March 9, 2016 | By Chuck Carlson
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Albion College students from Marcy Sacks' African American history class met at Erbelli's Pizzeria in Kalamazoo with Hope College students from Jeanne Petit's U.S. history class to discuss what they had learned and, perhaps more important, what they still needed to learn.
"It was great," Sacks said of the collaborative meeting. "It was really productive and they all really developed some ideas. They really taught each other."
And maybe that was the point all along.
That meeting—the first face-to-face between the two classes from the two schools—was another part of an experimental new grant that is enabling Albion, Hope and four other small Midwest liberal arts colleges to design and teach hybrid courses, with an emphasis on digital teaching.
The two grants, totaling $335,000 and funded by the Teagle Foundation, an organization based in New York City that supports and strengthens liberal arts education, also includes DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.; Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind.; Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.; and Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.
The six schools will work together to find new ways to teach over the life of the 30-month grant as part of the Midwest Hybrid Learning Consortium.
"The courses will use technology to build in hybrid ways of teaching and learning and study how this technology works in liberal arts colleges," said John Woell, Albion's associate provost. "Albion College faculty are already experimenting with these digital tools, and the grant will provide further support to faculty to use new technologies to enhance student learning."
Woell said there are three aspects to the grants: expanding capacity to build hybrid courses; finding new ways of teaching and learning; and promoting collaboration among member schools.
Sacks and Petit, who worked together on another project last year as part of the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA), decided to combine forces again this spring. Sacks is teaching African American history and Petit is teaching a course called Recent America, a study of American history since the end of World War II.
And though the professors are teaching very different classes, each understands how their classes co-mingle. Those were the main topics of conversation at their meeting in February.
"My class is on post-World War II America and African American history is a big theme," Petit said. "Students learned about these issues such as civil rights, black power, economic conditions. Talking to Marcy's students, my students learned about those earlier eras. I think they saw where things were going. I think we all learned about new topics."
The plan is for the two classes to combine later in the semester to create a website revolving around the recent Blacks Lives Matter movement.
Sacks hopes to emphasize to both classes how racism manifests itself, the process of dehumanization brought about by racism, and how long the United States has been a nation of inequality.
Petit's class will look at various angles of the civil rights movement, including court cases, the role of women, music, history and more.
"We want to see what all this tells us. This is such a new idea for us." Petit said of the collaboration. "We'll have to see how helpful it is. For my students, it's writing for a broader audience and makes a case for why history matters. You're working beyond your campus. There's a peer group you're responsible to and you want to help them learn. It makes the process of learning take on a different meaning."
Woell said there will be three workshops featuring faculty and staff from the different schools over the course of the grant to analyze its effectiveness and future. The first was held at Hope College last June; the second is set for the end of April at Wabash College; and the final workshop discussing the grant's direction and aim is already set for Albion in the summer of 2017.
Meanwhile, plans are moving forward on a second dual effort for this fall. Albion's Heather Betz, assistant professor of exercise science, and DePauw counterpart Tom Ball will teach human physiology courses.
Additionally, all the research from the classes will be available to other GLCA faculty.