The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Loni Bordoloi Pazich
Loni Bordoloi Pazich, program director at The Teagle Foundation.

It’s a balancing act.

Liberal-arts colleges remain under pressure to reduce the cost of attendance while maintaining a commitment to academic excellence.

Recent research points to technology as part of the solution.

Gains in student learning, in well-designed online or hybrid courses, are comparable to or may exceed those from in-person instruction — while simultaneously offering cost advantages.

The Teagle Foundation partnered with Ithaka S+R to evaluate the implementation and outcomes of an initiative designed to achieve these aims.

Related: How to save the humanities? Make them a requirement toward a business degree

The Teagle grant supported course-sharing and online module development at more than 35 institutions and organizations, and engaged more than 180 faculty and staff between 2014 and 2017. Here is what we learned:

Student learning in hybrid and traditional classrooms is comparable. At a minimum, we wanted to ensure we were doing no harm. We found that faculty-reported gains in student learning in Teagle-funded hybrid or online courses were comparable to gains in traditional classrooms, in line with research findings to date. For instance, nearly half of participating faculty reported that the depth of learning in their hybrid courses surpassed the depth of learning in analogous, traditionally taught courses. Another 43 percent reported that the depth of learning was equivalent in the two kinds of courses.

Technology may bend the cost curve over the long run, but program areas need to be strategically selected. It’s not uncommon for campuses to offer incentives to faculty who incorporate technology into individual courses. While that approach might be beneficial for individual faculty members, it misses an opportunity to build a program that harnesses technology and is financially sustainable. The goal must be to develop a coordinated set of courses that can be shared and/or rotated so that individual campus partners can field more courses and programs than they might be able to on their own.

“Ultimately, the process of engaging with technology validated and enhanced faculty members’ commitment to teaching and learning in the arts and sciences.”

For example, three of the liberal-arts colleges in the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges of Pennsylvania have jointly developed a minor in Documentary Studies as part of their film and media studies offerings. The participating campuses have co-designed required components for the minor, which is delivered in a hybrid mode and on a schedule that rotates among the campuses through cross-registration.

Similarly, five of the insitutions in the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges are working to develop a “virtual” department in Native American and Indigenous Studies and are developing a shared roster of courses in history, literature, philosophy and religious studies that emphasize the knowledge and experience of indigenous peoples in North America. The program provides students with access to scholars who would otherwise be out of reach. For example, the one archeologist on staff across the five participating campuses developed an anthropology course, delivered as a hybrid seminar in the spring and followed by a summer field school where students excavated indigenous artifacts on Block Island, 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island.

Support is necessary for hybrid learning approaches to be successful. One recent survey found that 23 percent of faculty have worked with instructional designers. In the Teagle-funded projects, that figure exceeded 90 percent. More than 77 percent of faculty participating in the Teagle grants reported needing no more than 25 hours of an instructional designer’s time in developing and teaching their courses over the course of a semester; a subset of 44 percent of faculty needed fewer than 10 hours of time. The collaboration with instructional designers reduced frustration and enabled faculty members to invest their energy in what they do best, which is delivering their subject-matter expertise.

Related: Dealing with digital distraction

Even if you build it, students may not comeBuilding a student audience for these courses may take more time and coordination than initially expected. In Teagle-funded hybrid courses, only four percent of faculty reported enrollment higher than for similar face-to-face courses. The subject matter of the courses likely contributed to this finding, as did logistical and scheduling barriers that limited the number of students from other campuses who enrolled in the courses. Greater cross-institutional coordination on these issues is another way in which a strong consortium could prove valuable.

Technology can lead to an unexpected renewal in teaching — both online and in traditional classrooms. Faculty members are often stereotyped as being reflexively anti-technology, but we found that engagement with instructional technology improved their attitudes about it and even helped them rethink their roles and practices as instructors. For example, faculty, librarians and instructional designers at four campus partners — St. Norbert, Augustana and Elmhurst Colleges, and Illinois Wesleyan University — collaboratively designed a series of online modules that teach fundamental skills to first-year students. The experience of reflecting on topics such as evaluating sources or crafting presentations, from the perspective of novice learners, helped faculty develop their programs.

Participants across the funded projects reported two other unanticipated benefits. First, they appreciated the ability to spend more class time on in-depth discussion and application after students learned foundational concepts primarily outside of class.

Second, they were able to diversify the student make-up of their courses, and introduce a broader range of perspectives that enhanced classroom discussions.

Ultimately, the process of engaging with technology validated and enhanced faculty members’ commitment to teaching and learning in the arts and sciences. In fact, the experience was so positive that three-quarters of the participants will run their hybrid courses again in the 2017-18 academic year.

In an anonymous survey, one faculty member wrote, “I would encourage my peers to engage in hybrid/online teaching because it not only benefits students but also the faculty members who participate in this additional mode of teaching and learning!”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Loni Bordoloi Pazich is program director at The Teagle Foundation, responsible for the foundation’s “Hybrid Learning and the Residential Liberal Arts Experience” initiative. A full report, with findings from the evaluation, is available here.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *