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Evangelical Colleges Consider the Future of Online Education After COVID-19

The pandemic accelerated the push for remote options but also left students longing for in-person community.
Evangelical Colleges Consider the Future of Online Education After COVID-19
Image: Leon Neal / Getty Images

In the fall of 2019, not every instructor at Samford University used Canvas, an online learning management system where they can post assignments and videos of lectures.

By the following year, things were different. “It’s not optional,” said Betsy Holloway, vice president for marketing and communications. “One hundred percent are in Canvas.”

The change, of course, is due to COVID-19. But once the pandemic ends, what elements of the new technology will remain a part of the higher ed landscape? Nearly a year in, administrators at Christian colleges are pausing to assess the real-world experiment with online education.

Recently, a number of schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) have signed on to work with CampusEDU, a new ed tech company partly owned by the CCCU, which aspires to usher in the next generation of online classes.

Abilene Christian University, Gordon College, Houghton College, Indiana Wesleyan University, John Brown University, Lipscomb University, Ohio Christian University, Oklahoma Christian University, and two institutions affiliated with the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) have partnered with CampusEDU so far.

Darren Campbell, CEO of CampusEDU, compared most online education to “the Model T,” believing there’s a long way to go to build on the basics. “It’s very text heavy,” he said. “We believe the future of online education is more graphical.”

The company works with institutions to create MasterClass-esque content with highly produced videos of lectures. Current offerings include a New Testament survey taught by Jim Lo at Indiana Wesleyan; Latin I, taught by Ian Drummond at Gordon; and Intro to Computing, taught by Ted Song at John Brown University. Students at participating schools can take courses taught by professors from a partner institution at no additional cost.

“COVID-19 is changing the higher education landscape, and we’re seeing that the flexibility of blending in-person and online education is proving to be an effective model for many of our campuses,” said CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra, announcing the partnership. “It has become clear that we need to provide extraordinary in-person and extraordinary online courses.”

Another for-profit online learning tool, Acadeum, also has a course-sharing consortium, with more than 50 CCCU institutions participating. Through the platform, schools can approve and enroll students in classes developed by other institutions, and then share the data and money for cross-registration.

Rick Ostrander, Acadeum’s vice president for academic partnerships, said the technology gives students increased flexibility, allows institutions to add courses to their current offerings, and helps schools get online more quickly than if they did it on their own.

Ostrander and Campbell said COVID-19 has been a blessing and a curse. Some institutions have expressed interest in signing up, while others have been busy with day-to-day management.

“In some cases, COVID-19 has really kept institutions from thinking about long-term strategic growth initiatives,” Ostrander said.

Schools had been slowly building and testing remote-learning infrastructure for years, with traditional undergraduate enrollment declining and growing interest from adult learners taking classes part-time, high school students in dual enrollment, and transfer students requiring greater flexibility with instruction.

By 2013, about 13 percent of all students at CCCU schools were exclusively enrolled in distance education, according to data provided by the CCCU. By 2018, the most recent year available, that had climbed to 19 percent.

Some schools have sought to create a niche for themselves by developing extensive online offerings. Indiana Wesleyan University launched its first online course in 1996. Today IWU National & Global, a separate school for graduate and online degree programs, serves about 9,000 students.

Matt Lucas, chancellor of IWU National & Global, said schools trying to do more online education may find it is more difficult than they expect. It’s one thing to provide instruction through a learning management system or Zoom to provide instruction. It’s another to offset declining enrollments by recruiting students into web courses, competing with all the other colleges and universities doing the same thing.

“It is really hard to have gravitas in this space,” Lucas said. “Because it is a red ocean. It is a dog eat dog. It has become a commodity to drive down the price of tuition as much as possible.”

Colleges will have to stand out to be competitive in the online education market, said education-technology blogger Michael Feldstein in a piece titled “Online Learning Student Experience is the New Climbing Wall.”

He writes that schools “will have to create distinctive and valuable experiences (online) that are just as meaningful and just as easy as bumping into your professor at the coffee shop or meeting your classmates for pizza at the dining hall.”

At the same time, Christian administrators and experts told CT they think COVID-19 will make prospective students value in-person education more in the coming years.

That’s the bet that Palm Beach Atlantic University is making. While the Christian school has been growing its online-only degree programs—it had five programs in 2017 and will be up to 17 this fall—it’s also doubling-down on traditional, in-person learning, described Melanie Jackson, Palm Beach Atlantic ’s eLearning director.

In response to the pandemic, the school still offered entirely in-person instruction on campus this academic year, with careful quarantine procedures for students who were exposed to the coronavirus. Also, some students received medical exemptions if they wanted to take classes from home.

“It was not entered into lightly,” Jackson said. “We truly feel like the mission of our university is transformation—to aid students to become strong Christian leaders in their communities and in their fields. For many students and for many programs, that transformation for students takes place in the classroom.”

Palm Beach Atlantic installed acrylic plastic shields around each student’s desk and each teacher’s podium, making the classrooms look oddly futuristic. Faculty still need to be familiar with remote-learning tools for students not in the classroom. Professors stream every lecture on Zoom and post assignments on Canvas.

At Samford, where every professor is required to use Canvas, administrators are also thinking about the value of old-fashioned college, in which a few people engage with each other in a decidedly non-virtual room.

“CCCU schools, Samford included, should be able to deliver on that core value proposition,” Holloway said. “A small class that is highly relational, experiential learning. I think there is going to be an acute desire for that.”

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