By Aaron Imig, Ed.D.
Online education is worth considering for pastors and other church staff
Christian higher education — especially at the graduate level — is growing at an unprecedented pace. Colleges and universities are responding to the increasing number of students seeking higher education degrees by offering a variety of options. The most prevalent, now, is online education.
Institutions continue developing online programs, or components of programs, at a rapid rate. Navigating the possibilities and opportunities has become increasingly difficult due to the sheer number of institutions offering online graduate programs.
Then again, research in the past decade has shown that as online education programs grow, these programs increase in quality, accessibility and affordability — all of which benefit students.
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The most common question prospective students ask is, Will an online course offer the same quality as a traditional, face-to-face class? As with traditional courses, the success and quality of an online course is mostly dependent upon the qualifications and ability of the instructor. As well, the design of an online course has the most impact on the personalization and inter-connectedness a student feels. Many technological options today make it easy for online instructors to create and nurture a community environment.
Students in online settings have been shown to have similar test scores and overall course grades compared to students in traditional settings. Often, an instructor can pull in more resources and provide more connections to information and additional learning in an online setting than in a traditional setting. Students also are able to have exponentially more networking opportunities in a variety of areas and locations not available in a traditional class model.
Additionally, students in online programs receive more individualization, communication, feedback and student-to-teacher interaction than in traditional programs, all of which have a positive or very positive impact on performance.
Another important question is, Will prospective employers consider an online degree to be as rigorous or valuable as a traditional onsite program? While fairly nebulous negative perceptions have circulated in the past (and in some situations were warranted), accrediting bodies and higher education institutions are making significant strides to uphold academic rigor.
With the ever-increasing demands of accreditation and licensure, schools must continually demonstrate that each course and degree program is taught at or above a traditionally acceptable level.
All this means graduates of online programs today can be confident they’ve earned a degree that is valued for the work they have done, and that is seen as just as substantive as a degree gained having sat in classroom after classroom.
The cost of online courses and programs can be extremely reasonable compared to traditional models. Too often, prospective students forget the added economic benefits of no time and no cost for transportation to and from school over against the actual seat time and waiting built into traditional settings. Online educational environments help students manage their personal resources on their own terms.
An increasingly smaller percentage of prospective students say they feel scared of the technology required for online classes. Typically, all one needs is access to the Internet and some basic programs. In searching for the right program, though, this a great question to ask sooner than later.
A growing number of universities now offer a single iPad loaded with all the software, syllabi and textbooks the student will need to earn his or her degree. That makes life anything but complicated, let alone scary!
A major advantage of online classes is that one can work on his or her own time. True, that leads to more procrastination by some students; many others thrive, however. After all, there still are traditional due dates and check points along the way. (Then again, if a student wants to sit in his or her pajamas and work on coursework at midnight, why not?)
This opportunity to work at one’s own pace benefits a broad range of students. High-achieving students are able to progress through curriculum more quickly, avoiding the frustrations of unnecessary repetition and boredom. Conversely, struggling students are able to spend more time on difficult concepts and progress without the distractions of a traditional classroom’s unrelenting pace.
The bottom line
As Christian colleges and universities strive to meet the demands of an ever-growing graduate population, online programs will continue to be developed, expanded and promoted. Pursuing a degree in the online setting can be the best way to achieve an educational goal in a cost-effective manner while maximizing a busy life schedule.
Aaron Imig, Ed.D., serves as assistant professor of education and director of graduate education at Corban University, with campuses in Salem, OR and Tacoma, WA.