By Ronald E. Keener
University ensures its programs align with high-demand, high-growth industries.
The church administrator wanting to expand his or her business credentials and secure an advanced degree will want to look carefully at online education. Online programs offer adults the opportunity to increase their skill sets and advance their career options all while thriving in their current full-time position.
One such school is Grand Canyon University, a private Christian university that offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs both to working professionals online as well as for traditional students “on the ground” in the heart of Phoenix, AZ.
GCU has been regarded as principally an online institution, but that perception is changing as the university expects 7,000 students on campus this fall and plans to grow to 15,000 students over the next few years.
“Many online students want to attend a university with a strong traditional campus,” says Meghan Walbert, public relations manager, “that encourages school pride and fosters relationships among alumni.” She notes too that many online students like the connection they feel to the university’s Christian heritage and appreciate the values and spirituality woven into the curriculum.
Still, GCU serves nearly 40,000 students online and employs 2,200 adjunct online instructors and more than 100 full-time online instructors, making the online component of the school’s offerings an important part of the student body. The full-time online faculty are seen as having a dramatic impact on the success and retention of the school’s online students.
“Most of GCU’s online students have full-time jobs and many have families and other social responsibilities,” Walbert says. “We know that a large percentage of our students study at night after the kids go to bed and the house is quiet.
“They take their laptops with them everywhere so they can read and work on assignments whenever they get a few moments.
“We had a military student who did the entire class from his laptop on board an aircraft carrier, as well as students who work on their classes while they are on the train for their commutes to and from work,” she says.
The university attempts to make the one-on-one learning and engagement with their professors and classmates as traditional, on-campus students. Walbert says online professors make themselves available throughout the day to answer student questions or discuss the material.
“Students are also able to connect with each other online through classroom discussion boards, which replicate traditional classroom interaction in a virtual way,” she says.
There is an attempt to make the faculty-student interaction as personal as possible. “Full-time online faculty members call each student at the beginning of class to introduce themselves and continue to make proactive phone calls to students throughout the course,” she explains.
“Professors also hold optional, instructional teleconferences when appropriate or necessary,” Walbert says. Other means of personalizing the relationship comes through posting bios, participating in discussion topics, and responding to students’ personal experiences.
The university likes to pride itself on its ability to change direction quickly in its offerings in response to the marketplace and job needs. “We regularly evaluate our programs and how they align with high-demand, high-growth industries. Where there are gaps, leaders look to refocus and develop curricula that would prepare students to successfully enter these growing career fields,” she says. “Current emphases in criminal justice, sports business and youth ministry are examples of this foresight and alignment.”
What should a church administrator be thinking about when deciding to get a degree online? Walbert says a student should consider whether the flexibility of an online class schedule is the more beneficial for their particular circumstance. A student needs to utilize strong time management skills and to regularly communicate with professors and classmates to ensure they make the most of their online educational experience, says Walbert.
And while online students are not required to travel to the campus for commencement ceremonies, many do so.
Christian studies among offerings
GCU offers master’s degree programs in Christian Studies (with emphases in Christian Leadership, Pastoral Ministry, Urban Ministry and Youth Ministry) and a variety of master’s programs within the Ken Blanchard College of Business that focuses on business administration, public administration and leadership.
GCU also offers a range of doctoral degree programs, including business administration, organizational leadership and philosophy.