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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Virtual Classrooms

The Internet is changing the AG college experience

By John W. Kennedy
Sept. 12, 2010

Few school administrators are ready to do away with campus buildings, but most realize nonresidential students are an increasingly relevant and necessary element in the student body mix. While some Assemblies of God schools have made more of a push than others, this much is clear: Online education is here to stay.

“It makes sense to cast the net as wide as we can for prospective students,” says G. Robert Cook Jr., executive vice president of the Alliance for AG Higher Education. “In the culture in which we live, there is a market for these students.”

These students, by and large, are married and already in a career. They may have dropped out of school to support their family, or they never got around to earning that graduate degree. Now, thanks to technology, they can — on their own terms.

“It’s not the wave of the future; it’s the wave of the present,” says David J. Moore, AG Higher Education assistant vice president. “We’re getting students we normally wouldn’t get.”

“These are older adult learners who didn’t have the chance to go to school,” says Marilyn K. Abplanalp, Alliance assistant vice president. “This gives them the opportunity to learn from home.”

Tailoring education to his or her schedule, a student in Oregon — or Kenya — can take a course from a Florida school without worrying about going to a classroom. Collegians can juggle their learning time to mesh with their work schedules. And students avoid paying room and board because they don’t have to live on campus.

“The main convenience, especially for a graduate degree, is students can take it anytime from any place, and they don’t have to put the rest of their life on hold,” says Jeremy Harris, eUniversity director at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo.

“They don’t have to give up their jobs, the spouse can continue in a career, and the kids can stay in school,” says Joseph Hartman, distance education director at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas.

Some AG schools, including Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, Pa., no longer offer on-location courses during the summer months, which has been a boon to online enrollment.

“A number of our students depend on work during the summer to pay for school,” says Philip D. McLeod, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Valley Forge, which offers 45 courses online. “Few can maintain a summer schedule of paying for school housing costs.”

Indeed, it can be a win-win situation for schools that get a break on building maintenance and utilities bills, yet keep tuition payments flowing.

Infrastructure in place
Kenneth C. Green is founding director of the Campus Computing Project, which studies the role of information technology in colleges and universities. Green, based in Encino, Calif., says while the demand existed for online learning a decade ago, only now has the infrastructure finally caught up.

“The vast majority of households have high-speed Internet access and other digital tools,” Green says. “A lot of technology has converged.”

I. Elaine Allen, co-director of Babson Survey Research Group in Babson Park, Mass., reports that 4.6 million students in the United States took at least one online course at a postsecondary institution in the 2008-09 school year. That compares to just 1.6 million six years earlier. The latest figures show that online students represent one-fourth of total postsecondary enrollment, compared to less than 10 percent in 2002-03.

“Online enrollments have continued to grow at rates far in excess of the total higher education student population, with the most recent data demonstrating no signs of slowing,” Allen wrote in the report Learning on Demand earlier this year.

A variety of technology methods have evolved from the early days of videotaped classroom lectures. Some schools deliver fully digitized content that is downloadable to accompany streaming video or PowerPoint presentations. Students submit papers electronically and usually interact with each other and instructors online via threaded discussions, online forums and e-mails. Those studying from home have the same resources as someone living in a dormitory.

Typically, one- or two-week intensive on-site instruction is required a couple of times a year. Some students have found through this cohort model, where semester-long relationships and accountability develop, that discussion board topics actually go to a deeper level than in the classroom.

Plunging in
Two fast-growing Assemblies of God universities, Southeastern and Southwestern, particularly have embraced online education.

While some schools charge more for online classes than for seated courses, Southeastern in Lakeland, Fla., charges students less in an effort to reach more.

“For the nontraditional student, online will be the dominant form of education,” says Lyle L. Bowlin, vice president for academic affairs at Southeastern. “We as the Assemblies of God need to be an integral part of that educational experience and not give that up to secular or for-profit institutions.”

Southeastern offers six complete undergraduate majors online. Bowlin says the criminal justice major has proven especially popular with online students.

“Many are already involved with multiple shifts in police work, so neither day nor evening classes on campus are practical,” Bowlin says.

Southwestern began offering some classes online a decade ago, and 80 percent of the school’s faculty now teach online, according to Hartman. Today, Southwestern offers more than 200 courses and nearly all degrees through distance education, except for disciplines that require an in-person experience such as TV broadcasting, psychology and music.

“What we’re doing in distance education is influencing a lot of what’s happening on campus,” Hartman says. “As instructors become acclimated to the technology students are using on a day-to-day basis, they’re using a lot more technology in classes.”

Jason Rhode of Rockford, Ill., has his feet in both academic worlds. The ordained Assemblies of God minister is an adjunct professor at Valley Forge as well as an educational information technology trainer at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

Rhode says while some faculty are apprehensive about integrating online classes into their teaching, others fully believe the technology is a way to better stay in touch with students.

“Students expect faculty to incorporate the kind of technologies that students are comfortable with,” says Rhode, who has a Ph.D. in education and instructional design for online learning. “I think the trend is inevitable. To stay relevant, schools are going to have to move in this direction.”

Proceed with caution
“Many institutions went into this thinking, We’ve got content; we’ve got servers; we’ve got the Internet — open up the cash register,” Green says. “It’s not that easy. Most faculty members aren’t techies.”

Rhode has done a great deal of faculty training and dispelled notions that online instruction is merely a matter of throwing PowerPoint presentations and links to reading on a site. Not only do faculty need to be trained, but a school must make sure that Internet technology assistance is available around the clock. Professors must be available via computer every day, rather than just have limited office hours three days a week. Also, teachers need to understand how to help when a student can’t log in properly.

The Learning on Demand report shows that 53 percent of chief academic officers believe learning outcomes in online education are the same as in face-to-face instruction. Nearly one-third viewed online learning as inferior, with only 13 percent seeing it as superior. 

“It’s one thing to know what button to click, but what really is important is for faculty to understand how to teach well with this tool,” Rhode says. “Ultimately, it should save time for the faculty and provide a better learning experience for the students.”

And for Christian schools, there is the question of how to intentionally integrate faith into an online education program.

“How do Christian universities deal with requiring students to attend chapel in a distance environment?” asks Harris, who is working on a Ph.D. in online education. “Some are experimenting with podcasts or online devotional blogs.”

Not for everyone
Several administrators and faculty members say an Internet student must be self-motivated for the experience to turn out well.

“The student who is going to be more successful online is the one who is more self-disciplined,” Bowlin says. “The student who doesn’t have the ability to intentionally do the work is going to fall through the cracks more often than in the classroom.”

Even for an 18-year-old who has grown up with computer gadgets, a residential program might make more sense. 

“For traditional college-age students, it’s critically important to be on a Christian campus if possible those first years away from home,” Bowlin says. “The faculty, staff and student life experience will help them grow.”

“There is still a dynamic for residence life that is rich and supportive of one’s educational experience,” McLeod says. “In-class experience is valued particularly for the helping professions — ministry, teaching, social services, nursing — where people will be spending a lot of time in relationships.”

Still, there is a huge market of Internet-savvy teens who might see college education as viable if it can be accomplished without moving to campus.

“We need to go after these students,” Cook says. “It’s not just those within 300 miles from the school anymore. It’s a global pool.”

“Online education has become the standard delivery system for how we do education,” Harris says. “Everybody is doing it, and those who aren’t should be.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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