CIC grant brings online classes to Sweet Briar

A three-year grant from the Council of Independent Colleges is making it possible for Sweet Briar students this spring to take classes at Concordia College in Minnesota, or Otterbein University in Ohio, without ever setting foot off campus — or changing out of their pajamas, for that matter.

In return, students from other colleges in the Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction will be able to attend courses at Sweet Briar.

Kimberly Morse-Jones teaches art history classes at Sweet Briar.
Kimberly Morse-Jones teaches art history classes at Sweet Briar.

The grant was initiated in 2014 to support online education and collaboration between the 21 member institutions. Its specific goals were “to explore how online humanities instruction can improve student learning outcomes”; “to determine whether smaller, independent liberal arts institutions can make more effective use of their instructional resources and reduce costs through online humanities instruction”; and “to provide an opportunity for CIC member institutions to build their capacity for online humanities instruction and share their successes with other liberal arts colleges.”

Sweet Briar College will offer two of about 40 online courses that are open to students from all member colleges. All non-SBC courses are guaranteed to transfer to Sweet Briar with a grade of “TR,” according to a recent briefing presented to the faculty — with the caveat that it will be up to each department and program to determine whether these courses count for specific majors, minors or certificates.

Some courses require real-time meetings via videoconference, while others are taught entirely online.

Associate professor of English Tony Lilly and visiting assistant professor of art history Kimberly Morse-Jones are spearheading the project at Sweet Briar. Last spring, they each taught a trial run of their online course.

“The class I am teaching as part of the CIC consortium is Women Artists: A Global Perspective,” says Morse-Jones.

Her course expands the scope of a course she has been teaching for several years at Sweet Briar — Seminar on Women Artists, which focuses solely on European and American artists from the Middle Ages to the present day.

“I thought it would be interesting to approach the subject from a broader perspective by looking at art created by women from all over the globe from prehistoric to contemporary times,” she says.

The class is organized by medium — textiles, painting and sculpture — as opposed to the more traditional chronological format.

“As a result, interesting juxtapositions across space and time are created. For example, we study textiles created by the Kuna women of Panama alongside the work of women weavers at The Bauhaus in Germany. We also look at prehistoric cave painting — it is believed some of it was created by women — alongside contemporary street paintings made by women.”

Students participate in a Wikipedia edit-a-thon at Sweet Briar College in 2014.
Students participate in a Wikipedia edit-a-thon at Sweet Briar College in 2014.

The class went “okay” last spring, Morse-Jones says, but many students were not onboard with the online format. She totally understands why.

“There wasn’t really a reason to hold it online, apart from the fact that I was essentially using them as guinea pigs,” she explains. “The idea was to try out a hybrid format, part face-to-face, part asynchronous, that would then be rolled out the following spring and include students from other colleges taking part in the consortium.”

The spring 2016 class is full with 15 students, including three from McDaniel College and one from Concordia College, Morse-Jones says.

“I think the real benefits of online learning will be made more apparent this semester when we are able to include these other students,” she adds. “I was secretly hoping for some male students, so as to have a male perspective on the subject, but unfortunately none have enrolled.”

Still, being able to communicate with participants from other colleges will be beneficial to the students, she says. The class will meet once a week using video conferencing for the entire 2 1/2 hours, but there also will be a strong online component in the form of readings, videos, presentations and a discussion board. Morse-Jones also plans to have her class participate in Art + Feminism’s Wikipedia edit-a-thon.

“This is the third year the College has taken part [in the edit-a-thon],” she says. “We have organized an event here at Sweet Briar in the past, and will do so again this semester. Alumnae are welcome to participate, too! I also plan to take the class the Textile Museum in D.C., which is now part of George Washington University.”

Meeting once a week via Google Hangouts, Lilly’s gender studies course, A College of Their Own, will look at students’ experiences attending a single-sex institution.

Tony Lilly teaches English and gender studies courses at Sweet Briar.
Tony Lilly teaches English and gender studies courses at Sweet Briar.

He says his trial run last spring went well.

“What was so nice about the class was the students’ ability — and really, their eagerness — to be self-reflective about their experience at a single-sex college,” he says.

“Students experience probably a hundred subtle things every day that result from a single-sex learning environment, but we don’t often take the time to notice them or think about them. So when students stop and think about how they learn, socialize, talk, have fun — even eat and sleep — in the context of a women’s or men’s college, it can be really eye-opening. It teaches us about our college, our culture and ourselves in a real and immediate way.”

His class included — and will again this spring — students from both Sweet Briar and “brother school” Hampden-Sydney College. Among other things, students investigated the nature of clubs at men’s versus women’s colleges, of gamer culture, classroom dynamics and sexual expression.

“It was wonderful having students from different colleges in the classroom to compare their experience, which is only possible with online technology,” Lilly says.

“I hope we can do that again this spring.”