In 2015, students in participating COPLAC institutions enrolled in a hybrid archaeology course that included an in-person field school dig at a Native American site.
A four-campus subset of the twenty-nine member Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) is developing a model to share courses that expand curricular options on each campus and build a virtual department for faculty. These COPLAC members are testing the appeal of specialized courses in a hybrid environment and assessing the student learning outcomes of this format against traditional face-to-face classes. The group is exploring whether the individual campuses, ranging in size from 800 to 4,500 undergraduates, can leverage their COPLAC membership to strengthen teaching and learning while maintaining the “learning on a human scale” characteristic of public liberal arts institutions. The goal is to strengthen the instructional capacity of their small to medium-size campuses in an era of declining state appropriations for public liberal arts institutions.
The participating campuses include: University of Alberta-Augustana, SUNY-Geneseo, University of Minnesota-Morris, and University of North Carolina-Asheville. The campuses are diverse, offering unique perspectives on indigenous experiences. While the field of Indigenous Studies was selected for this project, shared courses come from a variety of departments and programs, including anthropology, archeology, philosophy, history, and literature.
Over the course of the project, over 20 courses have been offered. The project is experimenting with two formats of delivering hybrid courses. The first hybrid model features an “on the ground” advisor/mentor to students taking an online class from another campus. In the second hybrid model, students take an online prerequisite course, and then meet during the summer for an on-site, face-to-face field research class. These videos capture students talking about their experience participating in two different study away programs: a hybrid archaeology course followed by an in-person field school experience at a Native American site in Rhode Island, and a hybrid history course followed by an in-person field school experience at Native American boarding schools in Minnesota.
The Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service (COLRS) at the University of Illinois Springfield (a COPLAC member institution) provides hands-on training for the instructors that focuses on online learning pedagogy, technology, and best practices in teaching in an online environment. Follow-up online training sessions provide a community of professional practice for faculty who are part of the program. COLRS has also developed a Blackboard course site for faculty participants as an additional source of shared support. Faculty who have participated in the faculty development component of the project have access to these teaching and learning resources to supplement their hybrid teaching.
Encouraging uptake among students has been the greatest challenge to date for reasons that are both surprising and unsurprising. It is surprising because the campuses have had such high demand for greater variety in Indigenous Studies curricula. It is unsurprising in the sense that promoting online or hybrid classes to students who have chosen a public liberal arts setting is a challenge, as they have made a conscious choice to engage in face-to-face learning and have undoubtedly heard online learning demeaned in their college selection process. The group has therefore found ways to ease student concerns about how a different format might affect outcomes or learning. For example, assignments are often scaffolded to allow for low-stakes submissions and revisions, and students have the opportunity to provide feedback on online or blended courses midway through the semester.
Another challenge has been dealing with enrollment of students from different campuses and thus different academic calendars, including different time zones, registration procedures, and staffing support systems. Nevertheless, the project has successfully developed and implemented the appropriate administrative procedures for conducting the courses, working out many of the initial details at their annual meeting coinciding with the annual COPLAC conference. Currently, distance students enrolling in hybrid classes register for either an independent study or special topics course at their home institutions. This procedure makes it possible for students to avoid out-of-state tuition and fees normally associated with courses offered through an out-of-state college or university. Registering students in a course on their home campus also eliminates concern about transferability of credit. Each participating campus has agreed to follow this “tuition sharing” model. Moving forward, though, they believe that a key part of making the project sustainable will be to create a clearly defined and marketed COPLAC registration window for students in the shared courses. With this model, all students would register at the same time, offering each campus an equal opportunity to enroll students and give faculty and administrators a better sense of enrollment earlier in the process.
Despite the challenges of student enrollment and complex administrative procedures, the COPLAC group has seen significant successes. They have established a sort of virtual department that provides students with new opportunities to receive a major or minor in Indigenous Studies, while including faculty in a cross-campus and interdisciplinary community of practice. Importantly, they are using technology as a means to an end that is specific to the goals of the liberal arts—as opposed to an end unto itself. As Jessie Brown, Research Analyst Ithaka S+R notes in a grantee convening report for Teagle's Hybrid Learning initiative, “Online or blended learning in the abstract, divorced from its application to any real challenge, has little chance of gaining traction or catalyzing meaningful change. Where technology does have potential, however, is when it is used as a tool in a broad strategy to address a real problem.” By collaboratively creating courses and content, and then sharing that content across campuses, institutions can increase capacity and enhance learning in a meaningful way.