Disrupting Assumptions

e-Learning at Liberal-Arts Colleges

By Kim Cassidy, Jennifer Spohrer, and Ruth Lindeborg    //    Volume 25,  Number 1   //    January/February 2017

Technology has been celebrated by digital innovators, policymakers, and the news media as offering solutions to the many challenges facing higher education. The touted benefits abound: e-learning platforms remove scheduling and geographic barriers to access, and help faculty to address differences in student preparation through tools that allow for out-ofclassroom practice. Digitization of libraries and open-access scholarship create new opportunities for research. And, for governing boards that are concerned about the costs of higher education, online courses and degrees suggest possibilities for new revenue streams and reduced costs of instruction for both institutions and students.

It is thus not surprising that members of college and university boards have pushed institutional leaders to be at the forefront of innovation. Trustees are experiencing the power of digital transformation in their own professions and industries, where technology has increased productivity, reduced costs, and created new business opportunities. As stewards of the institutions they serve, they seek similar opportunities to leverage technology to cut costs, as well as to gain institutional visibility through early adoption.

Often infused into board-level conversations about technology are assumptions about the challenges to its adoption. Among them is the belief, shared by many board members and senior administrators, that faculty are the principal obstacle to the “disruptive innovation” that technology promises. While the particulars vary from institution to institution, the most frequent anticipated objections are that faculty are resistant to doing things differently, that they don’t have the technical skills, and that they are more worried about becoming obsolete than they are about student learning.

At Bryn Mawr College, a residential liberal- arts college for women with two small graduate schools, exploration of opportunities for digital innovation has required trust in the strengths of shared governance. Senior leaders have been responsive to the board’s interest in innovation, while trustees, in turn, have respected the judgment of senior leaders to identify and pilot uses of technology in keeping with the mission, strengths, and culture of a residential liberal-arts college and a faculty of teacherscholars committed to student learning and to demonstrated evidence of impact.


Bryn Mawr’s board pushed faculty and senior staff to think about the role of technology in the educational mission of the college, both through general board discussions and the work of a board Task Force on Digital Bryn Mawr. Yet the board chose not to prescribe a particular answer to the question, and instead supported administration and faculty efforts to determine specific strategies. Administrators and faculty members thus had the opportunity to explore a variety of options and became particularly interested in the potential of blended learning to combine the strengths of both online and in-person pedagogy.

The college then tested the educational impact of blended learning through a pilot program that extended its reach to a group of other small, residential liberal-arts colleges. In 2011–2012, Bryn Mawr, with 40 institutional partners, received a Higher Education Innovation (Wave I) grant from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) program, an EDUCAUSE initiative funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NGLC was founded in 2010 by EDUCAUSE, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the League for Innovation in the Community College, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In applying for NGLC support, Bryn Mawr proposed developing a blended approach to four gateway STEM courses in the first year, assessing the experience, and sharing what we learned with our 40 partners in the hope that 10 of them would teach a blended course in the second year of the grant. The purpose of the grant was to examine whether blended learning—which we defined as a combination of online instruction in which students receive feedback on their learning and face-to-face instruction—could be effective in a college environment where small classes and intense student-faculty interaction were the norm. In addition, the project aimed to discover the challenges inherent in adopting a blended-learning approach.

Shared governance shaped the project at every stage; at Bryn Mawr, as at many institutions, it is never advisable to exclude faculty participation. While our grant proposal promised only four STEM courses, we issued an open invitation to all faculty members to participate in the initiative by developing and teaching a blended course. To our surprise, 14 chose to participate, representing about 12 percent of the faculty teaching that year. Our partner colleges demonstrated similar enthusiasm. We had hoped that 10 institutions would find at least one faculty member willing to develop and teach a blended course in the second year of the project, but when we issued an open invitation to our partners, 52 faculty members across 25 institutions volunteered. Rather than being resistant to trying this approach, many faculty members embraced the opportunity to participate.


We made a number of intentional choices early on in our conception of the project to which we attribute these pleasantly surprising findings.

First and most importantly, we rooted this pilot in educational outcomes rather than in an embrace of technology for technology’s sake. Pedagogy and student learning were our motivation in introducing a blended approach. Studies of blended learning have shown higher satisfaction, increased student connection to peers and faculty, greater student engagement in class, and higher performance when compared to both completely online and face-to-face courses. When we invited faculty members to consider adopting a blended approach, we shared this research with them. In short, we promoted blended learning not because it involved technology, but because it has been shown to support student learning.

