Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Online Learning with a SOUL: Ensuring Quality and Access at The American Women’s College

Students in the all-women undergraduate program at Bay Path University often talk about the “sisterhood” and the supportive environment fostered by their instructors, administrators, and each other.

Bay Path, a private university in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, has a long history of providing women with access to a high-quality liberal education. University leaders “wanted to try to replicate [the sisterhood] in a way that could bring more access to more students,” said Maura Devlin, deputy chief learning officer of The American Women’s College at Bay Path.

To create opportunities for working women to return to higher education, Bay Path has offered an accelerated Saturday program for the last seventeen years, serving adult women students who often have families and children, full-time jobs, previous college experience, and limited opportunities to attend courses during the work week.

In 2011, Bay Path further increased access by offering an online “completer” program for adult women students entering with at least sixty college credits or an associate’s degree. This first foray into online learning gave Bay Path administrators insight into online learning environments and led to a feasibility study on adaptive learning technology.

This focus on online education is “in keeping with who Bay Path is as a women’s undergrad institution, really trying to understand historically what women’s experiences in higher education have been,” Devlin said. “It’s all about access.”

In 2013, Bay Path founded The American Women’s College (TAWC), an accelerated and adaptive online undergraduate program, to ensure adult women have access to the quality liberal education they deserve.

Bringing Liberal Education Online

Students enrolled in TAWC can choose from majors that include a liberal studies program and an array of professional programs like business, digital forensics, health sciences, and food science and safety. However, all undergraduate Bay Path students—in on-campus and online environments—engage in the same liberal education core curriculum. This curriculum consists of forty-two credit hours, including three writing courses and three courses in the Women Empowered as Learners and Leaders (WELL) program.

The three WELL courses help students to (1) reflect on their motivations, goals, and skills; (2) explore careers within their major by conducting informational interviews and writing research papers about that field; and (3) synthesize skills from the core curriculum and their major through a self-directed applied-research or community-service project. Throughout their WELL experience, students curate an eportfolio to display their learning and maintain a digital identity. While eportfolios are also used in some departments (including psychology), Bay Path hopes to integrate them throughout the online and on-campus curricula.

Final projects in Bay Path’s core curriculum courses are assessed using AAC&U's VALUE rubrics. Individual rubrics are used within a course for three years before being cycled out for a new rubric.

The SOUL of The American Women’s College

Tina Barrow is one of the 1,300 adult women earning a bachelor’s degree from The American Women’s College. “When I began taking classes at TAWC, I was fifty-three, employed full-time, and caring for my husband who had just had major lung surgery,” Barrow said. “In the beginning, I was overwhelmed, and I was unfamiliar with the tools needed to complete online assignments. The applications such as PowerPoint and the most current version of Word made me feel like I was learning to perform magic.”

To help women like her succeed, TAWC built their educational experience around SOUL (Social Online Universal Learning), which Devlin calls a “high-tech/high-touch” educational and wraparound-support system. In 2014, TAWC received a $3.5 million dollar “First in the World Grant” from the US Department of Education to help with the development of SOUL.

“As we’re providing access, we also want to make sure that students stay with us, that they achieve their course-level learning outcomes and program learning outcomes, and that they persist with us through to graduation,” Devlin said. “And that’s really where the SOUL model came from.”

The SOUL model includes six main characteristics:

SOUL Connect: TAWC’s online orientation system introduces students to online learning through a series of tutorials, videos, and other resources. The orientation also helps new students assess themselves on time management, college readiness, and study habits, and connects students with dedicated educator coaches who will engage in advising and interventions throughout a student’s experience.

Adult learners often “come in understandably hesitant about the amount of technology that they’re going to be engaging with,” said Emily Thompson, program director for English, communications, and social sciences, who also leads the writing across the curriculum initiative. SOUL helps these students “have an attitude towards online education that allows them to see it as infinite amounts of connection, as opposed to this wall between them and the instructor.”

An accelerated pace: TAWC’s six-week-long courses allow students to progress through their program of study relatively quickly and intensely, helping them to stay in the program and graduate.

“Part of what we’re doing is interrogating that notion that quality education [takes] a long time,” Thompson said.

Wraparound support: Faculty and educator coaches analyze data to intervene the moment students show signs of struggling with their curriculum. Educator coaches respond promptly to student inquiries via email and Facebook to create a supportive environment. “Most of the teachers and advisors have taken online classes and understand the challenges we face. They encourage and advise us through their own experiences,” Barrow said.

Online learning communities: Faculty and program directors administer learning communities where students with similar interests and professional aspirations can interact and share resources. As TAWC grows, they are looking for ways to reimagine these learning communities to bring more students together.

