A New Paradigm for Learning
The New Paradigm Initiative
By Leigh Brown Perkins
New England’s Five Colleges share a busline. The Big Ten coordinates its football schedules. Bryn Mawr and her sister schools on Philadelphia’s Main Line encourage cross-registration and cross-socialization.
Now, following a challenge from Rollins President Lewis Duncan, the 16 liberal arts colleges of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) will join forces to offer online, interactive, upper-level courses to students on any ACS campus. The New Paradigm Initiative, as it’s being called, is simple enough: blend traditional classroom instruction with the latest technology—webinars, teleconferences—so a student is no longer limited to the curriculum at his or her home college, but can select a course taught at any participating ACS school.
• Number of Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) member institutions: 16
• Number of ACS full-time faculty: 2,759
• Some potential New Paradigm courses: African diaspora, Arabic, astronomy, ethnomusicology, Farsi, peace studies, Swahili, Urdu
Take Arabic, for example. Among ACS colleges, only Davidson College and the University of Richmond offer courses. In the past, a Rollins student with a passion to learn the language would have had to transfer or undertake independent study, without the benefit of classroom interaction. With the New Paradigm, a Rollins student can study Arabic with a professor in North Carolina or Virginia—or Swahili (at Morehouse College) or gender studies (Rhodes College)—without stepping foot off the Rollins campus. Likewise, a student at Furman University could enroll in environmental studies at Rollins without leaving her Greenville dorm.
“President Duncan calls it SuperSkype,” said Pat Schoknecht, Rollins chief information officer. “Everyone in the class is connected and everyone can see and speak to each other, so there is still the one-on-one attention that liberal arts colleges are so famous for. It’s just that students and professors are not in the same room, or even in the same state.”
The “SuperSkype” and connection software allow students to talk freely with each other and ask questions in real time—no delay, no stiff robotic presence. Professors can use all the power of the internet, from iMovie to online testing. Being asked to teach in a new way, learn a new technology, and accommodate far-flung students can be daunting. “Some of my colleagues see this as a risk,” said Nancy Decker, associate professor of German. “They think it poses a tremendous danger to our profession to offer instruction from a distance without face-to-face contact.”
Even administrators have had their doubts. “My first thought was that this was a horrible idea,” said Debra Wellman, interim dean of the faculty. “Then I sat in on a teleconference and it both freaked me out and completely sold me on the idea. This technology makes it possible for the instruction to be perfectly in line with the personalized attention that liberal arts colleges do best.”
For faculty, the advantages of blended courses far outweigh the perceived risks. Professors taking sabbaticals could arrange for other ACS faculty members to fill the gap during their time away, eliminating the need to find adjunct instructors. Faculty could enjoy greater freedom to pursue their areas of academic interest, and some departments with decreasing enrollments might be sustained.
Rollins is the first ACS school to offer a consortium-wide course, a 300-level German class that Decker will teach this fall. A Chinese music course will follow in the spring. Although the ACS has identified areas well suited for the New Paradigm—based on high student interest or declining interest, as well as areas of critical importance to the U.S. government, such as astronomy and Farsi, it is up to the individual colleges and, indeed, each professor, to decide if a blended course will work for them. For Rollins, the partnership offers another opportunity to deliver the education today’s students seek.
“President Duncan is a visionary leader,” Wellman said. “This is a way for us to see ourselves as not just a small school, limited to 3,000 students, but as a large consortium, with 30,000 students. The opportunities expand instantly. It’s an exciting concept.”