Category Archives: Digital SLAC

Building a Digital Initiative at a Small, Liberal Arts College

Over the past few months, I have wondered what I might do with this blog. It began as a requirement as part of my NEH seminar on digital history, and for a while I thought it might be a platform for me to play around with different digital projects. It eventually may return to this purpose; however, given the regular commitments that have gotten in the way over the past year it does not seem like I will be able to accomplish this move soon. So, at the moment, to at least provide some content for the blog, I plan to focus it on two topics. The first, which I hope will appear regularly at the end of each week, will focus on my current Digital History class. These posts will explore what I may have learned while teaching the class during the previous week (in line with what I am asking my students in the class to do), as well as provide some notes on my syllabus and class design.

The second set of posts, which this post inaugurates, will recap how a number of my colleagues and I have initiated a digital pedagogical and research program at the college over the past year and a half. Maybe such a discussion might serve as some sort of a model (or very possibly an anti-model) of how others might proceed to build digital initiatives at SLACs.

It may be best to start at the beginning – why were any of us even interested in having a conversation about digital learning ? What did we identify as a potential (and achievable) outcome for our work? What barriers did we face?

In many ways, our work started in two disparate ways. The first, as probably happened and is happening across many different campuses, is that a variety of faculty members from different disciplines independently began to explore aspects of digital learning. For some, the motivation was on-line education (either in terms of what the possibilities were for higher ed or from a professional interest in teaching on-line classes). For others, it was an interest in incorporating digital applications and learning (what some in the field call “digitally inflected” assignments) into their work.

The second way our work began was with an email that queried faculty about the types of digital work that they might be doing in isolation (as well as asking more broadly if the term “digital anything” meant something to people). The email asked colleagues to share their thoughts and their projects with me, and from these conversations, I asked three different faculty members (from very different departments and who had very different interests in how they wanted to explore digital learning) to help me write a very modest internal grant ($1000).

During that first conversation, the four of us (Thomas Brown [Sociology/Criminal Justice], Paul Ewell {Business], Kellie Holzer [English], and myself [History]) spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it is we wanted to do. We knew that we worked at a college that had very limited financial resources to spend on new technologies or extensive professional development. We also knew that if a digital initiative was to work at a small college like ours, we needed to focus our initial attention explicitly on classroom-based learning so that we could draw participants from across the school into our conversation. Thus what we were developing had to be be broad enough to involve a multiplicity of people but not so broad as to be completely superficial. Finally, we wanted to put together a project that would allow for colleagues to start digging in right away and see what it is that they could do.

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