COVID-19 Points of View: Digitizing the Liberal Arts

Ellen Holmes PearsonEllen Holmes Pearson
April 27, 2020

An Interview with UNC Asheville Professor of History Ellen Holmes Pearson

I want what we do with the technology to reflect the liberal arts mission that we have. We have to make sure that what comes out of this for us as an institution is innovative – that we’re not just following trends, that we take what we were forced to do – to stand up remote classes very quickly – and learn from it.

And when this is all over, we’re going to sit back and say, ‘ah, isn’t it nice to be back in the brick and mortar classroom with our students in the same real live room.’ But we’re also going to have learned a lot about what our students need when we can’t be in the same room.

– Ellen Holmes Pearson


UNC Asheville Professor of History Ellen Holmes Pearson is simultaneously a champion of, and very wary about remote instruction. In fact, it was her concern that an increase in online courses would lead to a standardization that is at odds with her view of liberal arts education that led her to dive into distance learning so she could help shape it.

She first taught a distance-learning class in 2014 and 2015 as part of a COPLAC project she helped create (COPLAC is the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, which is headquartered at UNC Asheville). And this semester, she has helped lead the very rapid transition to remote instruction not just at UNC Asheville, but across the entire UNC System.

She recently sat down with UNC Asheville’s Steve Plever (via video chat, of course) to share her experience of this dramatic transition, and her thoughts about how it will (and won’t) change education on our campus and beyond. She began with a little history…

ELLEN PEARSON: In the spring of 2014 and again in the spring of 2015, I taught a class called Century America. It was Bill Spellman’s brainchild – he was director of COPLAC at the time – and we were trying to figure out a way to harness digital technology and distance learning so that it made sense for public liberal arts colleges to do it.

Small-class, synchronous classes were what we landed upon as a way to create a digital presence and use distance education in ways that were more ‘liberal arts’ – that weren’t a cast of thousands with student anonymity.

One of my colleagues up at the University of Mary Washington, Jeff McClurken and I co-taught this class, Century America, which was all about World War I – the Great War and home-front history. We had students from across the continent at COPLAC institutions. We met synchronously by video conference and the students built WordPress websites on the history of their campuses and their home fronts.

Then we worked together on COPLACDigital, thanks to a large Mellon Foundation grant. It was a half-million dollar grant and Jeff and I taught other faculty members at COPLAC schools to teach other online courses of their own design.

Steve Plever: The World War I era was also marked by a flu pandemic. Does our current situation have you harkening back to that time?

ELLEN PEARSON: Some of the websites that our students created in 2014 and 2015 addressed the Spanish Flu, as it was called. For example, out at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, they had a medical school alongside the college and that medical school educated a lot of doctors who went out and treated the Spanish Flu. A lot of the student websites had some element of the Spanish Flu in them.

SP: And now, students are looking at the impact of a pandemic in real time. When it became clear that we were going to move to remote instruction, is that when you began working with the UNC System on this?

ELLEN PEARSON: Actually, I’ve had a fellowship at the UNC System that began in January 2019, on UNC System digital and distance learning. I’ve been working with Jim Ptaszynski, who is vice president for digital learning for the system and with two faculty fellow colleagues – Ben Powell from Appalachian State, and Kate Saul of NC State.

The three of us started working with Jim on making the UNC System’s digital and distance offerings a little bit more robust. Kate’s area is technology and Ben is helping the UNC System negotiate volume deals on the technology. My end of it is faculty development – supporting the faculty with more resources to help develop their pedagogy online and to give them more knowledge of what digital tools are out there that they can use in their in-person as well as online classrooms.

I had proposed a series of training modules for faculty. And Kate and I were working on helping the system stand up a website where information could be shared among the campuses, where perhaps we could facilitate interest groups of say, psychology professors who wanted to teach online, and we could offer them tips and link them with each other.

That was where we were headed – we had just started talking to the system’s ITS folks about our plans for this website, and I had been talking with faculty development colleagues across the campuses to see what their needs were in terms of these modules.

SP: And then, there was a sudden mass scramble…

ELLEN PEARSON: Yeah, boom! Everything got sort of accelerated – that’s kind of an understatement, right?

The Wednesday before UNC Asheville’s Spring Break, we did a manual. Over ten days, with the help of faculty development from across the system campuses, Jim and his team, and I, along with several others, created a new resource – a 30-something-page manual that can be downloaded. It gave the faculty resources to get their courses up on an online platform of some kind. We called it Moving to Alternative Instructional Formats.

It was rolled out and got a thousand downloads the first day. Forbes magazine did a feature on Jim and his ideas about how this semester is going to change higher education, digital and online education.

And now we’re looking at summer. We’ve got six to eight weeks – which now almost feels like a luxury – to get ready for summer.

SP: Do you think we’re likely to come out of this with courses that used to be in person and are now online-only, or new courses that will be exclusively or predominantly digital?

ELLEN PEARSON: I think we were headed that way anyway. I’m not saying that everything will be digital – we’re not headed there, but I think we’re going to learn a lot about what can go digital. And the things that we thought would be really hard to make into distance courses like visual arts, performance arts or lab science – some people were already teaching them online before. Now we have people doing it who had no previous experience and I think we’re going to learn a lot from them because they’re having to use every bit of their intellectual and creative resources to allow our students to have a good experience with these classes.

