There is a growing academic question in the electronic age: How can one maintain the "college experience" in this time of online courses? Notably, how do small colleges, often known for their close teacher-student interaction, maintain that bond in the age of virtual classrooms?
It's a question that Simmons College is trying to answer, with the help of a $225,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The goal, called blended learning, is to use technology to enhance the classroom experience and student-teacher interaction rather than replace it.
"Private institutions have lagged behind public institutions in embracing blended and online learning," said Simmons president Susan C. Scrimshaw. "Some fear that blended learning will compromise the 'high touch' faculty and student support for which our schools are known."
The practice has come a long way in the last 10 years.
"In earlier days of working with technology and education, people sort of had a binary take - it was either all face-to-face or all fully online," said Gail Matthews-DeNatale, associate director of academic technology at Simmons. "One of the things with blended learning is realizing that there are some things that online learning does better and some things that face-to-face does better."
Simmons hopes to address a nationwide shortage of graduate-level nursing faculty by offering some courses in its doctoral program partially online. The hope is that the online portion makes the courses available to more and better accommodates schedules of working professionals.
In "a doctoral program, many of the people are already employed full time," said Matthews-DeNatale.
The foundation's funding also will be used in the master's degree program in library and information science. The online offerings also will allow Simmons students at its west campus, at Mount Holyoke College near Amherst, to take the same courses, taught by the same faculty, as students on the Fenway campus.
JOHN M. GUILFOIL