Human connection and ed-tech in Mennonite higher educationBy Brian R. Gumm
D. Merrill Ewert, president emeritus of Fresno Pacific University, laid out a few of the challenges facing Mennonite higher education (“Education’s Shifting Context,” Jan. 7), listing hostility to faith among them. While I would characterize this more as the increasing reality of a multiplicity of faiths, I think his other points — a broken financial model, rise of the for-profits, non-tenure-track faculty majorities, and Massively Open Online Courses — are well worth pondering for Mennonite higher education.
When I started my work in education technology for Eastern Mennonite University eight months ago, MOOCs and the future of higher education was a hot topic in the news. Some at EMU wondered if we could hop on the MOOC train. I was skeptical, and many ed-tech and tech gurus I respect also reflected critically on the potential shortcomings of the MOOC. They all had to do with engagement.
In a recent CNN post, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argued that online courses need the human element: “Education does not happen in isolation. Whether it’s philosophy students arguing in a dorm about what Hegel meant, or fledgling Java programmers inspecting one another’s code, people learn best as part of a cohort. The course material is almost secondary to the engagement. We go to college for the people.”
I agree and think Mennonite higher education has something to offer here, should we take up the challenges identified by Ewert with the emphasis on human connection and community — values we frequently hold up as Anabaptists.
Here are three approaches that make significant use of ed-tech that I think Mennonite colleges and universities can look to in moving forward to face these challenges:
(1) Blended learning
Professor Mike Keppell of Charles Sturt University is referenced in this helpful post stating that blended learning is a “thoughtful fusion” of face-to-face and online teaching and learning experiences. As I’ve proceeded through my work, it’s become clear to me that innovations in ed-tech are opening up all kinds of opportunities for not only distance learning, and not even traditional on-campus courses, but also by the weave of those two for a third category: blended learning.
On-campus courses, particularly in the undergraduate program, could make moves to integrate more forms of online engagement — to hit the buttons of the Facebook generation not only for the sake of meeting them where they’re at, but also teaching them, by showing them, to be better digital citizens from an Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective while still being part of a vibrant on-campus community.
Our adult degree completion program could begin offering more blended learning opportunities to keep the valuable aspect of face-to-face relationship and cohort-building, while also providing more flexibility for busy schedules by moving some activities online.
The flipped classroom — which moves didactic instructional content (such as lectures) out of the classroom and into online media — would be one concrete practice under the general description of blended learning.
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