If you asked me what course had a significant impact on my undergraduate education, I would tell you about the one taught by Professor Twila Edwards, a biblical scholar who also taught “Age of Milton.” It was a seminar course, with a dozen of us sitting around a conference table. The teaching was wonderfully integrative, characterized by spirited conversation, volleyed opinions, provocative learning and serendipitous moments of worship, all under the orchestration of a true master teacher passionate about her subject.
That real-time seminar happened face-to-face, complete with eye contact, body language, interruptions, laughter, elbow nudges and those collective “aha” moments. When each class ended, the conversations didn’t. We carried them in small pods to residence halls or the cafeteria. To me, that was how a class was supposed to be.
If you told me this same quality of learning can occur in front of a laptop while sitting alone at a kitchen counter in Montana, I’d say you don’t know what you’re talking about. The ideals of a classical model of education are best realized in the time-honored tutorial style — small groups of students mentored by well-educated professors who know their discipline and their students, who teach masterfully and who model servanthood as they mentor.
So here’s the question in light of more and more college students taking courses online: Can we at Biola use technology to educate students better while at the same time respecting the role and the time of our faculty?
I’ve personally had some ambiguity answering that question, swayed sometimes by the data and momentum underway in higher education and swayed other times by preserving the integrity of community-based learning the old-fashioned way. I neither want Biola to be left behind because we’ve ignored the reality of higher education’s many disruptive changes nor do I want us to be quick to mimic others and in so doing cheapen who we are.
Higher education changes are underway unlike previous decades. No matter how I feel about the historical virtues of college, the classical, residential, tutorial college model is making room for other options.
As we anticipate where we should innovate at Biola, I come back to my question: Can we use technology to educate students better while at the same time respecting the role and the time of our faculty? Must change come at the expense of a classical model, and must it forgo the virtues inherent in Biola’s culture? These virtues define us: Christlike formation, faculty mentoring, character development, thoughtful and biblical integration and the nurturing of a servant leader. Without these, Biola goes limp.
Though I’m confident that the traditional residential campus will continue strong for decades to come, re-envisioning the learning models and the role of technology for non-traditional and traditional students must become for us a way of life. Biola will be a leader and not a follower, not copying others but reimagining the delivery of our best educational offerings. We need to move forward with the highest quality and the most engaging material.
The good news is that we have made some big strides recently. Among other things, we’ve adopted a well-formed University Plan (biola.edu/plan) to guide the next 10 years, we launched Open Biola (open.biola.edu) as a site for free educational content, and we are designing and launching new courses and programs that utilize emerging learning technology. We are doing this without compromising the qualities long inherent to a Biola education, and we are doing this to address the challenges of accessibility and affordability.
You can read online in the coming months how we’ll be taking some bold steps to make the best of Biola available to stellar students who may not be able to afford a traditional college education or to make the best of our education available for those who can’t come to our campuses.
Anything Biola does online is neither to be trendy nor simply to look for new revenue sources. My concern is that we continue to build a university that is sustainable and is true to our mission. We need leadership capacity in the administration and among the faculty to sustain our future as it relates to digital learning. We have begun in new ways to nurture the spirit of innovation on this campus, imagining ways to continue to build our excellence with efficiency. To maintain the Biola quality that is uniquely ours, the ideal non-traditional learning environment into the foreseeable future will demand face time between faculty and students rather than online alone.
We are taking new steps now to lead to a stronger future tomorrow. The best days for Biola, as former President Clyde Cook reminded me the week before I assumed this role six years ago, are indeed still before us. May we move forward with the strength of conviction and the capacity for courage.
Barry H. Corey is the eighth president of Biola University. Visit his office online at www.biola.edu/president, on Facebook at facebook.com/presidentcorey and on Twitter at twitter.com/presidentcorey.