It’s not the technology – the technology was already there. What we’re going to learn the most from is how people who hadn’t had much experience using the technology take it and harness it for the good of education. Those pedagogical techniques are going to be a tremendous advantage to us. Those will be the new things that come out of this: how we can really take care of our students online and how we can really reach out and reach through the technologies to grab our students.

And when this is all over, we’re going to sit back and say, ‘ah, isn’t it nice to be back in the brick and mortar classroom with our students in the same real live room.’ But we’re also going to have learned a lot about what our students need when we can’t be in the same room.

Maybe there are some classes we can teach in the summer when students can’t be in Asheville or need to be at home or elsewhere – what can we do for them then to keep the momentum going in their education?

SP: Some people have fears that some things will be made online-only in a way that increases a standardized rather than individualized approach to teaching. Is there also an education happening about what digital pedagogy should leave alone?

ELLEN PEARSON: This is exactly why I decided it is important to get involved with online education. I started down this path in 2013 or so because I was afraid. At that point MOOCs (massive open online courses) were all the rage and there were a lot of dollars going toward them as ‘the future’ of higher education. I feared how pressures in that direction could affect UNC Asheville. I came to UNC Asheville because I love the public liberal arts and I feared that we were going to head down a road to a kind of standardization that is very easy to implement via distance education.

So when I heard that there were some institutions that were doing small class synchronous courses, I went to Bill Spellman to see if there was interest in this from other COPLAC schools. I wanted to experiment, to take what’s at the heart of liberal arts education and harness the technology. That’s the voice that I’ve taken to System Office in Chapel Hill – the voice of a humanist who’s very interested in distance education and digital technology but with the perspective that we’re not all the same and our students are not all the same.

I want what we do with the technology to reflect the liberal arts mission that we have. We have to make sure that what comes out of this for us as an institution is innovative – that we’re not just following trends, that we take what we were forced to do – to stand up remote classes very quickly – and learn from it. I hope we’ll come away with innovative pieces and knowledge of what works asynchronously as well as via Zoom, so that we’re applying our own brand of creativity to it, so we come out with something really rich that can live alongside in-person education, which is why our students come here.

The Thursday before Spring Break, I asked students in my American Indian History class [History 382: Many Nations: American Indian History, pre-contact-1840] what they would want in an online class – about half had already had online classes somewhere.

They gave me a laundry list but the first thing they told me was that they would still want synchronous classes because ‘that’s why we’re here at UNC Asheville, so we can have an interchange of ideas, so we can have conversations with each other about what we’re reading and studying.’

Our students have a certain vision of what their education ought to be like and we’re not going to replace in-person classes with distance courses. But we can add dimensions to their educational experience and make sure that they can navigate a professional experience at a distance, make sure they can translate creative ideas and critical analysis into video conference or other distance environments. That’s inevitable – it’s a professional environment many of our students will step right into immediately upon graduation.

SP: Mentoring is so important. Can you develop that kind of relationship online?

ELLEN PEARSON: I think there’s a whole lot to be said for seeing faces and hearing voices in real time conversations when it comes to mentoring. I don’t know if I’ll have a different answer in five years, but I couldn’t imagine mentoring happening 100% asynchronously – maybe that’s just the limits of my imagination – but I have seen it happen synchronously via technology.

The students I had in that first semester of the Century America class – I think there were 14 of them and I can tell you where at least 10 of them are now. They were from schools all over the country and none were from UNC Asheville because the campuses had to be in existence during World War I and we were not. I still know where they are and I helped them get where they are, so yes, mentoring can take place this way.

I remember finally meeting them in person later at a COPLAC conference and that was very exciting. There were hugs, and it made for a really deep professional friendship that I think we will all cherish for many years more, just like with our students on our campus.

SP: To close, is there anything you’d like to add?

ELLEN PEARSON: Yes. I want to underline that what we’re doing this semester with remote instruction is far from what real intentional, pedagogically forward online instruction is. What we’re doing is triage and it’s important to convey that distinction.

What we’ll be doing in the summer will be a little bit better, with the ‘luxury’ of six to eight weeks of planning, but it’s still not going to be the kind of innovative online instruction I think our faculty at UNC Asheville are capable of.

Online education is here to stay on our campus and everywhere else, but I also believe very deeply that in-person education is also here to stay and will not be supplanted by online education. What we give our students in person is so valuable. We can translate a certain amount of that online and then we can give them some very different very valuable experiences online that we can’t give them in person. One doesn’t exclude the other. We can find a way for them to work together to build a really robust experience that will stay with students the rest of their lives, in their careers and personal lives.

SP: And what will you be teaching this fall?

ELLEN PEARSON: In the fall I am teaching a full Internship class. For that class, students will work with a local archive, museum, or historic site for 140 hours. I am also teaching our Constitution in Context course, which is a traditional history course, with classwork — and I imagine that we will do some sort of digital project.

FINAL NOTE: To see how Pearson and her students handled the transition to remote instruction with her spring 2020 internship class, see our Bulldogs Wherever We Are story.