COPLAC’s Multi-campus Digital Liberal Arts Initiative Expands with $540,000 Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; UNC Asheville to Play Key Role

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Ellen Pearson

The Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC), a consortium of 29 public liberal arts institutions headquartered at UNC Asheville, has been awarded $540,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to scale up its multi-campus, distance and team-taught digital liberal arts research seminars.

The three-year project, named Digital Liberal Arts at a Distance, is part of an ongoing effort by COPLAC to share faculty expertise while enriching students’ interdisciplinary learning experiences, digital skills, and collaborative work habits. The project will be co-directed by UNC Asheville Professor of History Ellen Holmes Pearson and University of Mary Washington Professor of History Jeffrey McClurken.

Gene Hyde, UNC Asheville’s Head of Special Collections and University Archives, and Greg Dillingham, Distance Learning Services Manager, also will take a lead role in the faculty training portion of the grant. Student researchers from UNC Asheville will be able to apply to participate in many distance seminars taught over the next three years.   

“Small classes and close faculty-student interaction are our hallmarks,” Pearson stated, “and it has been fulfilling for us to watch our students grow and learn together in a distance learning environment. We thank the Mellon Foundation for helping us to create an online learning model that is ideal for our public liberal arts institutions.”

According to McClurken, “This grant provides funding to extend the pedagogical promise of the digital liberal arts seen in pilot classes to students and faculty at public liberal arts schools. Building cross-institutional learning communities will enrich all of our curricular offerings, create dozens of significant openly available digital projects benefitting the public good, and provide students with the opportunity to meet, work with, and learn from peers across the continent.”

Under the grant, faculty members, special collections librarians and instructional technologists from 24 COPLAC campuses will develop and launch up to 16 new digital liberal arts research seminars on topics in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

Using distance and online technologies, student researchers will collaborate across campuses to build major digital projects available to the public on the web, and to develop research, production, and communications skills applicable to a wide variety of 21st century professions. The new seminars will involve upwards of 150 undergraduate researchers over the period of the grant, 2016-2018.

According to COPLAC Director Bill Spellman, the project “will foster interdisciplinarity, expand undergraduate research options on each campus, afford students the opportunity to study under digital scholars from a range of humanities and social science disciplines, and prepare them for careers where liberal arts thinking is essential.”

Seventy-five participants will be selected for the project, including faculty members, special collections librarians, and instructional technologists. All will attend an opening three-day convening in early June 2016 at COPLAC headquarters on the campus of UNC Asheville. Faculty will meet again in small groups beginning fall 2016 at the University of Mary Washington’s Hurley Convergence Center, where they will receive the technical training required to teach digital liberal arts in a distance format.

For more information, visit, and for a look at the 2014 Century America Project – a collaboration between Pearson, McClurken and COPLAC that set the stage for the new expanded digital liberal arts initiative – visit