August 2012 Archways

President’s Column

Dear Friends,

In early May, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about “The Campus Tsunami,” his phrase to describe the accelerating transformation of higher education through the increased use of information technology and online learning initiatives. On a weekly basis, major universities are announcing their affiliations with projects like with edX or Coursera, enterprises that are building portfolios of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Online for-profit institutions have grown exponentially in the past decade, and the University of Phoenix alone enrolls more students than all U.S. liberal arts colleges combined. Traditional not-for-profit colleges and universities are also expanding the number of online degrees they offer, and many students now take both online and traditional courses while in college.

Clearly we are in the midst of a paradigm shift, or what Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen has famously described as a “disruptive innovation.” While no one can predict the full consequences of these new technologies, I think we must actively explore how we can take advantage of some of them to enhance the learning of our students and to use classroom and laboratory teaching time more effectively.

At first glance, this digital movement seems antithetical to the values and student experience associated with liberal arts colleges like Bryn Mawr. Our educational model is built upon close relationships between students and faculty, discussion-based seminars, and the power of learning in a small, intentional, residential community. In our exploration of new digital formats and tools, therefore, Bryn Mawr seeks to intensify these distinctive qualities. Led by the faculty and our terrific provost, Kim Cassidy, we are experimenting with the power of technology to improve learning outcomes, to enhance classroom experience, and to provide students and faculty with new opportunities for collaboration and research.

During the past year, Bryn Mawr has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to lead a group of top liberal arts colleges in piloting “blended learning” courses.  Blended learning combines classroom teaching with self-paced online modules that allow students to master basic information and/or practice skills. The online modules generate data about a student’s pace and progress through the material. This, in turn, allows a faculty member to focus attention on those topics where students are struggling and to recognize those that are being easily absorbed. Use of such “learning analytics” helps a professor to calibrate classroom time for maximum effectiveness.

The results of Bryn Mawr’s pilot are promising. More faculty than anticipated volunteered to take part, and we were able to offer 17 blended courses. Many faculty who participated are now interested in customizing online modules for future courses. Students also responded positively to the experiment. They reported that the online modules were useful for mastering material and for test review, and our end-of-semester assessment confirmed stronger learning outcomes. Nearly all the other colleges participating in this grant now plan to add one or more blended courses in 2012–13. Our work has also attracted national attention, as evidenced by an excellent article that recently appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Bryn Mawr faculty are experimenting with other digital tools in the classroom and in their research. As reported in recent issues of the Bulletin, Professor of English Katherine Rowe leads the Tri-College Digital Humanities initiative (I encourage you to check out her app, The Tempest for iPad). This fall a group of faculty will experiment with lecture capture (recording classroom sessions and making them available digitally), which will allow students to review discussions or to catch up if they have missed class. This past spring I conducted my own pilot and took advantage of Skype to host conversations about women’s education and women’s leadership with the presidents of Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi, Effat University in Jeddah, and Tsuda College in Tokyo. In each of these “Skype Seminars,” the two presidents gathered a group of students in their respective offices and within a few minutes, differences of time and distance collapsed as students took over the conversation and engaged in a productive dialogue.

In the rapidly changing environment of higher education, Bryn Mawr must be nimble and willing to test and adapt new forms of technological innovation. I am excited to take on this work. Liberal arts colleges, and Bryn Mawr in particular, can lead the way in modeling a “blended education” that makes use of the strengths of new and traditional technologies, digital and physical communities of learners, and strong training in critical thinking and multidisciplinary research.


Jane McAuliffe

Comments on “President’s Column”

  1. Hi Jane,

    I find this new focus to be exciting and appropriate! When I was at Bryn Mawr during the mid to late seventies, just about the only classes that I knew dealt with computers were in the Sociology department. PCs had not yet been invented, and those computers filled a whole room.

    Now, as I build a new business online, I have been taking a lot of online classes and webinars. The option to replay the material and review it again later is fabulous – it offers the ability to really LISTEN the first time through, and go back and take notes later if needed!

    I am a firm believer in using technology where it can be of benefit, without losing the traditional Bryn Mawr focus on connections.

    And, since there is so much technology in use in the workplace, it makes sense to have experience with it while still in college.

    Carol Gyzander ’78

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