We also allowed the pedagogical approach and learning goals of the faculty to define the particulars of the blended approach. Faculty members decided what tools they used, how long they used them, and in what manner they used them.

Our overall approach to blended learning was also designed to be consistent with the mission and culture of a small, liberal-arts college. The online portion of each course did not replace any seat time, and information obtained from the online work was used to improve and enhance face-to-face teaching. In addition, the online work was interactive and required students to assess and receive feedback on their learning rather than passively watch lecture videos.


We did encounter obstacles to blended learning, but, contrary to some initial assumptions, they were not related to negative attitudes on the part of faculty members. Significantly, it was difficult to find appropriate materials. Many available online materials were not challenging enough for our students or were of low quality. In many cases, they were not easily customizable, making it difficult for faculty to integrate them into the timeline or focus of existing courses. Obstacles like these led some faculty members to develop their own materials, which allowed them to meet the learning goals for the course, but it was quite labor-intensive in most cases.

Faculty members did express concerns about participating. They were worried about “start-up costs” or the amount of time and support needed to research technologies and materials and develop strategies for integrating them into courses. They were also concerned that, since this was a technologically based pedagogical innovation, they might make this investment and then discover that the online components quickly became obsolete or were no longer compatible with college systems or new computers.

We tried to mitigate these costs by providing faculty members with a modest stipend and the support of an educational technologist hired specifically for the project. As a former Bryn Mawr faculty member with a tech-industry background, the technologist brought the requisite technical skills to the project as well as a deep understanding of the pedagogical goals and concerns of liberal-arts college faculty and of the context in which liberal-arts college faculty work. This combination of skills and perspectives provided faculty with the right kinds of expertise and support and was crucial to the success of the project. If a faculty member’s course required significant technological labor, we also provided some student-worker support. An important lesson learned for the college and the board was that digital innovation and transformation of education requires a willingness to invest.


Given the scope of the project and the variation across institutions, our assessment could not show definitively that blended approaches were superior to non-blended approaches. At Bryn Mawr, in the few cases in which learning outcomes could be reasonably compared to previous, non-blended iterations of the course, blended courses were associated with improvements among B-level students, while outcomes for students at or below that level remained largely unchanged. Certainly, both students and faculty members reported high levels of satisfaction, and most faculty continued using a blended approach the next time that they taught the course. Faculty members also reported unanticipated benefits that supported the quality of the in-person part of the course, enhancing the value of a small college environment. For example, faculty members reported that students asked more productive questions during office hours or in class because the feedback they had received in the online modules helped them articulate more precisely what they did or did not understand. Online data also enabled faculty members to identify struggling students more quickly and to provide more informed assistance.

In terms of uptake and impact across a large number of institutions, this project was successful beyond our wildest expectations. The adoption was more widespread than we anticipated, and the assessment of the outcomes was positive. In addition, Bryn Mawr and several NGLC partners secured additional funding from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), The Teagle Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education First in the World initiative for follow-on projects that build on and further test the impact of blended-learning approaches on learning outcomes in particular contexts.

The success of the initial project was due to three factors. First, we did not lead with an efficiency agenda, and therefore faculty members were not threatened by preconceived, negative notions about the consequences of adoption. Second, we invested resources in faculty development and technological support as part of the initiative, although at a much lower cost than is typical of most online ventures. Finally, we focused on an approach that had been shown to enhance learning outcomes, and was therefore closely aligned with the mission of liberalarts colleges. This, perhaps, was the most important learning outcome of the pilot project for board members: Digital innovation must be aligned with institutional mission and strengths.


At Bryn Mawr, we have continued this approach toward the adoption of educational technology, and it has consistently resulted in strong levels of interest and adoption where the technology can deliver clear, mission-consistent benefits. With a grant from the Teagle Foundation, we are leading a team of faculty members from eight institutions who are collaboratively developing online instructional materials suitable for a blended approach to psychology research methods and statistics. During the NGLC project we discovered that, in some curricular areas, a lack of comprehensive, ready-made interactive learning materials made it difficult for faculty to adopt blended learning. This project will develop customizable, widely adoptable open educational resource (OER) materials for this particular course, and also teach us what is needed to support this kind of collaborative, cross-institutional development. If successful, it will show institutions that are not large enough to support their own in-house instructional design and technology-development teams a viable alternative for developing the online, interactive instructional resources they need. The potential success of the project will indeed create an opportunity for financial savings, but one that depends on collaboration as much as it does on technology. This, too, has been a valuable insight for board members.