Soul Connect for Educators: Faculty go through intensive online training in data analytics, adaptive learning, and online pedagogies. They are mentored by program directors, who also teach courses and constantly share resources and best practices. Bay Path also conducts professional development sessions for online and traditional instructors each summer before the fall semester begins. The most recent seminar was on using eportfolios across the curriculum.

“Faculty development is crucial because faculty who come and teach for us need to unlearn the mentality that online education is going to be a divide,” Thompson said. “Rather than be a divide that needs to be bridged, online education is about choosing which bridge you want to take. There are so many bridges to take between you and the student and students to each other; you just need to know how to effectively leverage them.”

Adaptive Learning

Many of these bridges come from SOUL’s sixth characteristic—KnowledgePath, an adaptive learning management system powered by RealizeIt.

“Adult students bring so many life experiences,” Devlin said. TAWC allows students to transfer up to ninety credits, including those taken many years earlier, while other students start without any college experience. “The beauty of personalized learning is that the system helps us in more efficient ways bring all students up to the same level.”

In a 2015–16 pilot, six general education courses began using adaptive learning, expanding to a total of twenty-three general education, writing, business, and psychology courses. Over the next year, TAWC plans to build out fifty-five to sixty more courses in the adaptive platform. Academic program directors work with subject matter experts and the academic technology (ATech) team to build a master curriculum for each course from the top down, from broad learning outcomes and competencies to the most granular activities and lessons. Several program directors and members of the ATech team have received training in regards to the Quality Matters (QM) course review process, and they use the QM methodology and other resources to ensure quality in all online courses before courses are delivered.

In TAWC courses that use adaptive learning, students receive twenty-minute lessons followed by a summative assessment that engages students in the lower-level tasks from Bloom’s Taxonomy (e.g., identifying, defining, describing, explaining). This allows instructors to provide targeted feedback and interventions before students apply and synthesize the knowledge through interactive discussions, written assignments, case studies, and experiential projects.

When a student doesn’t know an answer, the system provides examples and explanations. According to Eleni Hinis, adjunct instructor of English, if the system shows a text-based summary of a concept, it will ask the student, “Was that clear enough, or would you like me to show it to you in another way?” Students can ask to receive information through a variety of text, audio, and visual formats until they master the concept. The adaptive system creates a profile of students’ preferred learning styles for different kinds of content in order to help them master future concepts more quickly.

Hinis works hard to make the online environment feel safe and comfortable enough for students to write personal narratives. To approximate the closeness of a classroom, she has students share video introductions of themselves, and she spends time commenting on student writing, participating in structured discussions, chatting informally, and talking with students on the phone. “You have to intervene a lot. And I think that’s one place where adaptive learning can help.”

Writing Across the Curriculum

 “One of the big advantages of the adaptive platform is that it can make almost infinite amounts of connections between and across courses,” Thompson said. These connections are especially important for skills like writing, because “students cannot master writing competencies in a six-week course.” Because these competencies should be a recursive process revisited throughout an education, Thompson saw an opportunity to develop a writing across the curriculum (WAC) program.

Psychology was the first academic program to join WAC in 2017. As students conduct research and writing assignments in psychology courses, they are asked to display mastery of APA formatting. If a student is struggling with this or other writing concepts like grammar, organization, or scholarly research strategies, the student is provided with additional support that draws from the writing curriculum.

“In the spirit of liberal education being about making connections, seeing complexity and nuance, and understanding diversity and change, the adaptive platform . . . literalizes that process for students," Thompson said.

Assessing an Online Liberal Education

The data that the adaptive learning provides about class performance across a course or on individual concepts can help program directors revise courses for future semesters. Other data can be very granular, allowing instructors to see how individual students perform on individual concepts within a module.

However, this data has also brought new challenges.

“We have more data than we know what to do with,” Thompson said. “Right now, our main concern is not how do we get data, but how do we . . . pull out trends of data.”

To help close these gaps, TAWC is building a new dashboard to collate their various streams of data: assessment data from AAC&U VALUE rubrics, the adaptive learning platform, student registration information, and customer relationship management software (used by educator coaches to log interventions). This new system will allow program directors and administrators to track trends of student, faculty, and course performance to identify what is successful and where interventions are needed.

As they continue to assess learning with VALUE rubrics, TAWC is also working to (1) identify which rubrics are appropriate for what courses, (2) link rubrics to assignments within the adaptive learning platform, (3) train faculty to use rubrics, and (4) standardize processes for extracting student assessment data from the learning management system.

Now that these online degree programs have been offered for several years, TAWC will be able to assess “larger overarching outcomes” like retention and graduation rates, Devlin said. And when TAWC students walk across the stage, they will have been supported along the way by SOUL, and by the sisterhood that has defined a Bay Path education for generations.

“It was the advice and support of the professors, advisors, and my peers that initially kept me going and gave me the encouragement that I needed when the going got rough,” Barrow said. “Today I am honored and proud to be a student of TAWC.”