Liberal Education

Prospects and Limits of Online Liberal Arts Education

For centuries, educators and philosophers have explored the benefits that a broad liberal education can offer to individuals and societies. More recently, prominent educational leaders have continued to articulate the value of a liberal education in the digital age. In Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, Michael S. Roth cautions us about what can be lost if education is reduced to job preparation alone, contending that a strictly utilitarian approach fails to help students develop a sense of meaning and purpose, or to become engaged citizens who strive to make society more equitable, stable, and just. Mark William Roche’s Why Choose the Liberal Arts? advances an argument in favor of liberal arts education in particular, explaining why the liberal arts are so important to cultivate virtue, form character, help students find a sense of meaning and purpose, and engage learners in the so-called great questions. In Not for Profit, Martha Nussbaum goes as far as to say that the very health of a democracy depends on forming liberally educated citizens.1

Books like these provide thorough and valuable rationales for the continued relevance of liberal education, especially in economically challenging times, when the cultural discourse encourages students to think of college solely in terms of return on investment. But these works don’t fully address one of the critical forces affecting liberal education, and specifically liberal arts education, in the twenty-first century: enrollment shifts toward online learning. According to the most recent federal data available, more than one-third of all students in higher education were enrolled in at least one distance education course in 2016, representing a major change since the twentieth century in how millions of students experience education.2 Some residential liberal arts colleges now offer online courses and degrees.

These shifts toward online learning environments have occurred amidst uncertainty regarding the educational value of online learning.3 Some hope that online learning will improve learning outcomes, reduce the cost of instruction, and broaden access to higher education;4 however, annual national surveys of faculty and chief academic officers consistently reveal mixed perceptions of the quality of online learning.5 Education leaders such as Adam F. Falk, president of Williams College, say that technology can harm our ability to think deeply, be emotionally well, and connect socially with others.6 Despite these broad concerns, it is reasonable to assume that the implications of online learning environments will depend significantly on a variety of factors, including an institution’s mission and the student constituencies it serves. Although higher education may be able to reach new student populations through online platforms, it is critical to ensure that these formats do not undermine the quality of a liberal education, especially within programs designed to improve access for underserved populations.

In the spirit of exploring the relationship between liberal education and online learning to better understand the prospects and limits of online liberal arts education in particular, I conducted an embedded stakeholder case study at a residential liberal arts college in the Midwest with about 3,800 full-time students where small, intimate classrooms are the norm. In 2012, this college had begun experimenting with online learning by offering one section each of a few of its core liberal arts courses—such as philosophy, history, and literature—online. In total, fewer than ten online course sections were offered; some courses were required, whereas others fulfilled distribution requirements. My goal was to listen to the voices of key stakeholders in the liberal arts mission of the college, including students, faculty, and administrators, who were uniquely positioned to speak with authority about their experiences with online learning.

I selected study participants through a process of purposive sampling in order to identify faculty, student, and administrator interviewees whose roles were closely connected to the research topic.7 I ultimately interviewed ten full-time tenure and tenure-track faculty members from a range of disciplines: Latin, English, classics, history, philosophy, art, and education. Seven of these faculty participants had taught online courses offered to residential students at the college. I also interviewed six upper-class students majoring in at least one liberal arts discipline, all of whom were recommended by faculty participants and three of whom had participated in online courses. Participating senior administrators included the president, provost, and two academic deans; in addition, I interviewed the staff member who coordinated the pilot online courses.

The data I gleaned from my interviews, conducted over a period of six months in 2015, enrich our awareness of several themes and considerations related to online approaches to liberal arts education. The broad questions guiding my research were, Will continued growth in online learning support, challenge, or undermine liberal arts education? What are the appropriate roles, if any, that online learning environments can or should play in liberal arts education in the digital age? If Nussbaum is correct in saying that liberally educated citizens are essential for the flourishing of democracy, then a critical task should be to investigate whether online environments are effective formats for cultivating liberal education, including education in the liberal arts.

Embodied learning and liberal education outcomes

Among the liberal education outcomes that are essential to a just and thriving democracy is a sense of personal and social responsibility.8 Empathy, as both a skill and virtue, is a key ingredient in this outcome. As Jane Addams and W. E. B. Du Bois attested, empathy helps citizens to negotiate our individual differences and compels us to move beyond individualism and toward a form of civic engagement oriented toward social progress and mutual flourishing.9 Therefore, when considering particular pedagogical approaches, including online learning, colleges and universities should evaluate the potential of those approaches to develop students’ capacity for empathy. My study surfaced several interesting findings related to the potential for digitally mediated interactions to promote empathy among students.

My interviews with faculty in particular underscored the idea that online learning can seem ethereal, allowing the subject matter of a course, and the people who hold different views on that subject matter, to remain relatively abstract. For example, one history professor said that some competencies, such as the capacity to be an empathic citizen, are more easily developed in embodied, face-to-face settings. She offered the example of her course on religious history, commenting that class discussion is enriched when religious diversity is embodied among the students in the classroom. In her residential religious history courses, she said, face-to-face discussion prompts students to encounter, with physical immediacy, the lived experiences of those who are different from them. The power of encountering the physical presence of those with beliefs different from their own helps students question their assumptions about other religions. In this way, the classroom provides a physical experience that can facilitate learning and empathy in ways that text or images encountered in a more abstract way—such as on a screen—do not.

