More than an accessible education, hybrid programs are all about building relationships – online, in person and for life
By Kimberly Felton
“What time do they turn the geyser on?”
“When do they release the bison?”
“How old are deer when they turn into moose?”
The questions from visitors at Yellowstone National Park were sincere, and Tobyn Bower answered with a smile as he worked as a floor supervisor at the Upper Old Faithful General Store this summer.
Bower on a hike at Sequoia National Park
As it turns out, Bower chose Yellowstone for a second summer in a row – after working at Zion, Olympic and Sequoia national parks previously – because it provides the access he needs to continue taking seminary classes online. National parks are typically not known for great WiFi. “The Old Faithful area is such a populated place, the Internet service is some of the best I’ve seen,” Bower says. “That’s what drove me to another summer here, so I could do summer classes without interference.”
Kristen Marble has a different kind of interference to work around: She is mother to 10 children ranging in age from 6 to 19 (seven were adopted internationally).
While Bower cracks open his books by Old Faithful, waiting for the eruption that shoots up to 200 feet into the air, Marble waits for darkness – and quiet – to settle over her home, a 100-plus-year-old church in a small Montana town, before spreading out on the couch. Tall, arched windows frame her study space in what once was a sanctuary and is now the Marbles’ living room.
Bower and Marble are students at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, both in cohorts – groups of 20 to 30 students who go through classes together – in the seminary’s hybrid programs. Each cohort gathers two or three times a year for one week of “face-to-face” time. The rest is hours and hours logged online every week as they post questions, reflect and discuss what they’re learning.
Marble and her husband John have 10 children, seven of whom were adopted internationally.
Tears gather as Marble talks about her cohort – about the births, deaths, marriages and even cancer. “Two years ago we were strangers,” she says. “Now there’s this incredible bond. I wasn’t thinking about the people I would be sitting beside. I was just thinking about me and my computer” – an education that would fit between her roles as wife, mother, pastor, speaker and writer.
What began at the academic level as a desire to make a George Fox degree more accessible to potential students like Marble became an ever-deeper and ever-wider global network of close friends. Scratch “friends;” students in these hybrid programs become more like family. They feel more connected to their cohorts – academically, spiritually, emotionally – than they’ve experienced in traditional classroom settings.
They feel more connected to their cohorts – academically, spiritually, emotionally – than they’ve experienced in traditional classroom settings.
“I can be out here, yet optimize my entire masters experience without hindering or stifling it,” says Bower. “With face-to-face time, I remain connected to my online cohort. Every face-to-face time when I return for a week of studies, it’s become a family reunion.”
“In some regards we’re more known because the professor has read what we’ve written or asked for prayer for – which doesn’t necessarily happen with students who just show up once a week for class,” says Marble. “We talk a lot online. During our face-to-face, we’ve had pastors in our cohort share about challenges they faced in their denominations, in tears, because we have that kind of trust.”
Now with two years left in their degree program, Marble and her classmates have already planned a post-graduation missions trip to Mexico, and a reunion for the year after that. “Just so we have a reason to get together,” she explains. “It’s lifelong relationships, and I just didn’t expect that.”
“With the online program, students can choose you because of who you are, not where you are. And who we are is something special.”
At the masters level in a seminary hybrid program, students are online three and a half hours a day, six days a week. They post about the assigned reading one day, have three days to dialogue with each other, and then three more days to post a synopsis of what they’ve learned.
The key, says Darla Samuelson, director of hybrid programs at the seminary, is online presence – not only of students, but of professors and online facilitators, who serve as a sort of virtual teaching assistant. “Their job is to check in on online presence,” explains Samuelson. “We coach our professors to do this as well.”
Hybrid Learning at a Glance
Hybrid, or blended, programs emerged at George Fox University in 1999 as an avenue for professionals to continue their vocations while earning higher degrees. The university’s commitment that its students “be known” compels ongoing evolution in these programs, creating experiences of significant educational and relational depth.
Students currently enrolled in hybrid programs at George Fox log in from numerous countries in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, and nearly all 50 U.S. states.
George Fox offers the following hybrid degree programs:
- Doctor of Education
- Doctor of Business Administration
- Master of Divinity
- Master of Arts in Ministry Leadership
- Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation
- Doctor of Ministry in Leadership and Spiritual Formation
- Doctor of Ministry in Semiotics and Future Studies
- Doctor of Ministry in Leadership and Global Perspectives
- Bachelor’s degree in Management and Organizational Leadership
In addition, the following programs offer an online component:
- Master of Education
- Master of Arts in Teaching
- School Administrator
- Teaching Endorsement
- Doctor of Education
In each program, 50-70 percent of students serve in places of leadership within their vocation. Another 20-25 percent are lay leadership, middle management and staff. All programs also have individuals who enrolled simply because something in them said it was time, and they’re following the path to see where it will lead.
Scot Headley, a professor in the School of Education, has honed his online teaching skills for 14 years. “It takes more time and has an emotional cost because you don’t have body language or the fellowship of being together,” he says. “There’s a real commitment on the part of faculty to . . . connect with students and want them to have the same experience [as on-campus students] of being known and cared for.
“It takes commitment and diligence and follow-through. It means being available to our students 24 hours a day, and developing an ability to read virtual body language – being able to read between the lines of how someone says something, how long the post is, the emoticons, what’s being left unsaid. It all helps me see a student in the same way that face-to-face allows us to read body language.”
Despite the added intensity Headley experiences as an online professor, the cost is worth the gain, both personally and professionally. “With the online program, students can choose you because of who you are, not where you are,” he says. “And who we are is something special.”
Marble interacts with members of her cohort during “face-to-face” time.
While the online medium forces professors to interact with each student, it also creates an environment where each student must interact as well. Performance is based on a rubric, a specific set of guidelines and expectations, for each class. Everyone must post a response to the reading material, and everyone must interact with others’ posts.
When Marble showed up for orientation, “I wasn’t sure I belonged,” she says. “Third-grade confirmation was my only Bible. Chemistry and German are my undergrad degrees.”
Entering seminary two years ago, Marble’s toes had just barely touched the fringes of ministry, and she wanted more biblical knowledge. She planned to keep quiet and learn, but quiet isn’t an option in the program’s rubric. “Getting into the classes, I realized I had a voice and ideas. There was a spot where I belonged, and could contribute.”
“Our No. 1 goal is to help students be present to each other, and for the faculty to be present to them,” says Gloria Doherty, director of hybrid learning programs at the seminary.
“Our online programs are kind of like contemplative prayer. People engage, then have quiet reflection, then pursue that reflection. Isn’t that the way God wants us to approach him? Engage, sit in the quiet, and then gain understanding from that. For me personally, it’s all about the community – and powerful learning comes from that.”