Tonight, I am going to have my final live class session of the semester in our interdisciplinary seminar on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. I have handed in both of my research papers, completed my class evaluations for both classes, and I only have a few more minor assignments to complete before we can close the books on the fall 2018 semester.
I began pursuing my PhD in Humanities at Faulkner University in the fall of 2016. I had just graduated from Houston Baptist University with my MA in Apologetics, and that had been a wonderful online experience.
I have spent the last approximately four years of my life pursuing education online, and I have been asked many times how I feel about online education. I can’t speak for every online program, and I have heard a lot of the horror stories that many of you have heard about virtual diploma mills that take your money, don’t teach you anything, and give you a worthless piece of paper.
I want to take today to share with you a little bit about my experience in online education and what both of these programs have done right. I’m sure there are ways that they could improve, but I largely want this to be descriptive of the parts of my online education that have been particularly useful for me and that, if widely adopted, would drastically improve the reputation of online education.
First, the personal connection is one of the most necessary parts of a successful online education. By its nature, online education is typically a solitary endeavor. We sit at our own houses, in our own towns, with our own laptops. We read the same books and write similar papers, but the downfall of so many online programs is that you never really get to know anyone. I took a few online classes during my undergraduate career, and even though they were through the University of Vermont, where I actually attended in person, I didn’t feel at all connected to my professor or my classmates. Just having discussion boards alone doesn’t create community as much as many online programs wish it did.
The two programs I have been a part of have taken proactive steps toward combating this sense of isolation. First, let me talk about Houston Baptist University. From what seems like the moment you are accepted into the program, you’re invited to be a member of a Facebook group where all of your classmates and professors reside. Again, like discussion boards, this in and of itself does not create community. However, the wonderful part about this community is that the faculty members are actively involved. That stimulates involvement from all of us who were students as well. If you have a question about the reading list for a certain class, you can post it in that group, and your professor will respond to you. If you have run into a particularly thorny argument against Christianity and you need some advice, you can talk to your classmates and professors about it to try to talk through how you want to respond.
I fully realize that Facebook does not replicate in-person community, but having this direct access to so many of your classmates and faculty is a big deal. They are actual people that you can get in touch with. That means a lot. They’re not just meaningless names on the screen that you interact with on a discussion board. Most of us have also become friends on Facebook, so we know a little something about each other’s lives. Again, I know it is not quite the same as meeting people in person, but it does take great strides toward combating that sense of isolation that I have heard many people complain about when they discuss online education.
Faulkner University takes full advantage of the power of technology to try to make online education feel personal. They do this through online, mandatory class sessions like I mentioned above. They are 90-minute blocks, and you have one the equivalent of every other week for each class each semester. That means you get to meet with your classmates and your professor live eight times each semester, and we engage in a Socratic dialogue led by our professor.
It really takes online education to a whole other level when you’re able to see and hear your classmates. When someone asks a question, you hear their voice. You see their mannerisms. You realize that some people have an awkward sense of humor like me. You know that some people get really worked up about certain topics. In other words, you get to know them as people. Without meeting in person, this is just about as close as it gets. It is hard to feel isolated when you have seen your classmates face-to-face.
The second major obstacle I have found for online education is the method of evaluation. For a lot of online programs, it seems to be basically a series of online exams that are open book, you take them, and you move on. It is hard to fail an open book exam, and it is a large part of what gives online education such a bad reputation in my opinion.
Both Faulkner and Houston Baptist have taken the same approach to combating this problem. Neither program used exams at least in my experience. All of the grades I ever received from both of these programs were based on papers and discussion board postings. In other words, there were things that I had to generate, and I couldn’t just look in the book and regurgitate the answers. While I’m not really a fan of discussion boards in general, I think that they are at least a step in the right direction in comparison to the exams that characterize a lot of online education.
Also, at least in my experience, all of my papers have been graded by my professors. At Faulkner, your professor reads and grades your paper while providing feedback. You do receive another level of additional feedback from another faculty member, but the professor is the one who ultimately determines your grade. This speaks to my first concern about a personal connection, and it also adds credibility to the marks that you receive from an online education. It is not just some online program determining whether you answered multiple-choice questions the right way. That’s another important way to do online education well.
Finally, one way to do all my education right is really hard to pin down. I don’t know how you would go about doing this, and maybe I am just really fortunate. You need to have the right people involved, and that includes both students and professors. Online education has a good number of challenges, and they are definitely different than the changes that face a brick and mortar college. No one denies that. However, you need to have a number of people who are all committed to making this work. We are naturally all pursuing these degrees for different reasons.
However, I have been blown away by the quality of person I have encountered in each of these programs. If you don’t have the right people involved who are committed to making this work, then they are going to fail. The previous two things I have highlighted really rely on committed students and committed faculty. It is not the type of thing that you can just put online and let it run itself. It requires small student to faculty ratios which both of these programs have. It necessitates a good deal of student time and a good deal of faculty time. It is a lot harder to write a paper than it is to answer a few multiple-choice questions. It is also harder to grade a paper than it is to let computer automate the entire grading of a multiple-choice exam. The investment has to be on both sides of the coin, and at both Houston Baptist and Faulkner, I have felt that without a doubt. My classmates are invested. I am invested. Our faculty are invested.
Thinking back then about this entire process, I am grateful with where I have ended up. Both of the programs I have been a part of have been phenomenal. I appreciate all of the excellent people I have met. Most of you know about An Unexpected Journal, a quarterly publication on imaginative apologetics where I serve as editor. Our central team and the vast majority of our contributors have been from Houston Baptist, and the more I work with them, the more I realize how excellent they are. Similarly, the more I get to know my classmates at Faulkner, the more I realize how great they are as well. Who knows what ways we might work together after we our graduate with our doctorates?
However, that’s what you need to keep in mind with any online program. The isolation can be real, and your program needs to be dedicated to helping you find that connection that you are going to need in order to persevere through these studies. Second, evaluation matters, and if you have a program where a professor is hardly looking at your work, that’s probably a red flag. Finally, and you really will not know this one until you enter, but you need the right kind of people. All the way from students to faculty, you need people who are committed to making this program work. If people do not buy in, it will not be a great experience.