In working to develop a strategic plan for success, the faculty of Principia College is looking to catch up to the technology-rich world of higher education by enhancing its programs through the increased use of online learning.

According to Gary Gentry, interim Online Education Director, developing an online program will serve two primary purposes. It will “increase our outreach to the worldwide Christian Science community so that what we have going on here can be shared with anyone, anywhere, any time,” and it will also “enhance what we’re doing on campus for our current students in the classroom.” Gentry said, “When you look at where higher education is, we are way behind [in terms of online learning], so I think this is a good thing.”

Gentry said that the College is in the process of a 4-5 year phase-in, and right now we are in phase one, which consists of building the infrastructure, finding the right technology, and upgrading Blackboard to the newest version, which will be up and running next quarter. This means that students can expect to see enhanced technology and use of the internet in classrooms. Gentry said, “Lots of faculty are coming to me saying they want to use it. We’re starting to talk with those faculty all across disciplines.”

According to Gentry, there are three levels of online usage in the classroom The first is called “web-supported,” which a lot of faculty already do through Blackboard. Gentry describes it as “relatively static.” The second is “blended,” in which “faculty integrate online activities into the classroom” by bringing another live person into the classroom via internet, for example. This can be anything from a biology report from the field or a talented Broadway director brought through the computer into a theater classroom. The third possibility would be purely online. In this approach, “student and faculty are never in the same place at the same time.”

Principia’s very first purely online course, Intro to Java Programming, is currently being taught to a group of computer science majors on campus by Clint Staley, a professor at California Polytechnic State University who recently taught at Principia. Daniel Hensey, a senior in the class, said, “We started by meeting in person during pre-fall and a little into first week and then the rest of what we did was over Elluminate, which is an online classroom.” Hensey said that in order for the students to get the lessons, Staley has “recorded his voice along with his computer screen for our lectures, and he has us working on programs and homework on our own.” Hensey said, “Overall I think the process is good and online courses are useful for shorter classes that don’t need as much personal attention. The class is going quite well.”

The “blended” category of online learning is particularly useful for departments such as Foreign Languages & Cultures because it allows students to be more connected with people from different cultures. They have already instigated a “Skype partners” program, in which students in Spanish 216 are able to talk with students from a partner school in Uruguay once every week, using Skype. The students talk for 25 minutes in Spanish and 25 minutes in English, providing students from both schools an opportunity to hear about another culture from people their own age.

Foreign Languages Department Chair Duncan Charters said that online learning “will be something that will enrich our current program by being able to bring a different professor in.” It can be useful if there are other educators who “can offer something we can’t because of experience or scholarly background,” and he is working towards creating one of these courses for next spring. The professor would come to campus at least one time in the beginning to meet the students and develop a relationship. Then, “there would be one person on campus monitoring more closely, making sure the students were feeling good about what was going on and able to give feedback to the online instructor, evaluating and checking all the way through.”

Charters and Gentry both agree that online learning could also be a useful tool in getting students to come to Principia who struggle with English but are otherwise very qualified. In the future, Principia may be able to offer online English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to help those students prepare for a college curriculum in English.

According to Charters, “Online language is hard because there are two things you have to provide if you are working online individually.” The first component is somebody to talk to if you have grammatical questions, and the second is a native speaker with whom to have conversations. If Principia were to offer English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to students who would like to improve their English in order to be able to come to school here, Charters would like to set up two phone lines that would be manned by Principia students. ESL students would be able call one line with any grammatical question they may have, and one line would provide a native English speaker to simply converse and practice English.

In launching online learning, Gentry said that, rather than decreasing the number of students on campus (because they could simply take courses online), the hope is that online courses will expose other students to Principia and draw them to campus, leading to an actual increase in enrollment. In order to do so, Gentry said that we must find ways to stand out from other campuses with online learning incorporated into their curriculum. We must ask ourselves “what value can we add to that whole process? We have the Principia experience; how can we replicate that online?” Gentry said that providing more live sessions than other institutions would be beneficial. Rather than impersonally posting assignments or lectures, we would include character education and also have access to other things going on around campus. Online students would have a package of online experience, and Gentry said, “I don’t know of any other schools that even try that.”

Gentry said that the development team is looking to have student focus groups. They need to hear from students about what they have seen and what they want in terms of online learning. He is hoping to start these groups next quarter.