Bryn Mawr also leads a partnership of nine institutions that is developing a blended, “just-in-time” approach to math fundamentals support for undergraduates in introductory chemistry, physics, and calculus courses, using a combination of online, self-paced, interactive learning modules and targeted human coaching. Again using funding from a U.S. Department of Education First in the World grant, the project seeks to address one of the most common reasons students leave STEM majors—difficulty with the required mathematics—in an affordable, scalable way that does not increase a student’s time to degree. The just-in-time approach, in which students receive support in areas of marginal math skills while they are enrolled in these gateway courses, is intended to be particularly salient for improving STEM completion rates among first-generation, low-income, and/or underrepresented minority students who are more likely to enter college with weaker math preparation and less math confidence than students overall.

Both of these projects suggest that blended learning may have the greatest impact in introductory and foundational courses, in which we find the greatest range of student preparation. Faculty are investing time and energy in these initiatives because blended learning offers opportunities to tailor teaching and learning to meet the needs of a diverse student body. They are also finding that they are gleaning more about the processes of teaching and learning through these collaborative efforts, both by discovering different approaches their colleagues are using to teaching the same material and by having to articulate and prioritize their learning objectives as they create online interactive modules. While the blended-learning pilot was initially perceived by many as an investment in “technology,” it has also improved the institution’s ability to execute its commitment to access.

Faculty members and educational technologists at Bryn Mawr are also exploring e-learning beyond the STEM disciplines. “Developing a Liberal Arts Curriculum for the Digital Age,” supported by the Mellon Foundation, is a multiyear effort to support faculty in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences in developing technology-enabled pedagogies and building student digital competencies across the curriculum. A portion of the funding was used to address the “start-up costs” associated with adopting technology-enhanced pedagogies by hiring and training recent Bryn Mawr graduates as “digital curricular assistants” and current students as “digital curricular summer interns” to work with faculty members and professional educational technology staff to research new technologies, create interactive learning materials, and develop assignments and scaffolding for digital course projects (for example, digital exhibits, podcasts, etc.). To date, faculty members have developed more than 20 projects in fields such as education, psychology, introductory language courses, history, history of art, English, archaeology, and East Asian studies.

In working with faculty and students on projects supported by that grant, members of the educational technology services team began identifying particular skills that students needed and developing ways to assess and build those skills. Through conversations with library and IT staff; the faculty committee on libraries, information, and computing; the board-level library & information technology strategic advisory group; and the president, the college has established a digital competencies framework intended to help individual students to:

  • identify the digital skills and critical perspectives they will need to be 21st-century leaders,
  • seek curricular and co-curricular opportunities to hone those skills and perspectives while at Bryn Mawr, and
  • develop ways to articulate or demonstrate their competencies to various audiences.

Although not an initial goal for the board, administration, or faculty, institutional engagement with technology is thus also addressing concerns of students and families about the relevance and value of a liberal-arts education.


Our experience suggests that board members and the colleges they serve benefit from grounding their digital innovation strategy in their institution’s core commitments: their missions and the division of vision and expertise we called shared governance. Technology initiatives are most likely to succeed if they advance the mission embraced by faculty members, the administration, and trustees, and if all understand that the goals of innovation will likely evolve in the process of experimentation. Faculty members are not Luddites, but merely cautious when it comes to investing time in technology-enabled methodologies. Many are willing to explore new technologies when boards and administrative leaders are, in turn, willing to help mitigate the upfront costs of investment.

Our project also offers one other valuable insight for members of governing boards. In addition to its potential to cut costs or generate revenue (particularly at larger institutions), innovation in educational technology can help colleges and universities deliver on one of our primary missions: delivering stronger educational (and post-graduate) outcomes for our students.

For a summary of Bryn Mawr’s project and findings, including a list of institutional partners, see http://nextgenlearning.org/ grantee/bryn-mawr-college.

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