Introduction

The Associated Colleges of the South, incorporated in 1991, serves 16 distinguished liberal arts institutions including Birmingham-Southern College; Centenary College of Louisiana, Centre College; Davidson College, Furman University; Hendrix College; Millsaps College; Morehouse College; Rhodes College; Rollins College; Sewanee: The University of the South; Southwestern University; Spelman College; Trinity University; the University of Richmond; and Washington and Lee University. The consortium’s mission is to strengthen, promote, and showcase the value of liberal arts education through collaboration between its member institutions. We hope, through collaboration, to reduce the cost and improve the quality of higher education. In its 23-year history, the ACS has created and sustained rich collaborative programs in Sustainability and the Environment, Gender Studies, a Diversity Initiative, International Studies, Classical Studies, Faculty Advancement, and a Summer Teaching and Learning Workshop that continues to draw faculty from across the consortium. Through each of these endeavors, the faculty, staff, and institutional leaders involved have embodied the principle that by working together, our institutions can create extraordinary learning opportunities that are not otherwise possible.

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The Blended Learning Program

With this 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.

Defining Blended Learning

An important element of our task has been to understand how online learning technologies can successfully combine with the interpersonal face-to-face instruction that has always distinguished liberal arts institutions. Many sources, including Educause (a premier organization in information technology and higher education) base their definitions of blended learning on the degree to which educational technologies can reduce the amount of time students spend in face-to-face classroom environments (a factor known as “seat time”). As such, in a blended course, students might spend between 30-79% of course time in a face-to-face classroom environment.[1] But we see another important question with regard to blended learning: how is technology is integrated with classroom instruction? As Rebecca Frost Davis has suggested, preparing a course for online or hybrid delivery often requires a significant reconsideration of course design that takes into account where technology can most enhance the “high impact practices” that characterize liberal arts classrooms—and where it cannot.[2] In that sense, another useful definition of blended learning can be derived from the Bryn Mawr College, which partnered with 40 other liberal arts institutions in 2011 to begin testing blended course delivery in across the curriculum.

This group uses two criteria to define blended learning: 1) that students receive feedback on learning outside the classroom through computer-based materials; 2) that extra-classroom components alter how instructors teach or use class time.[3] Similarly, we recognize that online instruction’s particular value for liberal arts institutions may differ somewhat from its value for larger institutions. Because this value is still in the process of definition and testing, the ACS uses a broad definition of blended learning as “computer-mediated instruction that is combined with the interpersonal and interactive pedagogy that distinguishes the ACS institutions.”[4] Though reducing seat time could be an outcome of ACS-supported initiatives, the overarching goals of the Blended Learning Program are 1) to determine how to blend face-to-face and online learning environments most effectively in a liberal arts teaching context; and 2) to encourage digitally-mediated collaborations that expand learning opportunities as well as faculty development opportunities across ACS campuses.

Putting Pedagogy First

One of the most valuable results of the Blended Learning program has been the discussion that funded projects have sparked within and between our institutions. ACS faculty and staff have experimented with everything from flipped classrooms, digital humanities projects, massive open online courses, online homework and assessments, videoconferencing, and social media in the classroom. As per grant requirements, they have posted the results of these experiments on the ACS website, but many have also shared their findings with their campus communities or presented on their projects at regional and national conferences. In addition to supporting innovations in the classroom—many of which have lived on as adopted elements of the course or as expanded intra- and inter-institutional projects—ACS-sponsored projects have become springboards for discussion about the best practices for blended learning in liberal arts pedagogy, the role it might take in institutional strategy, and its broader impact on higher education.

An important refrain from nearly all of these conversations has been that, as online learning expands across ACS institutions, pedagogy should lead technology. In other words, technological innovation should not be considered a worthy goal in itself, but rather a means to support the active learning activities favored at liberal arts institutions, a technique for engaging digitally native students while training them in academic uses of technology, and a means for creating inter-institutional learning opportunities not otherwise available. In an effort to identify and promote projects that demonstrate this principle, the ACS began holding regular webinars on pedagogy and technology in Fall 2013. In these open presentations, ACS faculty and staff describe their use of technology in the classroom and reflect on benefits, drawbacks, and lessons learned. These monthly sessions are also archived for later viewing and dissemination to individuals or groups.

Providing Extended Support

As Blended Learning grant recipients and other faculty and staff leaders have reported on their work over the past three years, we have discovered an important dimension of successful online learning collaborations. While many innovative projects are lead by faculty members or staff who identify ways that technology can address a specific pedagogical or logistical problem, these projects often need the support of staff in educational technology departments, libraries, and/or teaching and learning centers in order to become truly sustainable. These dedicated professionals can help faculty select and learn appropriate technologies, support student work with training and oversight, coordinate technology logistics, and help address issues of data storage and maintenance. Through these collaborations, support staff often gain a clearer sense of the learning outcomes for a specific project and what makes for a successful learning experience, just as lead instructors learn the capabilities and workings of a new technology. In this sense, many successful online learning projects require an ongoing collaboration between faculty and staff—what Diana Oblinger has called a “team approach”—over and beyond the traditional “one-off” technology training session.[5] These rich, collaborative project-based “teams” can make truly amazing teaching work possible and are particularly well suited for the liberal arts environment. But they can also pose problems for technology departments at smaller institutions, where departments may already be overburdened by the demands of service and maintenance. Looking for ways to sustain these fruitful exchanges is particularly challenging and particularly important, and will likely become more so in future years.

How To Use This Book

With these lessons in mind, we offer in the following pages six case studies that speak to the value of a pedagogically-informed, collaborative approach to online learning in the liberal arts. Each case study offers a portrait of an ongoing project, with both nuts-and-bolts information on how the project was designed and implemented as well as a bibliography of key pedagogical or technical resources. The case studies are organized around emerging techniques and technologies in the field of online learning—teaching strategies such as flipped classrooms or globally connected courses, or tools such as massive open online courses. The case studies featured here include:

  • How to Flip and Land on Your Feet: Strategies for Empowering Faculty to Use Flipped Classrooms. The flipped classroom is a remarkably simple and powerful concept: instructors move “traditional” classroom activities such as lectures and quizzes online, while creating more class time for engaged learning activities such as problem-solving or group work. But, as Emy Nelson Decker demonstrates in her case study, the successful implementation of a flipped classroom involves more than simply putting lectures online. Rather, it requires thinking carefully about course design, disciplinary conventions, and student expectations. Learning the technology is important, but it is only the beginning. The real challenge–and the real potential for innovation–lies in aligning new classroom techniques with pedagogical goals.
  • Adapting Content from a Massive Open Online Course to a Liberal Arts SettingWith 2012 widely deemed “the year of the MOOC,” massive open online courses (MOOCs) continue to garner a great deal of attention, with many liberal arts faculty members unsure about the role MOOCs could (or should) play in liberal arts education. The authors of this case study–Ryan Fowler, Kristina A. Meinking, Kenny Morrell, Norman Sandridge, and Bryce Walker–regularly participate in the Sunoikisis program of virtually shared courses in Latin and Greek, and they suggest an intriguing use of a Harvard-based MOOC to support collaborative learning across multiple institutions. Paired with guided discussions conducted through synchronous and asynchronous forums, the MOOC provided a highly accessible common text for students in a wide variety of courses and institutions.
  • The Globally Connected Language Classroom: A Case Study of an International Project in Two Intermediate Level German Courses between Denison University and the American University in BulgariaThe globally connected uses synchronous communications technologies such as videoconferencing and/or asynchronous technologies such as web forums–to bring together students and faculty across the globe. Gabriele Dillmann and Diana Stantcheva’s case study discusses how digital technologies, both synchronous and asynchronous, ranging from simple email exchanges to interactive Google Hangouts assignments to fully aligned videoconferencing classroom meetings, do not only increase linguistic proficiency, but also support the equally important goal of building students’ intercultural competence while enhancing digital etiquette and group leadership skills. As they note, this competence can also include learning to communicate across time zones and navigate cultural practices with regard to communications technologies.
  • It Takes a Consortium to Prepare a Student for Life After Graduation: An Inter-Institutional Blended Learning Career Planning CourseThere are many models for sharing course materials, and learning experiences across institutions using digital technologies. The model described in this case study by Jana Mathews, Anne Meehan, and Beth Chancy has the distinct advantage of building shared curricular resources in an area of high demand while creating opportunities for students to test newly-acquired career-building skills on a network of peers and alumnae. As the authors indicate, the presence of this “friendly audience” encouraged students’ confidence, while causing them to think critically about their use of social networks.
  • The Digital Database: A Model of Student, Staff, and Faculty CollaborationWith liberal arts institutions always searching for new opportunities for undergraduate research–especially in the humanities and the social sciences–the digital humanities (sometimes referred to more broadly as digital studies) offers an enormous potential. But, as Susanna Boylston, Suzanne W. Churchill, Kristen Eshleman demonstrate in the following case study, it can be challenging to adapt the methods and products of digital humanities to the needs of the undergraduate classroom. Their case study follows their project through several iterations, showing how each of their areas of expertise has, over time, helped to develop a project that provides both a rich learning opportunity for students and a valuable digital resource for researchers.
  • Student-Directed Blended Learning with Facebook Groups and Streaming Media: Media in Asia at Furman UniversityLiberal arts institutions have long distinguished themselves with the interactive and interpersonal learning experiences they offer. Tami Blumenfield’s case study considers the very important question of how online learning techniques can articulate with, and even enhance, these engaged learning pedagogies through the lens of a general education course in Media in Asia. While in many ways offering a more self-directed experience than might be found in a traditional classroom, the course used Facebook groups and other web-based tools to foster group discussions, reinforcing time spent in the class by developing a rich learning community among students.

We hope that these case studies will provide thought-provoking examples of how online learning can extend and enrich liberal arts teaching, while stimulating new questions about how it might be adapted to your own classroom and institution.

In the Index section, you will find a catalog of all projects funded by the ACS Blended Learning Program listed by project type, with the names and affiliations of principal investigators and a brief description of each project. We hope that this section will provide you some sense of the scope of online learning activities underway within the consortium, and that you will take time to explore the project proposals, reports, and supplementary materials that are archived on the ACS website. We also urge you to reach out to project leaders to learn more about their work, exchange ideas, and gain inspiration for your own projects. Finally, in the Resources section you will find additional case studies in blended learning, digital collaboration, and the liberal arts, as well as books, studies, and websites for further reading. You will also find a listing of organizations working to support the development of online learning in higher education and a brief look at how other liberal arts consortia are approaching digital collaborations between member institutions.


  1. Allen, I.E., Seaman, J., & Garret, R. (2007). Blending in: The extent and promise of blended education in the United States Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium.
  2. Rebecca Frost Davis. “Blended Learning at Small Liberal Arts Colleges.” National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. December 5, 2011.
  3. Jennifer Spohrer. “Blended Learning in a Liberal Arts Colleges Setting.” E-Learning 2.0 Conference, Drexel University (Philadelphia, PA) 29 March 2012.
  4. See the ACS's Blended Learning Program guidelines.
  5. See Oblinger, Diana G. and Hawkins, Brian L.“The Myth About Online Course Development.” Educause Review Online, January 1, 2006.

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