Taking the Liberal Arts Online in the Summer (CHE)

New ways of delivering courses can be compatible with small-college values

By William Pannapacker

I teach at a residential liberal-arts college on the western side of Michigan, with about 3,300 students and 300 faculty members. Unique among the institutions in our regional consortium, and unusual among liberal-arts colleges in general, we have developed an entirely online summer program that is limited to our own students.

It runs only in May, June, and July. I was a member of the committee that developed it eight years ago, chaired by our director of academic computing and made up of representatives from across the college. Every summer since the program’s inception, I have taught a general-education course in it called “Banned Books: Freedom and Censorship in the Age of Print.”

We started with 10 online courses and 105 students in 2006 and have grown to 35 courses and 340 students as of last summer. About 75 percent of those students reported that they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the experience; only about 8 percent were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied.” The content of the courses, the assignments, and the means of evaluation are monitored and assessed in the same way as the rest of our curriculum is.

A major reason we created the program was to assist students in completing their degrees within four years. Several of our preprofessional programs have demanding sequences that do not mesh easily with the schedules of courses in our core curriculum. In addition, a growing proportion of our students want to spend a semester off-campus, which places even greater constraints on their academic schedules.

Students typically offset those scheduling difficulties by taking a few summer courses, sometimes at our college, but more often at community colleges in their hometowns. When we started the online program, the question of transferring online credits from other institutions was already being raised. Obviously, our college does not want its students taking courses elsewhere. Transfer credits represent a significant loss of tuition.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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