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Collaborative Curriculum

The ACS Collaborative Curriculum program is part of a larger initiative, the 2016-21 Faculty Advancement program. For more information about the Faculty Advancement program, click here.

The liberal arts college was not designed for multi-institutional collaboration; it was, instead, devised for traditional teaching and direct student-to-faculty access.  However, it makes sense for our institutions to collaborate on certain academic endeavors in order to maintain the strength and relevancy of us all.

Specifically, our new collaborative experiments could expand study away opportunities, protect low-enrollment courses, benefit disciplines with limited representation, and support efforts to create collaborative departments or programs that benefit all parties involved.

The collaborative curriculum initiative will primarily recruit leaders from among our faculties and administrators.

We will assemble an Administrative Logistics Team (ALT), Technology teams, and Curricular Content Teams to gather expertise from all our members.

The ALT will devise solutions to obstacles emanating from inter-institutional registration, differing academic calendars, different credit systems (credit hours versus units), financial exchange, and accreditation.  This team will also work to ensure that collaborative courses are included in the institutional catalogs and course bulletins of participating institutions along with information necessary for student enrollment.  The ALT will meet virtually at least twice in the first year of the grant and at least once a year thereafter.

The Technology team will be comprised of representatives from IT, library staff, faculty, and administration.  This team will address matters related to differing learning management systems, course materials curation and copyright concerns, and hardware and software availability.  The policies and procedures developed by these two teams will facilitate all future ACS collaborations, eliminating the need for ad hoc solutions and enabling faculty to move forward with confidence.  The Technology team will meet each year for five years, then maintain regular communication via videoconferencing.

Curricular Content teams will address the varying curricular needs and resources of different disciplines within ACS institutions. While we anticipate the formation of additional content teams in the future, we have formed three pilot teams: German, Arabic, and Philosophy.

The content teams consist of deans and faculty, whose job it is to address course offerings, course rotations, program requirements, teaching loads, and assessment of both students and faculty, as well as explore and select the appropriate models for collaboration.  These teams will gather virtually twice each year and at least once a year in person thereafter.  As the project progresses, the content teams will become the basis of collaborative departments.

ACS acknowledges the time commitment required of the faculty, staff and administrators to advance these initiatives, and plans to offer each team member a stipend in addition to covering their travel costs. We will also engage consultants with expertise in blended/online learning and collaborative departments to advise these working teams.


Possible Models for Collaboration

We aim to support experimentation among a number of different collaborative strategies and models.  For example, models could be based on programmatic or institutional types:

  1. Equal binary configuration, i.e., collaboration between two institutions that have just one faculty member in an area in which neither can offer anything more than a minor. By joining their curricula, ACS member institutions could offer majors without adding faculty resources.
  1. Unequal binary configuration, i.e., a larger program, institution A, “adopts” a smaller program at institution B in a discipline, so that students at institution B can benefit from the broader curriculum at institution A. Achieving balance would come through similar unequal configurations in other disciplines. This could also extend beyond a binary relationship to include three or more institutions.
  1. Shared expertise, i.e., creating a mechanism for programs to offer a course on a regular basis for which the demand at any one institution would be insufficient. The participating institutions would take responsibility for offering the course in a cycle. For example, institution A offers the course one year, institution B the next and so on. This addresses the needs of advanced students.

Or models could be based on the types of courses:

  1. Elementary courses, i.e., institutions collaborate to provide introductory instruction on a rotating or collaborative basis, freeing faculty members at contributing institutions to focus on other disciplinary or institutional needs.
  1. Mid-level courses, i.e., courses that faculty members regularly offer would benefit from wider participation of colleagues at other institutions, e.g., a course on 19th century German literature, to which specialists in Goethe, Lessing, and etc. can contribute and enrich the experience for students. This not only leads to better courses through collaboration but also addresses fluctuations and vagaries in the schedule of courses at individual institutions. In other words, a collaborative commitment to offer these courses on a regular basis allows students and faculty members at individual institutions to engage in better advanced planning.
  1. Advanced or “signature” courses, i.e., faculty members could offer courses in their fields of expertise for which demand at their home institution or other constraints prevent them from offering. Problems could arise with regard to “inflow” and “outflow” of students. Institutions benefit from “outflow,” i.e., when students take courses offered by other institutions. The opposite is the case for faculty members who are penalized by “outflow” because students are not taking their courses.  So, for contributing institutions each faculty member should develop a course for which they would generate “outflow” from other institutions or “inflow” to compensate for the outflow of their own students. One solution would come through planning, so that courses do not compete with each other in any given semester. In other words, a faculty member at institution A offers an advanced course one semester for students in both institutions A and B, and a faculty member at institution B offers an advanced course for students at both institutions in the next semester.


