Classes at liberal arts colleges bring to mind small groups of students bunched around a long wooden table, batting around big ideas with a professor.
That tradition would seem at odds with the new trend in higher education, opening courses to the masses via the Internet. But now a new partnership involving Wellesley College is seeking to bridge these two worlds, in a test of how humanities classes will translate into the growing on-line arena.
EdX, the on-line education provider founded by Harvard University and MIT, plans to announce Tuesday that the women's school has joined its growing roster, the first liberal arts school to do so.
Anant Agarwal, president of edX and a professor in the electrical engineering and computer science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the addition of Wellesley College continues the group's forays into new territory. Last month, edX announced it had teamed up with Bunker Hill and MassBay community colleges to offer online courses in computer science.
Agarwal said Wellesley College will extend the group's offerings in the humanities and will provide a case study in how to preserve the small-class culture on a large scale.
"We want to create the aura of a small-group setting, so that students can discuss among themselves," he said. Teachers will be able to break the class into small discussion groups that would be akin to seminars, he said.
With students coming together from all over the world, exchanges would hold great promise, he said.
"I would like to be a fly on the wall for those discussions," he said.
The college plans to offer four courses starting next fall, with the subjects still to be determined. Wellesley joins the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Texas system as members of the collaboration. EdX said it will announce that other colleges have joined its network in the coming days.
Kim Bottomly, Wellesley College's president, said that online learning and liberal arts education are not mutually exclusive and that faculty would strive to create a class structure that encourages personal involvement and interaction.
"That is what liberal arts education is all about," she said.
She cited an online political science course that Wellesley College already offers with a university in Pakistan as an example of the advantages of on-line education.
The edX partnership will allow the college to reach women all over the world, including those who cannot attend school in their own country.
"The idea that we can reach beyond our campus to women everywhere is very compelling," she said.
Graduates and high school students who are considering attending could also have access to courses, she noted.
EdX courses are free and open to all and feature a mix of video tutorials and discussion forums.
The courses have proven wildly popular: By As of October, about 100,000 students had signed up for Harvard’s first two online offerings.
Agarwal called 2012 a "year of disruption" to the status quo and said it was hard to predict how the change would shake out.
"Education will never be the same again," he said. "Few of us have any idea where things may go."
A number of rivals are jockeying for position in the new landscape, including Coursera, a for-profit online initiative that has 2 million registered students, and Udacity.
Bottomly said Wellesley faculty will need to be creative to make large, virtual classes interactive. "We have to figure out what works best," she said. "It needs to be an engaged environment."
Bottomly said that while on-line education has great potential, colleges will need time to learn how best to tap it.
"It's going to take a while to figure out how we're going to use it successfully," she said.