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One Class Down

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A birthday candle of the number one
Celebrating the first!

This post marks the completion of my first course in my Ed.S. degree. To recap, here's a list of the projects I've completed:

I've also done the following during this course:

  • Attended 6 live class meetings through video conferencing.

  • Wrote 6 blog posts (counting this one).

  • Created 26 discussion threads.

  • Created 62 response posts.

  • Read 169 posts.

  • Reviewed over 100 sites and articles.

I'm a bit shocked when I see it all listed like that. It's been a busy 6 weeks. But the big question remains. What have I learned through all of this?


Here's a list of some highlights:

  1. Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) has at least one great course in their Ed.S in Educational Technology and Learning Engineering program and at least one dedicated online instructor, Dr. Theresa Henderson.

  2. There are more similarities than differences between K-12 and Higher Education when it comes to online teaching and learning.

  3. I find it easier to risk failure in an academic setting.

  4. Project-based learning that also incorporates a personalized learning approach can be highly meaningful and motivating for adult learners, as it leads to authentic, purposeful artifacts the learner can immediately use in their professional life.

  5. Relationship building and facilitation in online courses, to reduce transactional distance, is one of the most important things an educator and/or course builder can do for a successful online course.

  6. Social media can be used responsibly and professionally to build and support communities with shared interests and purposes.

  7. OER content is not the same as public domain content.

  8. Generative AI tools can be powerful educational tools for students, teachers, and course builders.


Books, notebooks, pencils, rulers, and a calculator
The tools of learning

On a more personal level, I've witnessed an interesting phenomenon I'd like to share. IWU is the first Christian-based school I've attended for online courses. I earned my other degrees at online schools, and prior to that attended multiple brick-and-mortar schools over the years. Despite being raised in Christianity and despite knowing that the majority of universities in America have been formed for religious missions, I carried a negative bias about the quality of education a person could get at religion-focused schools. I had no doubt they probably did a great job at developing the spiritual person. But my bias was that the focus on the spiritual was at the expense of the scientific.


I'm not sure where my bias was formed. Like any bias, there were no doubt internal and external influences. I've certainly heard others' comments when comparing schools, such as, "that's not a serious school, it's just a Bible college" or "you'll learn how to pray for science there." I've also found myself discounting some schools outright because I knew my faith did not align with their mission. I think I rationalized that if they could be that far off the mark from what I believed about one important thing, then they couldn't be trusted to get other important things correct.


I almost discounted IWU in my initial search, in fact. I didn't have any major hang-ups about the Wesleyan denomination of Christianity. But I did put the school in the "not as serious" pile, nonetheless. The reason it made it to the "reconsider" pile is because a close friend recently graduated from IWU and he shared his experiences and compared them to those he had at other schools (1 of which was already on my short list). After talking with him, I reached out to IWU to learn more about their programs and give them a second look.


Two friends sitting on a roof talking
Friends share blessings

What I found was a program perfectly designed for my interests and goals. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. Where other programs had parts I'd have to tolerate, IWU had exactly what I needed and had organized it in the same way I'd have organized everything. It felt like a perfect fit, so I decided to give it a try.


But there was one thing I wasn't looking forward to, not just at IWU, but anywhere for online courses. Discussions. In every online course I'd ever taken, and in almost all I'd been exposed to through working in higher education, discussions were the busy work of online courses. If you want to hear more details about some of the problems with discussions, check out episode 1 of my podcast. In short, they're often uninspired and inauthentic.


I was also worried about networking. Even the best online courses I'd previously taken did not lead to great networking opportunities the way that face-to-face courses had. For my career goals, networking and professional relationship building is vital for the work I want to do and the tools I want to help improve. I debated whether I should even do an online program at all, but decided the advantages of the online program were better for me, and if needed, I'd just have to take it upon myself to build those relationships.


Now, though, one class down, I can say those worries are gone and I think a great deal of the credit goes to the religious mission of IWU. It starts with the discussions. Each week, we are asked to reflect on topics relating some part of the weekly content to our personal beliefs. The goal of these discussions is not formal writing, but rather genuine connections. Because of that focus on personal expression, our discussions have been deeply authentic and even vulnerable. It has helped us connect with one another and support one another. And because we are also reviewing each others' work throughout the course, we're watching the growth and discovery we're each experiencing, as well as the influence we're having upon one another.


Part of what has also added to the deep connections we've shared is that we have an optional weekly live video conferencing session. It's a time to go over the expectations for the week and ask questions, but the majority of our time is spent sharing personal struggles and successes. It's my favorite part of each week, because it puts a literal face and spirit on each of those names in the class roster. I enjoy the smiles and laughs and I feel closer to each as I learn of the complexities and complications in their lives.


Now, if you're paying attention, you might be thinking there's nothing specifically religious about these things. Any school could use these same tactics to create a similar connection in their classes. And, in fact, some do try to do just that. The major difference, though, is that our live sessions either begin or end in prayer and our discussion posts ask about our interpretations of Scripture in relation to our profession as educators. The benefit of these differences for our group has been a strong feeling of safety in being vulnerable.


A person silhouetted by light shining through a stained glass window prays
The safety of prayer

Nowadays, there's a great deal of pressure to appear anything but vulnerable. We see the world attack or cancel anyone who expresses challenging ideas or personal doubt. We see everyone through filters and Photoshop. In the secular world, we see careers jeopardized from sharing personal faith. We see people chastised for failing or being mistaken. An online class feels daunting at first, at least to me. I worry about sounding like an idiot and I don't want to make mistakes and affect my grade negatively. It's a lot of pressure to figure out what and how to share.


In my experiences in other online courses, there was not so much focus on building safe, supportive, and encouraging communities. Because of that, I rarely felt comfortable sharing many details about myself or my opinions. And, of course, that meant it was difficult to form meaningful relationships. Professors I previously had rarely did anything to improve these experiences, either. In fact, most rarely acknowledged the discussions, except to provide a grade.


As I compare my experiences at both types of schools, I am left to wonder if Christianity's call for the judgment-free acceptance and love of the flawed individual is a major contributor to the success of our course connections. Minimally, I do think it's safe to say that our instructor's personal faith greatly helped in establishing, exemplifying, and guiding a safe and supportive environment. Her weekly prayers were such a comfort and reminder that each of us is called to a great mission and that our struggles have purpose in that mission. She made a point of engaging each person and letting us all know she was deeply invested in our journeys as part of her mission. And though she wasn't pushy about her beliefs, she was vocal about them.


A cross on a mountain top at sunset
Signs of faith

Her openness and acceptance inspired us all to follow the same behavior, and because of it, the majority of our class members have reached out to one another apart from the course. Real and possibly lifelong relationships are forming.


Could this happen without a religious focus? Certainly. Does it commonly? I don't know. In my own experiences, it hasn't. That's not to say I've never formed a meaningful connection with others in an online course. In fact, one of my closest friends is someone I met through an online course with no religious focus. That relationship grew from us both sharing our interests authentically and being vulnerable in a safe space.


I'd love to find out if students are more likely to perceive a learning environment as a safe place to be vulnerable and genuine if it includes a religious or spiritual focus. Perhaps it's just a coincidence and the perception of safety is more related to other factors. Perhaps not. At any rate, I no longer have the bias I once held about religious schools. My course was heavy on the science of teaching and learning. There was no sacrifice of science for spiritual. Instead, the spiritual components provided additional extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and an avenue for deep connections. What a wonderful surprise that's been for my journey!


 

All images contained within this post are courtesy of Media from Wix.


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