“These days, students need some skills in digital technology, but we’re also combining the liberal arts way of teaching and thinking — the idea that critical thinking skills are so important to be applying to this technology and these websites,”said Ellen Holmes Pearson, co-Principal Investigator for the COPLAC Digital project and Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Asheville.
In December 2015, COPLAC received a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to broaden its innovative multi-campus, team-taught digital liberal arts seminars. The initiative is called COPLAC Digital and the Inaugural Convening occurred on the campus of UNC Asheville June 9-11.
Faculty members, special collections librarians and instructional technologists from 15 COPLAC campuses began developing new digital liberal arts research seminars on topics in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Over the course of a semester, students in COPLAC Digital courses will conduct primary research on their course topics and create websites to share their findings.
“Students are able to practice their critical thinking skills, practice their written and oral communication skills, practice marketing and outreach — all of this stuff that goes into so many different careers, and they’re going to be able to really apply these skills,” said Pearson.
One of the primary goals of the Inaugural Convening was for faculty to choose a teaching partner and begin developing a course that could be supported by technologists and archivists on COPLAC campuses.
“Not only did we get twelve pairs, but we got twelve really enthusiastic teaching pairs and really great teams,” said Pearson.
“We couldn’t have asked for better attitudes, better enthusiasm, or better engagement in what we were trying to do.”
This ascending, face to face collaboration was made possible by the grant, which covered travel expenses for all participants and facilitated the networking between peers and colleagues.
“I think one of the really interesting things about this project compared to some of the other projects I’ve worked on, is that we got introduced to the project as early as the professors,” said Robert Brennan, Instructional Technologist at the University of Alberta, Augustana.
“We’re much more like colleagues in this project, working with them [faculty] from the ground level right up to the final level. I think it was a really great opportunity to be able to come here and be a part of the initial discussion and planning phase, so that now when we go back to [our] campus, we’re all on the same page.”
Before the convening, faculty completed a survey about their pedagogical styles and teaching interests. The survey results were shared, and faculty chose colleagues they were interested in meeting with at the convening. Faculty were paired for thirty minute sessions and given opportunities to seek out other colleagues. Many faculty agreed that meeting in person allowed for more meaningful connections and brainstorming.
“Reading through the descriptions was sort of flat, and certainly there were things that were exciting about those descriptions, but I think when you’re actually talking back and forth with someone, you can exchange ideas, you can feel the excitement and the momentum,” said Debra Schleef, a faculty member in Sociology at the University of Mary Washington.
“That’s not something you can find on paper.”
After two days of meeting with COPLAC colleagues, the faculty participants selected and confirmed their teaching partners and pitched their course topics.
“We have some really creative and exciting courses that I think students will embrace,” said Pearson.
Course ideas incorporated the use of deep archival research, field exploration and social analysis. Topics emphasized the concepts of community and place within a larger social or historical context.
“Our topic is ‘Making Strange: Constructing Identities and Making Sense of our Surroundings,’” said Janet Wesselius, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alberta, Augustana.
“Because of all of the things that are happening in the world right now, people are afraid of strangers. What we want to do for students is give them the time and tools to reflect upon what is “strange”. We want them to think about how strangeness is constructed. Maybe from that they can generalize to bigger issues in their lives.”
It’s courses like this that prompt students to critically analyze the world around them and their roles within it. The digital element of the initiative allows students to share their unique explorations with others.
“I think that this is the beginning of creating a critical mass of classes that are creative and new now, but our goal really is to make this the norm,” said Pearson.
“We want to make this something that is part of the COPLAC brand, part of the kinds of courses that students at COPLAC public liberal arts institutions can take and something that makes us distinctive. We wouldn’t mind if eventually people started copying this.”
Other organizations and campuses are already curious about how they could utilize this distance digital liberal arts model. Four representatives from the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA), a consortium of thirteen private liberal arts colleges located in the Great Lakes area, joined the COPLAC Digital Inaugural Convening to learn more about the model.
“We have a program called Global Course Connections, which connects courses in two different countries,” said Simon Gray, Program Officer at GCLA.
“It’s a different model than COPLAC, but I’ve always been really interested and excited by the Century America project, and I thought that was a model that we could perhaps replicate. We’re very attracted to the idea of having a team of faculty and staff working together on the creation of a course. I wanted to bring a team together to see what that would look like here, so I could go back to GCLA and talk to them about how we may implement some of these ideas.”
The next step is for COPLAC Digital faculty participants to formally submit their course names, course descriptions and preferred dates for teaching the course to the project’s principal investigators.
“Once we have the topics and know which faculty are teaching the courses, we’re going to do a deeper dive, and see how we can support them in specific areas,” said Suzanne Chase, Digital Resources Librarian at the University of Mary Washington.
“Being archivists, we talked about copyright and issues of fair use and digitization and also preservation. The exciting part about these projects is that students will be making original content that could be archived and added to our own special collections.”
Students in COPLAC Digital courses will get the chance to take their work beyond the boundaries of the classic classroom. Their course websites will be available to the wider public to learn from and share.
“We’re very confident that some of our colleagues, who are here now and planning on creating courses, will innovate further and raise the bar even a little bit more than the new distance mentored, digital courses that we are doing today,” said Pearson.
In September, the first COPLAC Digital faculty workshop will take place at the University of Mary Washington’s Hurley Convergence Center. The first COPLAC Digital courses taught under the grant will be offered spring of 2017, with others to follow in fall of 2017 and spring of 2018.
*Campuses represented at Inaugural Convening: Eastern Connecticut State University, Georgia College, Keene State College, Midwestern State University, Ramapo College of New Jersey, Shepherd University, SUNY Geneseo, Truman State University, University of Alberta Augustana, University of Illinois Springfield, University of Maine Farmington, University of Mary Washington, University of Montevallo, UNC Asheville, and University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.