Online education has exploded over the last 10 years. And while remote learning is creating much needed convenience for non-traditional learners, some liberal arts colleges fear they are losing the most powerful benefits of the traditional classroom in the process.
Schools like Alma College, a liberal arts institution of about 1,000 students in central Michigan, built themselves on high collaboration, small class sizes, and a high-touch faculty. How can these small liberal arts colleges scale up in the online world without losing their unique character and person-to-person interaction?
We invited Anthony Collamati, Associate Professor of New Media Studies at Alma College, to come on the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss how collaborative learning technologies like Google’s new Jamboard can help salvage the best parts of the traditional liberal arts experience in a higher ed world that’s quickly migrating online.
Google’s Jamboard, a Remote Collaboration Tool
“My pro host approached me and they said they were trying out this new pilot program with a few other colleges around Michigan,” Anthony said, “and they needed someone to jump in and run a course. And I tend to be drawn to things that could fail, so I was immediately interested.”.
Alma College partnered with Albion College and Calvin College, and their representatives flew out together to Google, where they learned the Jamboard technology, which Google described as “meet software” used in corporate settings.
The three colleges installed the necessary hardware, and each set up a similar room with two large high definition screens and a Google-provided camera that can pan, tilt, and zoom. At the end of the tables, they put a touch-screen control panel that controls the TVs plus microphones/speakers spaced so every student can hear and be heard.
Then, there’s the Jamboard itself. “The best way to think about it,” Anthony said, “is an interactive whiteboard.”
For the pilot, each school enrolled about 5-6 students and shared the course among them, bringing the total enrollment to 15-18.
Evaluating Remote Collaboration
“I was very skeptical early on,” Anthony said, “because I had taught an online course before.”
He knew the post-and-response setup of a digital class didn’t fit with his teaching style because he couldn’t see when students were progressing or struggling.
“What was great about this course share, and why I’m excited about it, and why that skepticism faded,” Anthony told us, “is what this format does.”
He describes it as Web 2.0 for online education – the higher ed equivalent of Facebook to the Myspace of post-and-response classes.
“It’s really just video conference,” Anthony said. “It doesn’t require you to reboot, or rethink, or rewrite your entire syllabus.”
Tech Novelty or Hyper-Practical Real-World Preparation?
Students in a Jamboard-enhanced course learn how to interact in creative, critical discussions in an abbreviated, focused way that includes that half-second break required in communication technology.
Over the semester, Anthony saw students he knew to be chronic oversharers start to cut themselves off to allow other people on the remote campuses to participate.
“I saw them being even more hospitable than they usually would, too,” Anthony said. “And these are skills that will translate into the workplace.
Is Jamboard Helping Blend Traditional and Technological?
“When you’ve got about 1,300 students, you’re not going to have a huge major and therefore you’re not going to be able to offer a lot of courses,” Anthony said. “This is a way of doing advanced courses, doing specialized courses and having a robust major even when you don’t have a large faculty or a large student population filling your major on campus.”
The other way this connects with the liberal arts mission is that students are not passive in the classroom due in a large part to the presence of the Jamboard itself. It’s a crucial tool.
“We linked up the Jamboards on the three different campuses,” Anthony said. “So, you write on one board, and it appears on the other. Anything that a student on a remote campus would add would show instantly on the other campuses.”
Plus, if you have an Android device, you can link to the Jamboard right on your app, which lets instructors create small groups and add to them remotely.
The Jamboard format also allows for diversity, specialization, and an emphasis on active learning that align beautifully with a liberal arts mission.
Next Steps for Learning Collaboration Technology in Higher Ed
Despite his enthusiasm for the technology, Anthony recognizes its limitations.
“I’m not sure how this is going to scale into courses with more specialized gear…. As soon as you try to put gear in people’s hands, how do you do that with two other remote locations?” he asks.
Google is also working on ways to help students break into small groups across university campuses. For instance, a group could consist of two Albion students, two Calvin students, and two Alma students. That technology is not there yet.
Finally, colleges that want to offer cooperative classes using Jamboard need to coordinate breaks, grades, and other logistical questions. The administration must be on board with the project.
At Alma, the school’s leadership was behind the Jamboard pilot all the way.
“They were checking in almost every meeting session,” Anthony told us. “As soon as something happened, they would respond quickly. Part of that was because it was a pilot. How do you scale that? That kind of attention. How do you maintain it? Those are the challenges I see ahead as we explore the future potential of this.”
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