2021: ONLINE LEARNING AND VIRTUAL CLASSROOMS: Taking Advantage of Technology: Overcoming Obstacles in Higher Education

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The State of Higher Education in the Wake of the Coronavirus

The Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the traditional paradigm of ministry settings around the world. The Latin American Caribbean region is no different. In the past months, churches have been busier than normal creating content that has nearly blown-up social media. As churches have adapted to live-stream and uploading videos via various platforms, they have seen an exponential increase in the viewing analytics compared to their traditional physical meetings.

Higher education institutions are similarly turning to online platforms to meet the educational needs of their students. Some institutions have expressed concerns about enrollments for the next semester or school year due to stay-and-shelter orders. However, others see COVID-19 as an accelerant for distance/online education to continue to develop as an integral part of higher education.

As the national representative for Global University in Bolivia, and the Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Theology for the Spanish-speaking world, I have worked hard to operate almost completely digital. I often joke that I am trying to save the trees by rarely printing anything for Global University over the past four years that we have been leading the ministry in Bolivia.

As missionary educators we must recognize we have traveled nearly ¼ of the way through the 21st century. However, technophobia, stubbornness, or even laziness has caused many to avoid the integration of the rapid advance of technology in this century. Often the greatest deterrent of taking advantage of technology in our classrooms relates to the lack of need (or perceived lack of need). However, COVID-19 has increased that need to essential levels. Many higher educational institutions recognize that if they don’t integrate distance/online learning platforms for their students ASAP, they may find themselves in a crippling financial hole from which they may not recover.

Prior to the Coronavirus higher education institutions already started aggressively moving toward distance/online learning. The National Center for Education Statistics found that overall college enrollment has consistently declined since 2016, yet the enrollment of students in “exclusively distance education courses” has consistently increased between 4%-6% during that same time (Ginder, Kelly-Reid, & Mann 2018). In fact, the Online Learning Consortium (2018) found that online/distance education has increased consecutively for the past fourteen years. Moreover, in their most recent study, Best Colleges found that “student satisfaction with online learning is high – overall, 94% say it has, or will have, a positive ROI and 95% would recommend online education to others” (2020, 4).

By no means do I suggest replacing traditional physical classroom settings with only virtual ones. However, to ignore the growth, need, and quality of online/distance options would devastate the future of your educational institution. Physical, online, and hybrid educational programs are all essential.

Practical Steps to Move Forward

As missionary educators, we must recognize the consistent growth of the quantity and quality of online/distance higher education. We must also accept the reality of the exponential impulse in online/distance education as a result of the Coronavirus. I suggest several practical options that have been helpful for me developing Global University in Bolivia, and internationally with the Graduate School of Theology among the Spanish-speakers.

Dropbox www.dropbox.com

Dropbox is a cloud-based file storage sharing platform. It allows for 2GB of storage and powerfully integrates to your desktop or mobile device allowing you to share files easily in a link that you can create by simply clicking on a folder or file. I utilized Dropbox in the beginning of Global University Bolivia because all of our materials are in digital format and we could quickly share course texts, files, forms, and much more with students. Unfortunately, Dropbox has a relatively small storage allowance in its free version, so I quickly outgrew this option, because the paid version was too expensive for just my office.

Tutorial https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_vUEW-ONsQ

Tutorial (español) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58wPFgzBnqo

Zoom www.zoom.us

Zoom has recently increased its awareness as an online video-meeting tool. Zoom allows for participants to join meetings from their website, or through their app across mobile devices. Participants don’t need an account, and the host can record the meeting for individuals who could not join the live version. I used Zoom regularly to teach online classes at the undergraduate, and graduate levels. Within the paid versions, you don’t have a time-limit on group sessions and can have hundreds of participants in the meetings. This application also allows for screen sharing, which is helpful when discussing written texts, documents, grading papers, or teaching with PowerPoint. The program also allows for breakout sessions where a class can be separated into groups assigned by the host, but the host can also view and listen to the conversations in each break-out session, similar to classroom group discussions. Zoom also offers regular webinars to train hosts to use the program to its potential. I have the lowest paid version of the program, which is a manageable cost.

