From Jonathan Veitch: Small, With a Digital Twist

Integrating new tools into our classical liberal arts model will enhance Occidental's niche in the intellectual marketplace

In little more than a year, the idea of massive open online courses—college classes designed to be offered free via the Internet—has swept through higher education. A recent front-page New York Times story proclaimed that MOOCs have the potential to transform higher education. Stanford, my undergraduate alma mater, has played a key role in fueling this phenomenon: Coursera, a Stanford spinoff, has reached more than 1.7 million students over the last 12 months with more than 200 courses. MOOC momentum is so powerful that the University of Virginia fired its president, Teresa Sullivan, in part for not embracing the idea fast enough (she eventually was reinstated).

So where does this leave small liberal arts colleges like Oxy, whose educational model is based on the close interaction between faculty and students and which don't have the ability to produce online courses on a massive scale? The answer lies in our ability to combine the best of the old and new. We will continue to embrace the small seminar format, which facilitates an intimate, iterative conversation between students and faculty. At the same time, we recognize that digital technology is not merely a knowledge delivery system, but is an environment that can change the way students and faculty explore a subject, make arguments and present evidence, collaborate among themselves, and interact with other scholars around the world.

That's the innovative approach being taken by our Center for Digital Learning + Research—Oxy's version of the Skunk Works, the special unit created by Lockheed during World War II to think creatively about new and advanced projects. In a very real sense, the CDLR is Oxy's research and development lab in exploring how to integrate the digital revolution into a liberal arts education—not a radical reinvention, but an application of new tools and techniques to a wide variety of disciplines consistent with the traditional strengths of a small liberal arts college.

Consider, for example, how the reach of a small college library has been transformed. In the pre-digital era, if you waited until the last minute to do a research paper (come on, admit it), you went to the library and discovered five books on your subject. Three were checked out, and the other two were useless. Now, with the click of a mouse, our students can access the collections of the Library of Congress or the British Museum.

Or look at how the process of presenting research has changed. Traditionally, that took the form of a written paper or oral presentation. With today's digital tools, your options extend far beyond the textual: You can present your work in a podcast, as a video, as a multi-layered digital map, or using some other form of data visualization. Because these new tools allow you to easily juxtapose information in new ways, it can create new ways of thinking about a subject, and spur you to ask new kinds of questions. By vastly expanding our ability to share and layer information, they encourage creative collaboration. Students don't have to be in the same place at the same time to work together, and online tools make it easy to aggregate information—to combine the textual and the visual in ways that the printed page cannot.

As an R&D team, the CDLR uses a variety of different approaches in helping both faculty and students explore new ways of incorporating digital tools in teaching and learning. A generous grant from the Mellon Foundation has allowed Oxy to bring several postdoctoral fellows to the CDLR, where they collaborate with faculty on research projects that incorporate advanced technologies. The CDLR also offers everything from outside speakers to a series of casual High-Tech Happy Hours and helps build connections among faculty and students with partners outside Oxy to extend experimentation, innovation, and scholarly creation.

As CDLR director Daniel Chamberlain often says, our students are already swimming in the soup of this technology in their daily lives. We believe that integrating these new tools in a rigorous and critical way into Oxy's classic liberal arts model will enhance our niche in the intellectual marketplace. What we have to offer is something that is likely to become a rare commodity: that great American ritual of leaving home for the first time to share a transformative experience inside and outside the classroom, guided by superb faculty using the best tools available.

Jonathan Veitch, President