Faculty members participating in the study pointed toward eye contact as one critical aspect of embodied learning that facilitates empathy. As one philosophy professor noted, “I think my [online] students are less respectful . . . because they never have to sit in that chair and look at me. And they can communicate in ways that[,] if they looked into my eyes[,] they would not [use to] communicate.” During another interview, an English professor pointed out that it is physically impossible to make eye contact in digital environments. Eye contact, said the English professor, is one of the many important nonverbal cues that make up a physically embodied classroom discussion. These bodily cues can help communicate ideas, establish personal connections, develop mutual understanding, and support classroom learning. Other faculty participants agreed with the English professor that physically embodied interactions offer memorable multisensory learning environments that cannot be replicated by online discussion boards or videoconferencing.

These comments from faculty participants align with the observations of researchers and educators who have expressed particular concern that digital devices present barriers to empathy in interpersonal communication and relationships. Notably, Sherry Turkle draws from a body of psychiatric research to demonstrate that face-to-face conversation and eye contact aid the development of empathy and attachment.10 Specifically, Turkle describes research by psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, who concludes that eye contact allows children to develop attachments and prevents problems with developing capacity for empathy. To further support her point, Turkle cites the work of cognitive neuroscientist Atsushi Senju, explaining that “the parts of the brain that allow us to process another person’s feelings and intentions are activated by eye contact.”11 Although studies such as these point to the importance of eye contact, it is important to acknowledge that students with visual disabilities or other physical conditions that might impair eye contact are certainly capable of developing empathy. The broader point is that research confirms the intuition of faculty who believe that the various components of embodied, physical learning experiences matter.

Though administrator and student interviewees did not discuss empathy directly, they did raise concerns about the quality of interpersonal interaction that is possible online. Administrators believed that while individual courses could be offered online or in hybrid formats, essential aspects of a liberal education, namely opportunities to explore one’s vocation, become a good citizen, and contribute to an intimate learning community, require face-to-face experiences. Students who had completed online courses spoke positively about their experiences with the format, but expressed concerns similar to those of administrators and faculty, and described face-to-face discussion as critical to their learning. As one student participant stated, in online environments, it is too easy to project a self that isn’t real. Students’ preference for face-to-face interaction extended beyond the classroom as students highlighted the central role that relationships with faculty played in their learning. Indeed, all three stakeholder groups said that meaningful interpersonal interaction and relationships were essential ingredients of a liberal arts education.

Prospective benefits of digital learning environments

Despite their concerns about digital learning environments, participants were willing to imagine ways in which these environments could contribute positively to the outcomes associated with liberal education. Faculty readily acknowledged that the use of digital tools and the internet could enhance face-to-face courses: for example, online tools can connect students to new social networks, such as professional associations, practitioners, alumni, or others who share an interest or expertise in course content. Additionally, incorporating the use of digital tools and resources into coursework can give students the chance to critically analyze these digital tools. One faculty participant speculated that online courses could be particularly well suited to developing skills that might be enhanced by solitude, such as critical reflection. In this line of thinking, digital environments can provide individuals with the space and flexibility for critical reflection, deep reading, and slow writing.

Some faculty went as far as to say that thoughtfully combining face-to-face and online learning environments could create hybrid learning experiences that were better than purely face-to-face learning. In one example, an art faculty member described teaching a hybrid course about sacred spaces. Students spent a week together at the beginning and end of the term, sharing meals and visiting sacred spaces; during the rest of the term, the class interacted purely online, with discussions conducted via an online posting board and highly individualized faculty feedback. The faculty member observed that students contributed to class discussion at their own pace, preventing talkative students from dominating the discussion, and allowing quieter students to find their voices. In contrast to faculty, administrators said that hybrid courses could have a place in liberal arts education, but did not say they believed these formats would improve learning. Students expressed their preference for face-to-face learning, saying that people can more easily be inauthentic online, that in-person discussions are more interesting, and that online learning environments impede their ability to focus.

Among all three groups, there was consensus that an entire degree could not be earned online without undermining some essential elements of liberal arts education. Stakeholders described the importance of embodied learning for developing empathy and other interpersonal skills that are necessary to live as flourishing citizens in a democracy. As one faculty member said, and student interviews confirmed, students “need to be able to sit down with somebody and talk face-to-face about what all this [course content and information] means.” Indeed, Terry Anderson, scholar of online learning, warns us:

It may be more challenging than we think to create and sustain these [online] communities, and the differences may be more fundamental—differences that are linked to lack of placedness and synchronicity in time and place, the mere absence of body language, and the development of social presence.12

Documenting student, faculty, and administrator perceptions of online and hybrid learning environments is an important step toward determining the role that these formats might play in liberal education. However, such research must ultimately be supplemented by direct assessment of student work, an approach long advocated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. While my study provides context for a discussion about the future of educational technology, decisions about whether and when to incorporate hybrid and online learning should be informed by empirical research on specific student outcomes. Through direct assessment of student work, future research should compare hybrid, online, and face-to-face learning environments by examining the effect of these environments on student learning outcomes, such as personal and social responsibility, as well as on intellectual and practical skills.

