Utilizing Digital Learning at Smaller, Liberal Arts Universities

By Tiffany J. Lane, J.D., LL.M.


July 23, 2018

Utilizing Digital Learning at Smaller, Liberal Arts Universities

Many of us teaching in higher education know the value of digital learning platforms. With digital, instructors have the flexibility to create unique assignments, edit pre-existing material with ease, and give individual students a personalized set of material to work with so they are not able to copy each other’s answers. In my classes, using McGraw-Hill’s Connect program, I’ve used digital to give tests outside of the classroom (saving precious classroom time) and had the test solutions and feedback be available to students immediately afterwards.


But while digital has helped me save time in the classroom, what happens when it’s implemented in nontraditional lab settings? Does digital have the same positive effects at a small liberal arts university where digital learning platforms like Connect have not traditionally been used and where students have potentially never used them before? Would Connect work for those students? The challenge of introducing digital learning platforms like Connect to students at a small liberal arts university can be unique. At smaller, predominantly liberal arts schools, students typically haven’t had exposure to required digital technology in an academic setting. For many, this introduction can be overwhelming, students and instructors alike may get frustrated and wish to immediately give up; concluding that it is too much work to learn a new platform on top of the course material. But is it worth it? Do the gains of digital in and outside the classroom benefit students and instructors alike to warrant the upfront time investment? I decided to find out.


When I began using Connect in 2015 for my accounting courses at a small liberal arts university in New Hampshire, the students were leery of it. They were initially overwhelmed, but I could not tell if it was due to the addition of a required technology component of the course, or the number of assignments I was asking them to perform and submit on Connect. So, I decided to do some research.


First, I asked the students how they liked Connect. Shocker - they did not. "Why?" I asked. "Too much work," was their response. So, I adjusted the Connect workload. I kept what I thought were the best Connect assignments. A smaller amount of Learnsmart questions/sections, fewer exercise problems, and shorter tests. I got rid of redundancy where I could, such as the video lectures (class already met two or three times a week).


The students were elated. Reducing the amount of work allowed them to more fully concentrate and practice on their homework. The exercise problems were fewer but more beneficial; and combined with LearnSmart’s adaptive capabilities and features like checking their own work, my students were allocating their time in ways most useful to them.


As I made my adjustments to my Connect assignments, I began asking my students for an anonymous "Connect Evaluation" at the end of each semester. I wanted to collect data on how well, or not, Connect was helping students learn the material for the accounting course. The results of my research surprised me. Students, in my experience, rarely have positive feelings associated with homework.


The Connect evaluations, though, show that my students find Connect to be of great benefit. When asked if Connect assignments were helpful for learning and/or practicing the accounting material for the course, 142 students out of 156 students anonymously responded "yes." That is 91% of the students!


A breakdown by course level:

  • Upper-level accounting courses, 100% of students responded "yes."
  • Mid-level accounting courses, 88% of students responded "yes."
  • Lower-level accounting courses, 90% of students responded "yes."

*There were some "maybe" and some "sometimes" responses, which were not counted as "yes."


Peppered in the feedback were insights from my students on what they liked best and found helpful about the program: flexibility, easy access, easy reference, great practice, ability to check work, detailed explanations, and hints.


This student feedback and research was collected over two semesters from eight accounting sections. I continue to collect data this semester and will in future semesters as well. But this first year of data gives me confidence. While new, particularly at smaller universities, digital resources interwoven into the classroom have the potential to save valuable lecture and face-to-face classroom time, as well as offer more immediate and personalized feedback to students. The introduction of Connect to my accounting courses took some time to perfect, but its results have shown that it is undoubtedly beneficial to my students.

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Tiffany J. Lane

Tiffany J. Lane, J.D., LL.M. – Assistant Professor, Franklin Pierce University

Tiffany J. Lane received her LL.M. in Taxation at the Boston University School of Law Graduate Tax Program, her J.D. at New England School of Law and her B.S. in Accounting at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. She has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in accounting, taxation and business law at many universities, including Southern New Hampshire University, University of New Hampshire at Manchester, University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and Franklin Pierce University. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Accounting for the College of Business at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire. She works professionally as a tax attorney and accountant.