Designing a Model for the New Liberal Arts

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article has been adapted by Lori Varlotta from her 2018 article in Planning for Higher Education Journal.1

Let’s face it. There is a new normal for most institutions of higher learning, and tuition-driven liberal arts colleges will likely be at the forefront of the change. As readers of Liberal Education are aware, the new normal is marked by a host of calls for colleges to demonstrate things like institutional accountability; increased net tuition revenue and expense management; student access and success; student debt containment; and return on investment of the degree, including clear career pathways. With these calls ringing in our ears, presidents at small liberal arts institutions must simultaneously face the challenges of unfavorable high school demographics,2 Moody’s grim financial outlook for the sector,3 and public and political pessimism regarding the liberal arts.4 (For more on the enrollment outlook in higher education, see Nathan Grawe’s article in this issue.)

As the president of Hiram College, my team and I are leading an institution that, amid all the challenges above, needs to change quickly and materially. If we continue to do things in the same way as in the past, or if we merely tinker with changes at the margins, the grip of this reality will not just squeeze us in the short term; it will strangle the very life out of our beloved institution. Rather than be extinguished by these pressures, we have launched a systemic change process that includes modifying the entire academic structure: first-year experience, majors, core curriculum, graduation requirements, and student learning outcomes. This article explains the changes we are designing at this moment.

Conceptualizing a model that addresses the calls for change

Hiram’s model for academic change aims to achieve the following: (1) increase the overall number of students, (2) attract a larger number of students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, (3) create a structure where integrative and experiential learning becomes a defining part of every student’s experience, and (4) ensure that students demonstrate competency in a twenty-first-century skill set and mind-set.

The four elements of the New Liberal Arts

Striving to meet those ambitious goals, we have designed a comprehensive model of change called the New Liberal Arts. The model includes four elements described below and an updated set of student learning outcomes outlined in the following section.

The work of creating a systemic (rather than programmatic) model of change has been, by no means, mine alone. Like every major initiative I have led at Hiram, this one is a collective effort. Pieces of the model were first championed by a faculty group, the “Innovators,” that brought key ideas to my cabinet, the college executive steering committee, trustees, and groups of staff. Thanks to a trustee gift, I was able to contract with external consultants from the RAND Corporation. These consultants accelerated a redesign process that engaged well over one hundred faculty, staff, students, trustees, and alumni. By design, these stakeholders were invited to listen, weigh in, support, or challenge the emerging model. This inclusive process improved the model and its four elements at every iteration.

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Element 1: Common first-year experience

Incoming freshmen at Hiram, like elsewhere, participate in a first-year experience (FYE) that familiarizes them with the college’s academic expectations and community norms while helping them develop college-level writing and discourse skills. But, as part of the New Liberal Arts, we want new students to begin their undergraduate experience by learning how to be self-reflective and contemplative.

Reflection and contemplation are part of a program called Hiram Connect that we launched two years ago.5 As the name implies, the program requires students to think about the connections between and among classroom conversations, experiential activities, theoretical concepts, personal beliefs, and group norms. As part of Hiram Connect, students examine these connections through the Hiram Five Cs: character, community, career, curriculum, and calling.

Two years into Hiram Connect, student journals, essays, and course assignments revealed that students were not thinking as clearly and consistently about the five Cs as we had hoped. To prod them to do so, the New Liberal Arts’ FYE program will focus the spotlight more directly on the five Cs and will shape a few of the program’s signature assignments around them.

As part of this explicit focus, the New Liberal Arts will teach students how to use electronic journaling techniques, iPad videos, and photography as mechanisms for engaging in self-reflection. As students learn to capture and critically examine their own values, interests, and aspirations, they will be better equipped to understand, work with, and empathize with people who are different from themselves—all intended outcomes of the New Liberal Arts.

Element 2: Integrated major

The notion of integrative and interdisciplinary studies is by no means new to Hiram. For more than fifty years, students at Hiram have been required to take two interdisciplinary (INTD) courses—one of which had to be team taught. However, many of the INTD courses are embedded in the core curriculum. As part of the New Liberal Arts, we expect to have a larger number of upper-division INTD courses in the majors as well.