Possible Applications of these models:

Study Away Programs

Study away programs are invaluable in preparing students for the increasingly diverse and global community they will encounter upon graduation.  Our member institutions have demonstrated a strong commitment to providing these opportunities to their students, but such programs are expensive to operate.  By collaborating on and sharing study away programs, ACS schools will increase the number of locations and programs offered while containing costs.  Deans and faculty have already shown great interest in pursuing these collaborations.  ACS has provided seed money for collaborations between Spelman College and Centre College in Barbados, between Birmingham Southern College and Centre in Ghana, and an archaeological field study in Italy with Millsaps, Sewanee, Richmond and Washington and Lee. But much more could be done to reduce redundancy and to take advantage of unique locations.

ACS will conduct a survey of programs currently offered by member institutions to identify unique opportunities, redundancies, and gaps.  The German language Curricular Content team has already discussed consolidating the multiple summer programs offered in Berlin.  Sewanee has offered to open its program to other ACS institutions in the summer of 2017 and we hope to offer a collaborative program as early as 2018.  The initial proposal calls for back-to-back, three-week programs to appeal to the curricular need for intermediate course credits at some institutions as well as the desire for shorter programs at other institutions.  The program would be managed each year by an inter-institutional team of 2-3 professors, who will rotate on a three-year cycle.  This would offer an opportunity for intellectual exchange while also reducing the burden and cost of providing this student experience.  Shorter one or two-week joint travel programs are also under consideration.  And discussions are underway to design a study away experience for students of Arabic, either internationally or domestically to centers of Arab-American culture such as Detroit. ACS grants will expedite the development of these programs, as well as travel support to investigate new locations for potential programs.  Support for these initiatives could be provided through the regular Faculty Advancement Grant process described under “Innovative Instruction” or as part of the study away component of “Collaborative Curricula.”

Collaborative Solutions for Low-Enrollment Courses

The residential liberal arts colleges that comprise our consortium strive to offer a full menu of courses and areas of study, but given their small size, they are often forced to make difficult decisions regarding low-enrollment courses.  As student interests and needs fluctuate, this places strains on the institutions whose flexibility is limited by faculty and institutional resources.  Technology offers a solution through online course sharing across the consortium.  By creating new opportunities in low-demand subjects such as Arabic or German language, shared curriculum would enable each institution to more efficiently and effectively serve its students while also fulfilling commitments to faculty.

The needs of member institutions will vary, but potential avenues for course collaboration include advanced language courses, research seminars in low-enrollment majors, and interdisciplinary niche courses.  We anticipate initial attention going to co-taught courses and block-seminars in these areas.  This will provide an opportunity for faculty to share pedagogy and build trust while significantly enriching the student experience.  In courses commonly taught on multiple campuses, such as German Cinema or Classical Philosophy, sections might include weekly inter-institutional discussions.  In upper-level literature courses taught in English to ensure enrollment, inter-institutional sessions in the language of origin would supplement instruction for senior language majors.  Once these partnerships are constructed we anticipate collaboration will build and that the number of shared courses will increase.  Institutions not currently offering programs in certain areas have also expressed interest in providing courses through ACS institutions that do offer them.

Collaborative Departments

Small academic programs at liberal arts institutions often face problems stemming from the small number of faculty in a given field, and the lack of opportunities for faculty to interact with others in their field on their own campuses.  In addition, small academic units within small liberal arts colleges are increasingly unsustainable and in danger of elimination.  Furthermore, not every institution in the ACS can afford to have a major in every possible subject, nor should they; however, through the creation of collaborative academic departments, all ACS schools could offer what have traditionally been lower-enrollment majors, expanding educational opportunity beyond the borders and limitations of any single institution.

Faculty and administrators at ACS colleges have already started to plan for collaborative departments, which was the subject of extensive discussion at a recent ACS Council of Deans meeting in March 2016.  We believe that ACS colleges will soon be able to offer more courses and better opportunities for students, equal to or less than current costs.

The potential benefits of a collaborative department have already been recognized in Arabic language courses, where faculty from Birmingham-Southern, Richmond, and Sewanee have begun to share syllabi, teaching schedules, and course ideas.

While our initial focus engages languages and philosophy collaborative curricula, this initiative will eventually enable smaller campuses to offer coursework in African-American Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Asian Studies, Latina Studies, or LGBTQ Studies.

We believe there is an important evolutionary relationship between Innovative Instruction and Collaborative Curricula, where the one naturally leads to the other.  And in the same way that an individual faculty grant initiative can be seen as a building block to sustained inter-institutional collaboration, shared curricula could easily serve as a vehicle for a more inclusive campus environment.


How to apply or get involved: Check this space and watch your email for an upcoming call for grant proposals. You must be on the ACS Palladian subscriber’s list to receive the email (click here to subscribe). If you want to be involved in the planning for these activities, contact your Dean or ACS President Owen Williams, rowilliams@colleges.org.