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Haverford Joins LACOL: Q&A with President Dan Weiss

Last year, Haverford joined the Liberal Arts Consortium for Online Learning (LACOL), a consortium of eight colleges committed to exploring how rapidly changing online technology will impact the mission of liberal arts institutions in the future. The consortium was started by Pomona and Carleton last year and was soon joined by Claremont-McKenna, Swarthmore, Amherst, Vassar and Williams. The Clerk editor Andy Beck sat down with President Dan Weiss and the President’s Chief of Staff, Jesse Lytle, to discuss the impetus behind the creation of LACOL and the exciting possibilities LACOL is designed to explore.


Dan Weiss: “There are lots of ways that technology is a force in higher education– most obviously, initiatives like massively open online courses. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about ‘creatively, how can collaboration help us to use technology to advance the ways in which we do our work as small colleges?’ And that’s why we decided to form this collaboration.

These 8 schools share a vision of education that is, with all due modesty, the most effective undergraduate education. Ever, in the history of education. Small classes, lots of attention given individually to students, the kind of mentoring relationships that students and faculty can foster– all the things that brought you guys here. How do we use technology in that setting to do a better job? That’s a different question here than if you’re at the University of Michigan and your introductory class in Art History has 970 students in it. Is there a more cost-effective, thoughtful way to provide that content? Because the institutions of LACOL are so aligned academically and intellectually, collaboration is possible.”


The Clerk: You mentioned MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses)— is the consortium focused more on online technology?


DW: The main emphasis is on online learning, as distinguished from other in-house technological development, but this doesn’t mean that online learning will be our only principle objective.


Jesse Lytle: The lens might make more sense if we realize that the consortium didn’t emerge from technological solutions, but actually from more pedagogical questions. What are the areas of our curriculum that technology could help us do better? For example; quantitative skills, language learning, active reading— they looked for where faculty were already experimenting fruitfully, but rather than having one guy at Pomona and one guy at Claremont working on their own, why not get these guys in touch with each other, leverage their own creativity and come up with a solution that maybe multiple institutions can contribute to and benefit from?


The Clerk: How do you see this meshing with the renovations of Magill Library and Ryan Gym?

DW: The library renovation project and the VCAM project (the Center for Visual Culture, Arts, and Media in Ryan Gym) may be seen as expressions to the commitment to what libraries are. There will always be books and special collections, but there will also be increased platforms for technology. LACOL is complementary to that, in the sense that we are looking at how technology can improve education in various ways. Renovations in Ryan Gym (VCAM) is one way, the Library is one way, and LACOL is another way— they are complementary.


The Clerk: LACOL is currently just 8 colleges and its mission of using technology to answer pedagogical questions is not unique to these colleges— do you see LACOL expanding in the future?


DW: I think if we are successful, it will expand. We wanted to start small— if we had a collaboration of 36 schools to begin with, no one would do anything because it’s too big. At this stage, we identified schools that are close enough to us— in terms of the work we do, the curriculum we have, the students we teach, the outcomes that we seek, the infrastructure that we have, the resources that we possess— colleges that aligned enough that we can get some work done. Once we have some ways to get this work done, I imagine that it would be expandable.


The Clerk: Tell us about the origin of the consortium— it doesn’t seem like something that would arise simultaneously among these eight colleges— what administrative steps led to this consortium?


DW: I was working with the President of Swarthmore, Rebecca Chopp, on a book on higher education and liberal arts colleges— and the next step in our work was to identify ways in which we could use technology together. We started planning an online learning initiative— where we would have a conference and put together a series of colleges to do this. At exactly the same time, Pomona and Carleton were having those conversations– so we decided to join forces. I think the idea of collaboration was in the air. Other higher education groups had begun collaborating a couple of years ago. Coursera is one example of that, with about 32 members. EdX is another, which was a collaboration between MIT and Harvard. This idea of collaboration in Higher Education was in the air— and the question was, what should small colleges be doing? We have different needs of technology than other kinds of schools do.


JL: EdX was a hot ticket in town, and they had solicited a few liberal arts colleges to join their ranks. Amherst ended up declining the invitation— and the faculty declined for, many among other nuanced reasons, that they had different goals. That illustrates in a way how such a blunderbuss approach to e-learning won’t meet [Haverford’s] needs.


The Clerk: Are there any drawbacks or disadvantages or trepidation regarding the expansion of e-learning in LACOL?

DW: There’s no question that in 25 years, the world in which we will live is entirely inconceivable to us now, in terms of what’s possible for technology. One reason for LACOL is to share learning and pool resources so that we can figure this out together— if we have our eleven smartest people at Haverford, for example, thinking about this, they’ll do a good job. But if we have 8 of the best liberal arts colleges in the country working on this, we’ll surface even better ideas that are driven by what we need. Our model of higher education is both counter trend and exceptionally productive. We do not want, in the end, for technological changes to be imposed on us that undermine our ability to do the job we do. We want to own those solutions, and that’s really what this collaboration is about.

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