The future of liberal arts education

One takeaway from this study is that hybrid learning environments may hold the most promise for liberal education in the digital age as compared with environments that are solely online or face-to-face. Instructors can carefully craft various combinations of embodied, online, communal, and solitary experiences that are best suited to advance particular liberal education outcomes, such as intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning and action, critical and creative thinking, and teamwork and problem solving.13 Some outcomes, such as empathy, may be optimally supported by embodied interaction. However, with carefully crafted assignments, even purely online courses could incorporate embodied learning that facilitates empathy. For example, an online course on religion could require students to interact face-to-face with various members of different religious communities through interviews or attendance at religious events. In this model, content delivered online can prepare students for in-person interaction by providing relevant historical, sociological, and theological information, and the digital platform can provide a place for students to share, process, and connect their experiences to course content. In the digital age, college graduates should also have fluency with how to be good citizens of the web, and online learning environments are ripe with opportunities for students to explore the relationship between face-to-face civic engagement and civic engagement in digital spaces.

Indeed, hybrid courses and programs may be the most feasible approach to delivering liberal arts education in new ways for a new world while still preserving its distinctive essential features. From a pedagogical perspective, online learning environments can open doors to new possibilities, while face-to-face settings can anchor critical aspects of liberal education. Leveraging these options together can equip students with the knowledge and skills that have always been required for effective citizenship. At the same time, structured learning experiences in digital environments may equip students to better navigate the dizzying and disorienting reality of life in a constantly connected digital age.

Still, these pedagogical insights do not solve some of the major financial and cultural challenges facing the liberal arts and liberal education more broadly. First, embodied instruction is an expensive endeavor. Yet while adding online programs may generate new revenue for institutions, moving coursework online has not been demonstrated to significantly lower costs of instruction.14 Second, cultural forces that emphasize the transactional aspects of higher education encourage students to invest time and money in exchange for credentials that serve as commodities on the labor market. Although gainful employment is a critical outcome of higher education, so is preparation for civic participation—and liberal education outcomes are uniquely suited to prepare students for both employment and citizenship. Disembodied online learning experiences may be less effective than face-to-face pedagogies in promoting some of these civic outcomes, such as those that rely on empathy, and may therefore have the potential to exacerbate the transactional nature of an educational experience. Colleges and universities should be careful to implement pedagogies, whether online, embodied, or hybrid, that result in the complex learning outcomes necessary for a healthy democracy rather than supplying comparatively transactional versions of education.

As recent books have demonstrated, there is a need to continue to rearticulate the value and importance of liberal education in the digital age. Strengthened advocacy is crucial. But educators also have the opportunity to drive hybrid pedagogical innovation that engages questions of embodiment, citizenship, and meaning-making. Hybrid courses and programs may be one possible means of adapting liberal education to a new world and new age.

This article is based on the author’s dissertation, “Liberal Arts Education and Online Learning: Practices, Prospects, and Limits” (Michigan State University, 2016).


1. Michael S. Roth, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); Mark William Roche, Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010); Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

2. Babson Survey Research Group defines a distance education course as a course where course content is delivered exclusively online. See Julia E. Seaman, I. Elaine Allen, and Jeff Seaman, Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States (Babson Park, MA: Babson Survey Research Group, 2018).

3. I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States (Babson Park, MA: Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, 2014).

4. Lawrence S. Bacow, William G. Bowen, Kevin M. Guthrie, Kelly A. Lack, and Matthew P. Long, Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education (New York: Ithaka S+R, 2012).

5. Allen and Seaman, Grade Change.

6. Adam F. Falk, “Technology in Education: Revolution or Evolution?,” in Remaking College: Innovation in the Liberal Arts, ed. Rebecca Chopp, Susan Frost, and Daniel H. Weiss (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 96–114.

7. For more on purposive sampling, see Dahlia K. Remler and Gregg G. Van Ryzin, Research Methods in Practice: Strategies for Description and Causation (Los Angeles: Sage Publishing, 2011), 156–57.

8. See “Essential Learning Outcomes,” Association of American Colleges and Universities, accessed December 13, 2017,

9. Roth, Beyond the University, 84–86.

10. Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin, 2015).

11. Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation, 170.

12. Terry Anderson, “Toward a Theory of Online Learning,” in The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, ed. Terry Anderson, 2nd ed. (Edmonton, AB: Althabasca University Press, 2008), 51.

13. The outcomes named here are among those essential learning outcomes identified in conjunction with Liberal Education and America’s Promise, an initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The full list of outcomes is available at

14. Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman, Why Does College Cost So Much? (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011).

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AARON EINFELD is director of admissions and enrollment management at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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