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Pioneering in the Online Liberal Arts

Image of a laptop, camera, tablet, and smartphone

The liberal arts are coming alive online in unique ways at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Long outdated is the stereotypical image of a lone bookworm buried in a dusty corner of the university library. Instead, our liberal arts students are engaged in lively online communities where they read, write and create in ways that nurture their passions and build practical skills for their careers.

We believe that creating wider access to the kinds of enduring and creative skills cultivated within liberal arts programs is critical to SNHU’s mission of transforming students’ lives. The wide spectrum of programs we offer in our Liberal Arts department ranges from the more traditional offerings such as literature and history to more applied arts programs such as game art, graphic design and creative writing.

Two examples that demonstrate how we strive to bring the liberal arts online in groundbreaking ways are our digital photography programs and our writing across the curriculum initiative.

Digital Photography Online

We were proud to launch in 2016 the first nonprofit, affordable and fully online digital photography degrees. Our associate and bachelor’s degrees in Digital Photography expand access to education for students who previously had the option to enroll online only in extremely expensive programs at for-profit institutions. We also aim to make the cost of equipment manageable, bundling the equipment students need, such as cameras and lighting, and offering them through our bookstore, which greatly assists students who rely on financial aid.

Students develop a professional portfolio that will help them advance their careers and take practical classes such as Photographic Practice in the Digital Age and The Business of Photography. Students achieve a degree grounded in the liberal arts, equipping them with skills in critical thinking, oral and written communication, and quantitative reasoning. They leave our program prepared to excel in their photography careers as well as to engage as global citizens in the wider world around them.

A year since launch, we are thrilled to see that student interest in the program has well exceeded our initial projections and, more importantly, that students are succeeding in these courses and are well on their way to graduation.

Writing Across the Curriculum Online

A unique project we will continue this year is bringing the writing across the curriculum (WAC) movement into the online space in an initiative we call WriteScape. Originating on campuses in the 1970s, the WAC movement frames students’ acquisition of writing skills as a learning process that extends throughout the student lifecycle; this counters the reductive view that students will learn everything they need to know about writing for college and careers in a first-year composition course.

Understanding writing in this way helps us develop curricula more supportive of students’ writing skills at progressive levels and also helps us empower faculty members in every program to address student-writing challenges. However, these WAC movements have largely relied upon face-to-face faculty workshops and have not been undertaken in a comprehensive way in online programs; translating this movement to the online space has required us to rethink the available WAC models.

We have designed our WriteScape initiative to include four major stages:

  • A detailed mapping and assessment of our curriculum informed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ standards for writing, reading and information literacy
  • The development of faculty and curricular resources to address gaps and areas where data reveal student struggle
  • A series of program-specific faculty workshops in which we will use our findings to support faculty in teaching writing in their disciplines
  • The adoption of external, industry-relevant measures through which we can continuously assess our students’ acquisition of writing skills at key points during their college careers

In the online environment, so much of our students’ engagement relies on intensive reading and writing, which we can often take for granted. Our major goals in WriteScape are to surface these writing demands and nurture a university culture of writing that helps students flourish in this online educational environment. This support of writing cultivates student skills that are relevant far beyond the classroom, equipping them with lifelong communication skills applicable not only to their specific disciplines but also to their everyday lives and careers.

These types of student programs and faculty support initiatives exemplify how SNHU strives to innovate on a national scale in the liberal arts, and the student demand for these online programs testifies to how the liberal arts retain their value in a digital age. Indeed, when we take a look at the national averages for student enrollments in liberal arts programs, student numbers are declining at many universities while our student numbers show healthy growth.

We believe the partnering of passion and practicality is the engine of our success: we nurture students’ creativity and self-expression while also clearly articulating how our liberal arts programs develop the skills most sought by employers.

Originally published in Beyond the Ivory Tower.