Toward this end, we are designing our new academic structure to cluster majors under five larger academic umbrellas we are calling “schools” (see the illustration below). Some upper-division courses in one major will be cross-listed with another major (the same course will satisfy “major requirements” in two different majors). This means that junior- and senior-level courses will attract students from different majors within their “home” school. Upperclassmen will therefore hear and learn from schoolmates majoring in a different but related field. Hence, they will see how the theories and methods from a related major in their school can shed a useful but different light on their own area of study. This should help students develop an affinity for both their major and the school that houses it.

Majors continue to exist in the New Liberal Arts, but they no longer stand apart from other majors. Soon, majors themselves (rather than just courses) will be more integrated with those within their own school and across other schools. In some sense, the school structure will replace the department structure, since many departments have been very small (one to three faculty members).

Element 3: Coherent core

For decades, most colleges have required students to enroll in courses that constitute the general education or core curriculum, typically making up one-third or more of a student’s undergraduate requirements. At its best, the core helps students discover a passion for a field of study previously unfamiliar to them; hone a set of strong analytical thinking, writing, and problem-solving skills and translate those skills into real-life situations; develop a lifelong love of leading others; and combat over-specialization at the undergraduate level.

Unfortunately, administrators, faculty, and students throughout the country are apt to say that core curricula fall short in one or more of these areas. Like at many other institutions, the Hiram core has largely become a vehicle for students to take a smattering of discreet and nonindividualized courses, generally at the introductory level, with no structural thread that links them or ties them to matters of individual interest.

Within the next year, we plan to overhaul Hiram’s existing core with those goals in mind. To garner students’ interest and help them see how different disciplines approach issues that matter, the New Liberal Arts will require students to choose a set of interconnected core courses that address a complex, real-world challenge. We are entertaining topics such as climate change, artificial intelligence, the international market economy, and food, water, and health care.

Professors from all majors will be expected to integrate one or more of these challenges/opportunities into existing courses. They will also create or redesign some departmental core courses or modules to address one or more of the four challenges.

We hope that students will no longer see the core as the required stuff that they have to plow through to get to the good stuff in their major. We expect them to see the core as a purposeful cluster of courses that helps them examine a challenge or opportunity of personal interest and map out ways they could realistically work to remedy or leverage it.

Element 4: Experiential activities

As is increasingly the case at other institutions, Hiram guarantees that students are provided rich opportunities to apply theory to practice as part of a real-world experience.

But as part of the New Liberal Arts, upper-class students will need to do more than complete a newly required high-impact experiential activity (study-away trip, internship, service learning, or research project). They will also need to connect critical thinking explicitly with constructive doing by using the Five Cs first explored in the FYE. These Cs will serve as prompts in the reflective journals, ePortfolios, and wikis that help students record and capture their out-of-classroom learning experiences.

We can improve the integration of thinking and doing. Having students log service hours as part of a course, for example, is not nearly as impactful an experience as it could be. To make this experience more educationally and personally meaningful, students should not only think or reflect on the situation at hand. They should be expected to do something about the situation that made their service necessary.

In this example, perhaps students create a multimedia journal shared not only with classmates and the teacher but also with the service site leader and the people who received the service. Learning how to produce work for an audience that is diverse rather than monolithic is invaluable in an age where work can be produced, reproduced, and disseminated at the push of a button. Students may also be assigned to not only summarize and analyze the situation to which they were responding, but to unearth, analyze, and contextualize the precipitating causes and/or the broader subtext associated with the surface issue. Finally, they should propose and test possible solutions to the challenge.

Delivering the New Liberal Arts: Mindful technology

We set out to reconfigure the elements of the baccalaureate degree. Those changes are substantial and impactful, but, in designing the New Liberal Arts, we did not stop there. The model also prompts faculty to rethink the ways they deliver content.

Faculty started making major changes in the content delivery of many of their courses. Their modifications were catalyzed by Hiram’s 1:1 mobile technology program that equipped all students with an iPad Pro, smart pencil, keyboard bundle, and pair of hiking boots. Dubbed “Tech and Trek,” the program fuels classroom and out-of-classroom learning by teaching students to critically and creatively use their devices to navigate the many exciting treks they take during their undergraduate journey. It also teaches students when and where to use technology and when to put it down—to be present without it.