Tutorial https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6i-NA563Ojk

Tutorial (español) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OertfTsg2n0

YouTube www.youtub.com

As you may notice, all of the tutorial links in this article are from YouTube. If you feel intimidated by new technology, please know you are in good company. Everything I do with technology (which is far beyond the scope of this article), I have learned how to overcome with YouTube tutorials. You may not know, but Google owns YouTube, so if you have a Gmail account, you also have a YouTube account and can create your own free YouTube channel. I created a channel for Global University Bolivia where I upload videos for online classes for future students or students who could not join the live session from my recordings in Zoom. I also upload tutorial, promotional, and orientation videos and can organize all of them by different playlists. Again, if you feel overwhelmed, just YouTube it, and there will be a training video to show you how to do it!

Tutorial https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41YehxZ7t4o

Tutorial (español) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIaMNzkumKs

By this point, most students and educators in the theological realm of the Latin America Caribbean region are very familiar with WhatsApp. My recommendation for missionary educators is to take advantage of group chats, and the desktop version of WhatsApp that syncs to your phone. This allows you to quickly respond to students and share files and links from your computer to their phones.

Tutorial https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMpM0BPkDcs

Tutorial (español) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eozu8ic7BBE

As a missionary, I have used MailChimp for years for mass communication to my supporters and prayer partners. I also have a separate account for students, and other interested parties for Global University Bolivia to help with communication. MailChimp has many built-in tutorials teaching you how to take advantage of its massive communication potential, which can also link to several social media platforms.

Tutorial https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNTi3taqZDk

Tutorial (español) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaAhzjwSP8s

Wix is one of many platforms to easily create user-friendly websites. If your school does not have a website, or if it is drastically outdated, Wix may be a great option. Because all of the previous platforms mentioned also have links, you can include all of those in one central place for your students. I have spent considerable time adding to and adjusting the Global University Bolivia web page through Wix based on consistent requests from students. Now, during the Coronavirus stay-and-shelter orders, I am bombarded with questions from students who are stuck at home and want to continue their studies. Having a user-friendly website that is loaded with forms, tutorials, videos, information, and links to everything else, allows me to quickly reply with a link which is often all the students need as it provides them with an abundance of resources.

Tutorial https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=142qllS1198

Tutorial (español) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMrdbCCwyV0

By no means do I consider myself an expert in online/distance education but having worked in this avenue both as a student, instructor, and administrator, you find that practice allows you to develop a proficiency to meet students’ needs as they arise. Many educators have strong, polarized opinions when it comes to online/distance education, especially within the theological community. However, we must all remember that, regardless of our bias, we must do whatever is necessary for student success. If online/distance learning is the direction for future trends in higher education globally, then we must be prepared to navigate it, even if it is not our primary instructional platform. Doing so has allowed my students within Global University Bolivia, and the Spanish-speaking graduate students to continue their education virtually unencumbered by issues like political crises or the recent pandemic of the Coronavirus.

References:

Best Colleges. (2020). Online Education Trends Report: Tracking Trends in Learner Demographics and Program Development with Insights from Students and Administrators. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://res.cloudinary.com/highereducation/image/upload/v1584979511/BestColleges.com/edutrends/2020-Online-Trends-in-Education-Report-BestColleges.pdf.

Ginder, S.A., Kelly-Reid, J.E., and Mann, F.B. (2018). Enrollment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions Fall 2017; and Financial Statistics and Academic Libraries, Fiscal Year 2017: U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2019/2019021REV.pdf.

Online Learning Consortium. (January 11, 2018). New Study: Distance Education Up, Overall Enrollments Down. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/news_item/new-study-distance-education-overall-enrollments/.

By Jeremiah Campbell, D.Min.