Liberal arts colleges, though small in size and number, have a major impact on our culture. They are defined by their small class sizes, their interdisciplinary curriculum, their beautiful grounds, and their focus on supporting student interests and curiosity. They represent a small percentage of the total number of colleges in North America, but they contribute immensely to the arts, sciences, and society at large.
Technology has never been a driving force for change at liberal arts colleges. For many faculty members at these institutions, interest in digital technologies has never been a top priority. But today, given our susceptibility to pandemics and the need to stay safe and separated, these colleges have serious decisions to make about how to maintain academic continuity.
In an interview with Bryan Alexander, an educational futurist with nearly 20 years under his belt working in and with liberal arts institutions across the U.S. and author of the recent book Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education, I asked the following questions: Can liberal arts colleges pivot to online learning? What might the outcomes look like?
Alexander offered three scenarios:
- NO. Liberal arts educational experience cannot be duplicated online. For those who desire an intense, intimate learning community, an online learning experience will never come close. Trying to make it work online cheapens the experience.
- YES, BUT it needs to have a strong face-to-face component. This works with certain academic departments with laboratory or studio requirements. But this is a partially online solution, not a fully online one.
- Yes, BUT it needs to be truly different, truly unique. This would not be a traditional face-to-face learning experience but would instead require a high level of production design, editing, and quality assurance.
Alexander believes that while, yes, digital technologies and social media have their limitations, they can be combined in multiple ways to support a liberal arts high-touch model. Social media, he notes, is just that (highly social), and students and student organizations have been using such digital tools and apps for quite some time. Social media is great for sharing, communicating, and collaborating to a large extent, but it cannot replicate a laboratory or a dance studio easily. And this is an important and essential point for liberal arts colleges to consider. They are built upon and are known for providing rich, interdisciplinary options for students. Currently, online environments are limited to the extent of the studio or lab experiences they can provide or simulate, but perhaps this might be the perfect opportunity to invest in and explore a mix of virtual and augmented reality settings.
Alexander felt it important to underscore that the focus on interdisciplinary studies that defines the liberal arts tradition is perhaps one of the best remedies for the current COVID-19 crisis. For example, most people work interdisciplinarily. Cross-disciplinary studies, with their focus on creativity, invention, and collaboration across disciplines, are exactly what the world needs right now as we look to solve a myriad of social, scientific, and humanitarian challenges. For today’s 20-year-old, having one single major and/or one single lens to look at the world may not be enough to survive and thrive moving forward.
For liberal arts colleges that do decide to embrace online learning, what might that learning experience look like? In what ways can it maintain a high level of touch and engagement? Will an online learning experience look like a Zoom meeting limited to 15 students? Should the colleges try to do more with computer gaming where there is room for an amazing amount of creativity? Should they rethink the role of the student as a “maker” or “creator” rather than simply a consumer?
Alexander notes that we’ve seen many colleges adopt online learning first in the hard sciences—in chemistry, engineering, nursing, and pharmacy. But what if the social sciences like English, history, political science, or psychology were to adopt and focus on online learning? How might a liberal arts teaching and learning focus impact the way these subjects are taught? From a critical theory perspective, how might it impact the technologies used to teach and learn online? How might it provide a new lens to critique and evaluate online learning and existing organizational structures? In this sense, adopting a digital stance could lead to a myriad of research and re-imagining of how learning takes place online.
There is also a major concern about fiscal solvency for many liberal arts colleges. Enrollment numbers have been in decline over the past few years, with the current global pandemic causing future plans and priorities to be completely reassessed. To this point, Alexander notes a few possibilities for liberal arts colleges adopting online learning models.
Go online poorly—This could leave a bad impression on students who may decide to complete their education elsewhere.
Reopen face-to-face—In this case, colleges could face low enrollment numbers and/or indirectly contribute to a larger outbreak of infections, which would then be publicized, and enrollment numbers could decline even more.
Mutate and transform—With more students enrolling in allied health fields, such as nursing, premed, radiology, and mental health, and including majors such as economics, campuses could pivot in this direction but may have to give up other disciplines and studies like music education, second languages, and arts programs.
Collaborate across institutions—This is another way liberal arts colleges potentially can thrive, by sharing students across courses as well as sharing software and other licenses to leverage efficiency and keep costs lower.
Embrace accessibility—Since close attention and care are key elements of a liberal arts education, colleges could embrace a universal design of a learning model and make this a clear and essential part of their identity.
Support senior citizens—Another interesting scenario liberal arts colleges could adopt is a deeper focus on nontraditional audiences, specifically senior citizens, who make up a large portion of our population. This audience generally has some disposable income, faces more visual and auditory issues, and is a population largely undeserved by higher education institutions. However, it is a growing population that colleges should be thinking about.
For Alexander, the key to success for liberal arts colleges moving forward involves “thinking like a futurist,” i.e., being open to the possibilities of where higher education is headed in the next five, 10, to 20 years. Given the current scope of the threat they are facing, now more than ever is the time for liberal arts colleges to make the case for their value and to consider adopting new approaches to using technology that aligns with their distinct needs.