Thanks to Tech and Trek, Hiram has become the first four-year college in Ohio with a 1:1 technology program and one of the only places in the country where mobile technology has met “mindful technology.”6 Whether they are roaming through the historic nineteenth-century Hiram Village, hiking the trails at our 550-acre field station, trudging through streams and marshes collecting research samples, embarking on study-away trips, or gaining work experience at one of our many internship sites, students are taught how to use the devices to capture and connect the ideas, feelings, images, and questions they wish to ponder and share with others. As part of mindful practice, Hiram expects students to develop a purposeful rather than perfunctory use of twenty-first-century technology.

Mindful technology in the classroom

The New Liberal Arts do not simply prioritize the frequent or perfunctory use of the iPad as a take-it-for-granted form of mobile technology. Though new at this, faculty have come together to discuss using mobile technology to expand and more radically reconfigure the “flipped classroom,” student group work, and hands-on assignments in order to

  • transform their classroom teaching from “sage on the stage” to “mentor in the middle,” as the iPad frees them from the audio/visual panel at the front of the classroom;
  • enhance opportunities for learner-learner and learner-instructor collaboration, in and out of class, since all learners have the same device and the same apps;
  • web conference with content experts no matter where they live or work;
  • guide students in mindful use of social networking tools by teaching them to evaluate perspectives of students, teachers, and leaders within or beyond the confines of their own community;
  • curate or create interactive ebooks, with embedded media and quizzes, that can be annotated or highlighted by viewers;
  • integrate simulation tools so students can model or manipulate physical or social phenomena;
  • help students create and share expressive visual projects utilizing music, theater, and art;
  • select presentation apps that balance graphics, text, and multimedia;
  • incorporate real-time formative assessments via apps to discern comprehension of material and encourage engagement;
  • model tech-life balance with intentional moments and experiences away from devices;
  • guide student development of digital portfolios to capture project work and twenty-first-century skills; and
  • bridge the physical and digital worlds with augmented reality tools.

Such use of technology enlivens classroom learning by challenging students to synthesize personal perspectives, interdisciplinary textbook theories and methodologies, and experiential learning. In doing so, it elevates integrated learning, sharpening the very skills thought to be diminished through a perfunctory use of technology. Indeed, Tech and Trek will help students develop the real-world and real-time skills of oral and visual communication, teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking, and civil discourse that employers value so much.

As faculty integrate mobile technology in their courses, they are increasingly instructing students how to use their mobile devices and the web to separate fact from fiction and real news from fake news. This entails making sure students can differentiate corroborating evidence from opinions and unsubstantiated claims. Access to information is no longer a stumbling block for undergraduate researchers, but sorting through infinite sources to find those that are highly reliable and valid is a skill that must be honed.

Mindful technology beyond the classroom

Mobile technology is also enhancing the out-of-classroom treks Hiram students take. Study abroad travelers, for instance, memorialize the trip of a lifetime by morphing written journals into multimedia ones, complete with photography, videography, interviews, and handwritten annotations made with the Apple Pencil. Students use location-aware search apps to get on-the-spot information about where they are. And rather than buy an international SIM card to tell folks back home what they are doing, student travelers are creating wikis and blogs to publish and share their personal stories.

iPad-powered experiences are also now commonplace for those engaged in service-learning projects, internships, and the clinical experiences required for the bachelor of nursing degree. Students are using devices to record oral histories of hospice patients, critique their student teaching or patient interview skills, and make short videos describing disease transmission. Faculty overseeing such work can access and assess this remote learning effectively and efficiently.

A more contemporary, relevant, and useful skill set and mind-set

While all liberal arts educators want students to be well-read and well-rounded, we want a Hiram education to prioritize the connection between thinking and doing so that abstract and conceptual thinking do not subjugate applied work. Hence, we are designing the New Liberal Arts to prepare students to be intellectually agile and socially responsible thinkers and doers. Our graduates will now be expected to demonstrate a contemporary skill set and mind-set that prepares them not only for a satisfying life but, unabashedly, for a successful and ever-changing career.

To do all of this, the New Liberal Arts must add new skills (italicized below) to augment, not abandon, the coveted skills of the past:

  • analytical and critical-thinking skills
  • written, oral, and digital communication skills
  • computational skills
  • intercultural and diversity skills
  • mindful technology
  • systems thinking
  • design thinking
  • teamwork and team-building skills

Several of these skills need little clarification. But since many of us have just started to include systems and design thinking as essential liberal arts skills, I will briefly explain what they will look like at Hiram.

