Human connection and ed-tech in Mennonite higher ed


In the January 7th issue of the Mennonite World Review, president emeritus of Fresno Pacific University, D. Merrill Ewert, laid out a few of the 21st century challenges facing Mennonite higher education. They include:

  • A broken financial model (including reduced congregational support of colleges)
  • Rise of the for-profits (University of Phoenix, et al.)
  • New faculty majority (non-tenure track faculty)
  • MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses, for the uninitiated)
  • Hostility to faith

While I would characterize the last point more as the increasing reality of a multiplicity of faiths (“faith” being understood in a rather big-tent/more-than-religions kind of way) rather than hostility to (Christian) faith, I think his other points are well worth pondering for Mennonite higher education in general. Here I’ll offer a few comments on how I think these relate to ed-tech at EMU, which is my domain, and how we can move forward to face these challenges.

When I started my work in this role eight months ago, ed-tech was a hot topic in the news. The UVA presidential debacle was just a few weeks away, and in its wake MOOCs and “the future of higher education” would be on everyone’s lips. Even some folks here at EMU wondered if we could hop on the MOOC train. I was skeptical, and I wasn’t alone. After the hype (kind of) subsided, many ed-tech and tech gurus that I respect and whose work I follow began to reflect critically on the potential shortcomings of the MOOC, and they all had to do with engagement.

In a post today to CNN, media theorist of the digital age, Douglas Rushkoff, argues that “Online courses need human element to educate,” continuing on to say that:

…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 couldn’t agree more, and I 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, which is frequently held up as an Anabaptist-Mennonite value.

Here are three different approaches that make significant use of ed-tech that I think EMU (and other Mennonite colleges and universities) can look to…

1. Blended learning

Professor Mike Keppell of Charles Sturt University is referenced in this helpful post 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.

“Blended learning,” then, is helpful not as a discrete category or single approach, but by how it shows a continuum for engagement – from face-to-face to online.

2. Cohort-based online programs

Our MS in Nursing program is to my knowledge EMU’s only online degree program, and it was recently praised by graduates in this EMU News piece. They have done a wonderful job of honoring the commitment to embodied relationships (in a highly embodied vocation!) by building online cohort groups. As each new cohort comes in, the program schedules a multi-day on-campus experience that serves not only as an orientation, but as a cohort-building exercise. Students unable to make the orientation due to distance or scheduling conflicts are included through WebEx. But the face-to-face experiences don’t stop there – they just move to the virtual. Each course in the program includes some degree of synchronous teaching and learning experience, using WebEx, in addition to the standard Moodle-based activities such as discussion forums and paper submissions.

Other online offerings around EMU have mostly been offered a la carte, supplementing programs that are mostly on-campus oriented. While a cohort vibe can certainly form over a single semester and a single online course, it’s a bit more of a challenge, especially if a single faculty member is teaching a combination of online and on-campus courses. It’s usually the online courses that suffer when loyalties are divided like this since the skills for teaching well online aren’t as widely held.

I’m starting to think – and am getting some support on this from conversations around campus – that more programs should begin taking the online cohort model seriously; not only from a recruiting students standpoint, but also for how faculty are loaded. The consequences of not doing this might include offering what, to the potential student, would appear to be sub-par online courses, which would ultimately begin to be more of a resource drain, rather than doing what many hope of online programs – i.e. bringing in new, more, and different students. (As I’m arguing, though, online programs with integrity and imagination should be about a lot more than simply making more money.)

3. Collaborative programs

Due to economic conditions, some state higher ed institutions – community colleges with colleges/universities, for instance – are already partnering to pool resources, share costs, and offer more robust degree and training programs. Why can’t Mennonite institutions do this from a stance of not only protecting institutional viability (which is mostly a reactive stance), but also from a proactive, positive stance of sharing the collective fruits of our labor? Mutual aid has long been another practice valued in the Anabaptist tradition.

While it is true that from an IT and organizational perspective, forging such partnerships has very messy, challenging implications once the rubber hits the road, if the work is pursued carefully with administrative, academic, and IT stakeholders all at the table – the potential could be great. Mennonite higher education has not only its peer group to work within, but also its connections to K-12 Mennonite schools and Mennonite congregations in the denomination(s). Collaborative programs could help strengthen the connections across these various constituency networks.


Eastern Mennonite University’s tagline is “A Christian university like no other,” and it’s been a commitment of mine to take this seriously when it comes to my work in educational technology. Our president has joked that this tagline might strike some Mennonites as odd, given our traditional reputation as “the quiet in the land” and seeking to be humble in our Christian witness.  Mennonites, in other words, are not known to be loud-mouth braggarts. He’s gone on to say, though, that we hope to wear this tagline and live it out with “humble confidence.”

We need to take that humble confidence to the challenges that Ewert identified above, and ed-tech will certainly have an important role to play in addressing a number of those challenges.

[Note: This post was later picked up by the Mennonite World Review, and appears here on their blog.]

2 Responses to “Human connection and ed-tech in Mennonite higher ed”

  1. Don Tyson

    Brian, Interesting comments but to be transparent, I want to clarify the cohort idea in the MSN program. While students start out in our program as part of a cohort, it quickly becomes messy as some students decide to be part time and others full time. In addition, we have started allowing non-admitted students to take classes before processing their application. And this semester we have MBA and MBX students in some of the MSN classes. The cohort model is our goal, but we too struggle with the challenge. Last week was our first week for the semester, and what I found was that the MSN students seemed to openly welcome and responded positively to the MBX student in the class. It seemed from the way they communicated with him about his comments, that he was fully excepted. So community (which maybe is a better term than cohort) is fostered and developed quickly I think. And can happen in the virtual classroom. But I also think it reflects our philosophy at EMU, students pick up on that quickly, and exemplifies EMU as a university like no other.

    • Brian R. Gumm

      That’s help clarification, Don; thanks! It’s great to see that students pick up on and start practicing the hospitality of community in the virtual sessions!