DIGITAL PEDAGOGY IN THE LIBERAL ARTS: THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM? (A CASE STUDY)
Liberal Arts colleges are perceived by some as the stronghold of traditional American academia, a “safe haven from contemporary life,” a place for “books, ill-fitting tweed coats, charismatic professors, and ivy” (Gillen, 1998). With the advent of pervasive digital technologies, the demand for technological innovation is forcing these institutions to modernize, by creating grants, initiatives, and working groups, training the faculty and upgrading the infrastructure.
The philosophy of Liberal Arts schools is often centered on small class size, student mentoring, and community building. Students who chose to attend this type of institution seek an education focused on personal and close human contact, rather than the massive lecture hall or the distance learning models. The challenge for small Liberal Arts schools is to incorporate the technological necessities of contemporary society while maintaining their mission, values and image intact. There is a tension, thus, between the traditional, timeless, ivy-covered teaching model, and the modern, visual, multimedia, technology-filled learning and living world.
A possible solution to solving that tension could be the blended course: a traditional classroom environment that includes all the elements of a classical Liberal Arts education, combined with assignments that are digitally conceived, delivered, and evaluated. The goal of such a blended course is to achieve similar student learning outcomes to a traditional classroom setting, while using a medium and the tools that students are likely to be using outside of class and that they will need to handle in their professional life after graduation from college.
This study examines one course in the humanities, built around the blended approach to learning, in a small, private, liberal arts college setting. The project is to design, assign, and assess student work that is digitally born and delivered, in a capstone course designed for about-to-graduate seniors from a variety of majors. The goal is to assess the effectiveness of digital tools for projects and assignments in a traditionally structured and taught course. In a literature-based course where close readings of a text are the primary focus, we will use word clouds, word usage charts, and other text mining tools as part of our class discussion; we will annotate texts using wikis to reveal some deeper meaning of difficult passages; and instead of a final paper we will use a blog (on a wordpress installation) students have been posting to throughout the course. Moodle will serve as the central location for storage, archival and sharing of documents. The site will be organized chronologically, following the syllabus. In addition, a forum will be created to organize student conversation leaders’ notes, and the blog will also be linked.
Students will be surveyed to gauge their technical proficiency, their technology usage, the technology expectations they bring to this humanities course, and the way they see this course fitting in or connecting with their post-graduate life. The study will measure the effectiveness of modernization strategies attempted at the institutional level, and will investigate other means institutions elsewhere are practicing in order to remain competitive with larger schools and the increasingly popular online learning model. The challenges of digital teaching and scholarship in a traditional liberal arts institution environment will be assessed.