With its history of successful collaborations in mind, the ACS sought to launch a new program in the Fall 2011 that would explore the collaborative dimensions of online learning, a relatively new field for many of our campuses. The aim of the program was both experimental and evaluative: through a seed grant fund generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Teagle Foundation, and the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, ACS faculty and staff would be enabled to experiment with elements of online learning—such as online tutorials, video lectures, videoconferencing, and social media—while assessing their potential value for the liberal arts teaching context. Even as the value of liberal arts institutions has historically been defined by a small, highly interpersonal classroom experience, the consortium pursued a vision in which new technologies would allow liberal arts faculty and staff to forge partnerships with colleagues within and across institutions. The goal was to create a wide spectrum of innovative learning opportunities—from redesigned courses and majors to inter-institutional course sharing.
These initial forays into the world of digital teaching and learning comprised a range of activities from developing fully or partly blended courses, to organizing workshops or discussion groups in technology and pedagogy, to assessing the impact of blended courses on students and faculty. They spanned subject areas from anthropology, to career services, to literature, to the STEM fields. Nearly 60% of the funded projects either launched a new inter-institutional initiative or strengthened an existing inter-institutional project with the use of digital communications technology. With 42 different projects (representing over $200,00 in funding) introduced across the consortium over the course of three years, we are only beginning to understand the impact of this program, and of online learning’s potential value (and potential challenges) for liberal arts education—but we have gained a few key insights.