The ed-tech vision for collaboration in Mennonite education

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Collaborative MBA logoFor the past year, a good bit of my energy at EMU has been focused on helping craft the technology framework for an ambitious project which has just recently been announced and begins this fall: The Collaborative MBA – a graduate degree program jointly offered by three Mennonite-affiliated schools, Goshen College, Bluffton University, and EMU.

You can read a bit about the formative story and strategic vision for this program in this recent EMU News release: Unique Collaborative MBA program launched from platform of three Mennonite institutions - What I want to focus on, though, is the ed-tech vision for this program, and how it’s connected to a broader vision for increasing collaboration amongst Mennonite higher educational institutions beyond this first pilot project, the Collaborative MBA.

Trusting in our combined strengths

A recent article at EDUCAUSE Review Online states that “collaboration of any kind relies on timing, trust, and opportunity to succeed.” It’s been my sense that throughout this project, we have all three factors in abundance. All three schools in this Collaborative MBA project are members of the Mennonite Education Agency (MEA), which has been encouraging their member institutions to collaborate more for some years now.

“More-with-Less” is the name of a popular Mennonite cookbook, and I’ve often thought the phrase aptly describes the European-derived Mennonite work ethic in general, and this mentality certainly fits in this situation. (Interestingly, the article linked to above is entitled, “Doing More for Less.”) Institutions of higher ed. – particularly small, private liberal arts schools like us – are in a tenuous position these days, and so the notion of affiliated institutions working together to realize efficiencies is a rather no-nonsense avenue to explore.

But framing a project like this solely in terms of thrift, no matter how virtuous, is short-sighted. There are more important positive reasons to explore such collaboration. Rather than predicating a project such as this on the basis of scarcity and institutional survival, this project in particular – and others that will hopefully follow – are seen as an opportunity to work together and provide an educational experience that pools and channels our respective strengths in various areas, for the good of students who go through the programs, for the good of the mission of Mennonite education, and for the common good which this Collaborative MBA program seeks to serve. Together, we can more strongly work toward all these ends.

And it’s this positive vision of collaboration that’s undergirded the cross-institutional and cross-functional teamwork that’s gone into this project so far, and will continue to take place as the program rolls out. In the process of working together, relationships have been formed and strengthened that have exhibited the trust-building and collegiality necessary for our shared work to succeed.

Leveraging multiple delivery models

As the news story above indicates, the delivery of the Collaborative MBA happens in three modes:

  • 2 one-week, face-to-face experiences – an intro course and a non-US practicum experience
  • Online courses – Delivered primarily asynchronously (non-real-time) via Moodle – with periodic synchronous (real-time) activities using web/video conferencing technology
  • Classroom courses with remote participants – Traditional classroom delivery with the addition of students from the other schools participating remotely, in real-time

This multi-modal delivery helps build a strong sense of cohort community and engagement between students and their instructors, more so than an all-online program delivered entirely asynchronously, where you never see your peers or instructors, much less meeting them face-to-face. Here, you get most of the convenience of an online program with the benefit of forming deeper relationships and working together.

The pedagogical practices in each mode vary as well, which further adds to the experience as it engages students with varying personalities and learning preferences. Verbal processors have face-to-face engagement at numerous points, physically and virtually, and non-verbal processors have time to reflect and respond in asynchronous, written modes.

A collaborative ed-tech framework

Throughout my work in this role for EMU, I have used the metaphor of an “ed-tech ecosystem” as a way of naming and organizing the spheres of overlapping technology platforms, services, and tools which coalesce to provide a range of resources from which to supplement existing or craft new educational possibilities for teachers and learners.

The best educational technology is that which does not get in the way of, but rather enables, good education to take place. The nature of high-tech doesn’t lend itself well to this “getting out of the way” principle, and so making this vision a reality in a single institution is a persistent challenge. But when there are three institutions  - all with their own IT shops – providing a unified educational experience? Well let’s just say that we techies at Goshen, Bluffton, and EMU have our work cut out for us.

One way that we are committed to providing a coherent and good ed-tech experience for students and faculty in this program is by using a single learning management system (LMS) accessible to students from all three schools, and located outside any of our IT infrastructures. On the instructional design side of things, we have committed to training faculty using an online course we developed collaboratively and had reviewed by an instructional designer. Faculty, then, get common training and support for their course development in the new program.

The LMS and faculty training are just two examples: We are examining all ed-tech components as well as their training & support systems and processes – all with an eye toward building an ed-tech ecosystem that facilitates collaborative learning from collaborative institutions.

Looking ahead

Many of us are convinced that collaboration is a key component to a vital future for Mennonite higher education, and this project is an early foray into that new territory. With that in mind, from the start we have been attempting to craft an ed-tech framework/ecosystem that will serve not only this Collaborative MBA program, but also further collaborative projects with other Mennonite-affiliated schools. We will no doubt tweak this ecosystem as the first program rolls out and other potential programs hopefully come into play, but we feel the necessary components are in place: timing, opportunity, and especially trust.

Together, we can take this innovative vision forward and help fulfill one of MEA’s purpose statements to “collaborate in ways that ensure…the common good of Mennonite education and the church,” as well as serving the common good of the world beyond our institutions: educational and ecclesial.