleges that were experimenting with the same online technologies.

The conversations led to face-to-face meetings of faculty, staff and students at Davidson in February and Wellesley in May. From these discussions emerged the idea of forming a consortium to more formally share our experiences and collaborate on efforts going forward.

After much discussion, the consortium has a name: Liberal Arts Online: A Digital Teaching and Learning Collaborative. The goals of the consortium are to share in the creation and production of course content or related education materials; share in the analysis of and research into lessons learned from delivery of online courses and other open educational resources; and coordinate communication about such activities. The four institutions have collectively produced 11 MOOCs and other related online courses and are in discussion about other online/blended activities. A web presence for the consortium is in process.

One of the opportunities of offering a MOOC is that large amounts of data are collected automatically about how the materials are used by the students in the course. For example, which videos do students watch? How often? Are there some they watch multiple times because the presentation is not clear? How consistently do they do the assigned readings? How does time on task relate to success in doing the exercises? Making sense of this data for potentially hundreds or thousands of students is a big challenge, but the opportunity to better understand elements of the learning process is substantial.

To address this challenge the collaborative is jointly contracting with a data scientist.  He will help each institution get access to its data and help us understand how to frame questions so that the data can inform the answers.  Gordon Hewitt, Assistant Dean of Faculty for Institutional Research and Assessment, will be leading the Hamilton analysis efforts using a new tool called Tableau.  Further, the institutions will find ways to share and compare data across the four institutions to expand our opportunities to learn from our work.

Each of the institutions in the collaborative is interested in the question of what can we learn from the online learning environments, like MOOCs, that might help inform or enhance the highly personalized type of residential experience we offer to our students?  In what ways might the “team” approach to the creation and support of online courses work in supporting face-to-face courses?  Might the materials created for a MOOC provide an interactive alternative to the traditional textbook for our students, one that can be built upon from year to year? How can students play a greater role as teaching assistants in courses?

The answers to these questions, shared across the collaborative, can help liberal arts colleges to be part of the national discussion about the challenges and benefits of online/ blended formats for student learning.  Liberal Arts Online can provide an important perspective.


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