Advances in technology can now link together institutions that are separated by thousands of miles. An experiment by a group of 16 liberal-arts colleges and universities in the South might serve as the blueprint for other small institutions looking for ways to maintain a core of academic programs but offer enough variety to attract students.
The concept behind the group’s New Paradigm Initiative is simple: the 16 institutions of the Associated Colleges of the South, which include Davidson College, the University of Richmond, and Rhodes College, join together to offer online and blended courses to students on any of the campuses within the consortium, meaning students at one institution are no longer limited to the courses offered just at their college.
Plenty of colleges these days allow students to take online courses from other institutions, of course. But the system designed by these 16 colleges works more like a traditional consortium: Students don’t have to worry about transferring credits between institutions and no money is exchanged between the campuses, making the process seamless for students. Carol Bresnahan, the provost at Rollins, says she became persuaded of the model last fall when she accompanied a group of faculty members to a Cisco facility in Orlando to try out its TelePresence conference technology. “Our faculty are not interested in 24/7 online education,” she says. “The faculty made clear to us that they like the intimacy of the Rollins classroom. Now the technology is finally available to replicate that in real time from a distance.”
Beyond building a collaboration model for other small colleges to follow, the New Paradigm Initiative could also potentially change attitudes about online education at liberal-arts colleges and in other corners of traditional higher ed, where distance education gets very little respect. That’s for “other people’s children.” To some in academe, the only education of quality is face-to-face.
“We already have concern that this is more of a bold and ambitious future than some of the more conservative faculty are comfortable with,” Duncan says. “But in reality, this might become part of a sustainable business model for small campuses.”
Under such a model, each campus in the consortium could put most of its academic resources toward making a few academic programs distinctive and leave the rest to the partner institutions. At a time when lower-level courses on many campuses are quickly becoming commodities, such a strategy allows colleges to differentiate themselves. It also raises some questions, namely, what’s the value of a degree from a specific institution if many of the courses were taken elsewhere? But with one-third of students transferring colleges before earning a degree these days, that reality already exists on many campuses. With concerns about the rigor of courses and value of credits coming from other places, forming a consortium as these 16 colleges have done might help put some reasonable quality controls on that student swirl.