Online Learning and Community

“I miss spending time with my friends!”

“This is so boring. My teacher is just talking at us through Zoom!”

“I can’t focus because one of my classmates keeps spinning his Zoom profile while changing his background to random pictures!”

These are just some of the frustrating statements that I’ve overheard from my teenage children over the past couple of weeks as their high school has transitioned from traditional classroom learning to online learning due to school closures related to COVID-19. It’s been a valiant effort on behalf of the teachers and administrators at their school to try to adjust to online learning. To be honest, though, it’s been a very difficult transition for everyone. The situation has reminded me that there are many nuances to online learning and to facilitating a sense of community virtually.

At Bakke Graduate University, we have fully embraced online learning for many years. The urban immersion courses that we’ve offered since the origins of BGU remain an important component of what we do. However, online course offerings have enhanced our urban immersions and opened up many new doors to innovative courses for leaders in many sectors of society around the world. In a new era where many educators are now making the transition to online learning due to COVID-19, BGU is uniquely positioned to thrive in our mission.

A big key to effective online learning is building a sense of community. All students who enter into the five academic degree programs at BGU must apply what they’re learning where they live, work, and play. By offering online learning opportunities, BGU leaders are able to stay connected to their organizations and local communities while serving as transformational change agents through meaningful interventions and research.

While the learning is deeply rooted in place and local communities, BGU students also connect in a virtual community with the leaders from six continents who journey along with them through their degrees. During onsite components of urban immersion courses, BGU students are developing WhatsApp groups to support each other during and for months after those life-changing experiences. Students utilize WhatsApp to share prayer requests with each other, start-up book clubs to read through recommended readings together and collaborate on research ideas.

In online classrooms, BGU’s world-class faculty members introduce groundbreaking content in innovative ways while facilitating dialogue through asynchronous and synchronous learning opportunities. Zoom technology allows professors to connect regularly and creatively with students through lectures, presentations, group projects, and dialogue. Lessons in Populi are flexible for the busy leaders who take BGU courses, as that content can be completed at any time of the day or night depending on what works best for the learner.

The Personal Learning Community, or PLC, is unique to BGU. This group of three to five people commit to walking alongside the student throughout the course of their academic journey, reading papers, clarifying research applications, and encouraging students as they try to juggle the unique dynamics of graduate school with work and family life. The PLC opens the door for BGU leaders to bring other influencers along with them for the learning adventure. An effective PLC enhances the online learning experience for students in many ways.

While I am clearly appreciative of what BGU offers to our students, I am just as excited that we’ve had so many opportunities to share our experiences and best practices for online learning with educational institutions and organizations that we’re connected to around the world as so many people try to adjust to the new realities of online community building. We’re doing our best to support businesses, churches, nonprofits, and other universities during these trying times through collaboration.

I’m sharing what BGU has learned about online learning with the administrators and teachers where my children attend high school and they’re becoming more effective. I’m starting to overhear some positive comments like, “Now that was a creative assignment!” Online learning, when done well, can be an amazing way for students to learn while also building community through authentic relationships.

-Brad Smith, BGU President