Home » Innovative Enrollment Ideas » New blog post: Should traditional #liberalarts #colleges experiment with the learning model? #humanities #highered

New blog post: Should traditional #liberalarts #colleges experiment with the learning model? #humanities #highered



For the past several weeks I’ve been gathering materials for a forthcoming retreat of Augustana College’s Board of Trustees. It’s been my job to identify and review background readings that are appropriate for our Board and other campus stakeholders to discuss as we think about our future.

My list of “interesting articles” has grown to monumental proportions!

Some articles inspired and some depressed.

Two particular articles caught my attention because they seemed to suggest very different strategies for colleges. This article from Wilson Quarterly seems to suggest colleges need to be aware of what’s happening, but should hold on to what has historically worked well (and benefited society). The other article The End of the University as we Know It, from The American Interest, paints a very scary picture for traditional colleges–going so far as to suggest the doors will close if there are not significant changes.

Honestly, I don’t yet know how to react.

What is it?

Stick to what you’ve done and just try to do it better?

Scrap what we’ve done (and know works) to adopt something entirely new (and scary)?

I wonder if there is another way? Is there something in between?

I wonder if there are ways those in the humanities at traditional liberal arts can lead the way. Can the humanities and liberal arts take greater control of their future by paying heed to both of these articles?

In my view, there may be some benefit to all programs, but especially those in the liberal art and humanities to think about some experimenting.

While I will always be an advocate for “seat time” for learning because of the many benefits of such an experience beyond the simple accumulation of knowledge, I acknowledge the world is changing and think we need to examine ways of doing what we do at traditional residential liberal arts college in new ways. I think it is prudent to experiment and try to find new modes for instruction and learning.  New methods must be consistent with our values, expectation for students and rigor and they need leverage the many new ways students gather information and learn. We need to experiment with various models to find ways that new modes of learning can reflect our values, expectations for students and maintain the rigor we expect. It would be a shame for us to conclude that this is an impossible challenge. Yet, it will take some time for us to get it right.

Because I believe the “currency” of higher education is the major or minor (we would not have them if they were not important), I think experimentation should focus on solidifying or expanding the “currency” of a department and it’s major or minor.

If I were advising a smaller department about its future, during this time of disruption in higher education, I would recommend a department begin experimenting immediately with online and limited seat time learning with the intent of expanding (or perhaps maintaining) currency and its footprint.

My rationale for suggesting that smaller programs, in particular, explore online and limited seat time learning is focused on the following:

1. Flexibility has its advantages: The flexibility offered by an online or limited seat time course could expand the footprint and potentially expose students to the department/program/major/minor. For example, given the busyness of our students today, convenience matters and perhaps those departments that offer greater flexibility—particularly within a traditional learning environment—might have an advantage attracting students. At some level, this is about selling your program and everyone should be seeking some advantage. Perhaps online or limited seat time course will be your advantage (with the added plus that you get to expose students to a subject you care about and have committed your life to).

2. Use your smallness to surprise everyone: Small departments/programs/majors/minor are probably the last areas that people would think would do something like this. This may be even more so when considering interdisciplinary programs/majors/minors or those that have three or fewer faculty members. Many are likely to think, “They are too small—and overworked to do something like that.” Small, in this case, may mean nimble and provide an advantage over larger, more complex and bureaucratic programs.

3. Make completing a minor or second major more convenient: Offering online or limited seat time courses might make completing a minor or second major more convenient for some students, which in itself is a great outcome. The lure of online or limited seat time courses may be especially attractive for students who have a primary major is more credit or lab intensive program.

4. Expand your footprint–maybe even to another like-minded college: Smaller departments at traditional liberal arts colleges that consider experimenting with online or limited seat time classes may also be able to expand their footprint beyond their own campus. If the experimental offering is attractive enough, perhaps colleges with similar values will seek to partner? I think this could be especially beneficial for small departments that because of a sabbatical, administrative duties or load limitation face the challenges of ensuring regular offering of key courses.

5. Make an economic and student engagement case: For some departments online or limited seat time courses that are regularly offered could also assure the availability of courses that reflect an institution’s rigor and values during study abroad and summer study (this is especially true at a place like Augustana College, where I work). This is a potentially proactive way to keep students engaged in the life and rigor of a campus even when they are not there. For some college, especially those which self-sponsor international programs and send full-time faculty with students for study away, a cadre of online or limited seat time courses may reduce the added expense of study away because there is no longer a need to send as many full-time faculty with students. The CFO might really like this rationale for online or limited seat time courses.

It would not surprise me to have these ideas dismissed as crazy or blasphemous.  I might receive a litany about why this is impossible and how naïve I am about rigor, expectation and pedagogy (all criticism might be accurate, too).


But, I continue to believe that some experimentation in this area is useful and desirable as we prepare for an uncertain future.

What do you think? Should traditional colleges hunker down? Should traditional colleges throw it all out and start anew?

I fear if we don’t experiment, we will be left behind. I fear the experience we value most will be marginalized. And, I fear  we will not preparing our students with the broad-based education they need.

Don’t you think we should begin experimenting and create something that reflects our values, meets our expectation and maintains our rigor?  Don’t you think we need to begin trying to shape this conversation, rather than being shaped by it. Don’t you think we can shape this conversation? I think we can and I think we can be creative enough to develop an experience that is reflective of our values, maintains expectations and is rigorous.

Let’s try. Let’s see if we can, rather than simply conclude we can’t.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

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