At its basic level, systems thinking focuses more on the construction of the whole than deconstruction of its parts. Rather than approach decision-making by breaking the organization into parts and analyzing each separately, systems thinkers examine the interactions of the people and parts to explore the larger patterns. When students can identify the patterns, they can construct a deeper understanding of the system or organization. If the pattern is good for the organization, leaders can make decisions that reinforce it, but if the pattern is bad for the organization, they should make decisions that change the pattern.7

Similarly, Linda Naiman sees design thinking as a methodology to solve complex problems and find viable solutions for a particular audience. She adds that design thinking as a mind-set
“is not problem-focused, it’s solution focused and action oriented towards creating a preferred future. Design thinking draws upon logic, imagination, intuition, and systemic reasoning, to explore possibilities of what could be—and to create desired outcomes that benefit the
end user.”8

Aligned with these definitions, the New Liberal Arts will structure opportunities for students to practice being critical thinkers and constructive doers. As part of these structured opportunities, we are contemplating having students demonstrate the acquisition of skills and mind-sets through endorsements or badges they earn in individual classes, high-impact programs, and cocurricular activities. We are also determining how these skills will be formally assessed. At the present time, some faculty are wondering if the capstone project that is now required of all students could be evaluated on a rubric that includes (among other criteria) the skills delineated above.

Transformational change

To simultaneously respond to the challenges facing liberal arts colleges and demonstrably transform Hiram in ways that address our ambitious strategic goals, the cabinet and I knew that we needed to go far beyond adding a signature program or common academic or cocurricular experience, what Mary Marcy calls the “distinctive program model.” We also knew we needed to go beyond the addition of professional or market-wise programs, what Marcy dubs the “New American College Model.”9

As explained throughout this article, we seek systemic change: that which pervades all parts of the system or structure and the relationships among the system’s various parts. Since published articles and professionally organized workshops are still a little lean in covering this area, I hope this article serves as a useful resource for the growing number of college leaders who will likely be called to lead similar efforts at their institutions.

Notes

1. Lori Varlotta, “Designing and Implementing Systemic Academic Change: Hiram College’s Model for the New Liberal Arts,” Planning for Higher Education Journal 47, no. 1 (October–December 2018).

2. Jon Marcus, “Universities and Colleges Struggle to Stem Big Drops in Enrollment,” Hechinger Report, June 29, 2017, https://hechingerreport.org/universities-colleges-struggle-stem-big-drop....

3. Paul Fain, “Moody’s Downgrades Higher Education’s Outlook,” Inside Higher Ed, December 6, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2017/12/06/moodys-downgrades-h....

4. APM Reports, “Liberal Arts Face Uncertain Future at Nation’s Universities,” June 4, 2018, https://hechingerreport.org/liberal-arts-face-uncertain-future-at-nation....

5. For more information on Hiram Connect, see https://www.hiram.edu/connect/experiential-hands-on-component/.

6. Lori E. Varlotta, “Tech and Trek at Hiram College,” University Business, May 31, 2017, https://universitybusiness.com/tech-and-trek-at-hiram-college/ ; Lori E. Varlotta, “Mobile Technology Meets Mindful Technology,” Educause Review, May 8, 2017, https://er.educause.edu/articles/2017/5/mobile-technology-meets-mindful-... ; Lori E. Varlotta, “Hiram College as the New Liberal Arts: Integrated Study, High-Impact Experiences, Mindful Technology,” Higher Ed Today, April 5, 2017, https://www.higheredtoday.org/2017/04/05/hiram-college-new-liberal-arts-....

7. Shawn Grimsley, “Systems Thinking in Management: Definition, Theory & Model,” Study.com, accessed November 5, 2018, https://study.com/academy/lesson/systems-thinking-in-management-definiti....

8. Linda Naiman, “Design Thinking as a Strategy for Innovation,” Creativity at Work, accessed November 5, 2018, https://www.creativityatwork.com/design-thinking-strategy-for-innovation/.

9. Mary B. Marcy, The Small College Imperative: From Survival to Transformation (Washington DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, 2017).

To respond to this article, email liberaled@aacu.org with the author’s name on the subject line.


LORI VARLOTTA is president of Hiram College.

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