JBU's Online Mission
By Marquita Smith
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Finding New Ways to Deliver Christ-Centered Education Online
Brian Bollinger searched long for an online graduate business degree program before returning to his alma mater, John Brown University. Brian and his wife, Annie Christensen Bollinger, graduated from JBU in 2007. The couple discovered the new online MBA program in their copy of the Brown Bulletin. At the time, God had called the couple to a ministry in Atlanta helping refugees resettle, and Bollinger wasn’t sure how continuing his education would fit with those plans.
The couple had fond memories of their time at JBU. They got married in the Cathedral, spring break of their senior year.
“We were sad that the JBU program was not going to be an option. I did some comparison shopping on the content of the offerings at Georgia State, Emory University, University of Georgia, as well as several online MBAs well regarded around the country, both Christian and secular,” he said. But in 2009, it became clear that none of the programs would rival the new JBU online degree, Bollinger added.
“Now, only weeks away from completing the program, I can see that the advanced biblical foundation has not only given me a valued and unique contribution to bring to the table in my business experiences, but the program itself made it possible for me to integrate my work life, personal life, and studies into a much more convenient schedule than my friends in other MBA programs have had.”
While the traditional classroom experience continues to thrive at JBU, the experience of the Bollingers is becoming more common as the university finds new ways to use the Internet to deliver a top-tier, Christ-centered activity in an online format.
In May of this year, JBU received the go-ahead from the Higher Learning Commission, JBU’s accreditation body, to offer degrees online, said Dr. Richard Ellis, dean of graduate and professional studies and Title III project manager. The new accreditation says JBU is a distance delivery institution and can offer all degrees online. The new university accreditation allows JBU to offer even more degrees over the Internet, including online degree programs.
“There’s no intent to alter the University’s historical mission,” he said. “We are hoping to reach unique populations, including working adults.”
John Brown University received a 5-year, $2 million Title III grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create the JBU Eagles Online program. Eagles Online will allow students with 60 hours of college credit, who meet admissions requirements, to complete a business administration or general degree completely online. The program is expected to be in place by the fall of 2011.
The concept of online courses is not new to campus.“We have offered online courses for 10 years,” Ellis said. “We were kind of dabbling here and there. There was no way to wade into it successfully before the grant. We are grateful to be awarded this Department of Education grant.”
The Title III Strengthening Institutions grant will fund the personnel, tech support and curriculum creation for the program. In addition, the grant will fund overhead costs for five years. As part of the grant, business faculty and faculty teaching general studies courses will receive faculty development training in developing and teaching quality online courses. In order to better serve students enrolled in the new web-based programs, JBU will offer online tutoring, a writing center and a 24/7 help desk.
People continue to debate endlessly whether an online degree is “just as good” as a traditional one. The cost to earn the JBU online degree is the same as traditional undergraduate tuition, $28,328, plus a distance learning fee. It is not a lower-cost education.
“It used to be a time when it was looked at as suspect, now the expectation is that you offer online degrees,” said Wendy MacColl, JBU’s new director of distance learning. “It’s kind of like store websites—everyone just assumes that they have one.” MacColl, who started her job in April, said the web-based courses are designed with the learner in mind. It’s a combination of interactivity and different ways to access information including videos, blogs, websites, podcasts and virtual office hours. “It will be consistent with every course,” she said.
The JBU experience is about faith and learning, which transfers to the online education, she said. And, the online graduate degree program offers a lot of flexibility, accommodating full-time work, odd shifts and family obligations, she said. Still, online course work may not be the solution for every student. Online degree programs require independent study and comprehension skills, she said. Professors will be available at certain times to offer instruction and advice, but students are expected to do most of the work on their own.
“It requires a fair amount of self-discipline,” MacColl said. “These programs are not easier. Without putting in the work, you are not going to succeed any more with an online college degree than you would with a regular one.” The lack of face-to-face interactions with peers and teachers did not hinder Bollinger.
“Each course and professor has required different things of my time, but overall, as a self-starter, I’ve enjoyed being able to do coursework and even collaborate online with classmates in distant time zones at the most uncommon of hours.” Veteran JBU professor Dr. Jim Walters has now ventured into teaching in cyberspace.
“Some years back when I was still working full time, I was asked to teach online. I said, ‘No way! This is not a talking head class. It’s not a course for online.’”
Walters said at the time he thought the program would be a degree mill, lacking academic rigor. But in 2009 when JBU first offered an online MBA degree, Walters had a change of heart. “I thought if that’s the case, I would prepare the course for online,” he said. “But it’s harder to prepare an online course than on the ground. It’s more time consuming if you do it right.”
Moving a course from the classroom to the Internet demanded some extra creativity.
“I was determined to keep the people involved, no talking heads stuff. Creating the courses really stimulated my passion; I love teaching. And I didn’t know how to translate that online. I was concerned that it wouldn’t come through.” Alumni have fond memories of Walters and his wife Lynda.
The couple joined the JBU family in 1968. Then, he worked as director of admissions. A year later, September 1969, he began his teaching career. Walters served as division chair of biblical studies for 14 years, and under his leadership the number of majors and students significantly increased.
Lynda, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1977, came to campus regularly. She and Walters were in class together. It made it easier for Walters to care for her.“And, of course they know the situation here. You are a real human being with struggles, living in the real world,” said Walters, who shares the details of his wife’s illness in the online course introduction. The flexibility with teaching the course is a boon, he said. “It is good for us. I can grade papers in my pajamas, and work around my responsibilities here.”
Walters has accomplished much, but he’s especially proud of his online course development. He has taught Christian Foundations online in the MBA program since Spring 2010 and recently completed his third online session for it in March. Walters said he did not expect to form such deep connections with Bollinger and other students over the web. He described the relationships as honest and personal. “I was delightfully surprised,” he said. Besides working with veteran faculty, students taking online classes also experience global connections. Both faculty and students can be located in different parts of the world, offering a fair exchange of cultural and social information.
Two JBU alumni of the business graduate program are teaching online classes: Mirna Ordoñez lives in Guatemala; and Christa Kyoma is living in Kenya.
This summer, John Lenschow will be teaching his first online class from Northern Ireland. Lenschow was a faculty member in the Bible department and is pursuing a doctoral degree at Queen’s University-Belfast. He will be teaching his first online course for JBU this summer.
Shannon Hampton, who earned an MBA at JBU, is vice president of talent development for Walmart in India, but while working in the home office, he taught a class at the JBU Rogers campus, and he continues to teach online from India.
“My JBU professors have been extremely personally accessible, when technology fails, or simply when I hit a wall in my work,” Bollinger said. “An online MBA program may not be for everyone, but honestly the electronic infrastructure for deep peer and professor interactions have finally come to fore and it has been a Godsend for me and my family.”
Marquita Smith is assistant professor of journalism.