Contexts of Online Education

My work with online courses is taking place within a highly-selective private university in the Northeast, steeped in the Jesuit tradition, and is directly shaped by this context. The Jesuit context in particular is one of the things that makes my university distinct, and there has been very little research on how to build online courses within a Jesuit context. Among the important tenets of Jesuit pedagogy is cura personalis, often described as meeting students where they are. Students enter the classroom (or the online course) as distinct individuals, with a wide range of previous experiences and myriad approaches to the world. Understanding this context is the foundational move in the Jesuit pedagogical paradigm, and is often understood to be accomplished in face-to-face contexts through the personal interaction provided by that medium. Among the challenges that we face in building online courses, then, is to figure out how to provide an equally context-rich environment for students taking online courses. How do we build courses that encourage robust student formation alongside other types of learning? This is the major contextual frame in which I am currently operating.

Another context for me is time. One of the main drivers for getting into online education is increasing competition from other schools in the region with robust online programs. These schools have a significant head start. They have already staffed up their organizations and have a track record of producing value for their universities. We are in the beginning phase of this process, meaning that we are still a few years away from being able to directly challenge some of these competitors in the online space. When we do, though, we want our courses to distinctly reflect our Jesuit identity. We are not just interested in competing with other schools – we are interested in developing courses that are fundamentally different because they are infused with Jesuit pedagogical principles.

I am hoping, though, that being somewhat late to the game will allow us to “leapfrog” other institutions that might be using older technologies or who are set in a mode of online course development from a decade or more ago (e.g., long text pages for students to read, very little interaction among peers, etc.). Our group has thought at length about how to use the current and emerging generations of technology to best advantage as a way to promote the type of pedagogical distinctiveness embodied in Jesuit pedagogy and to distinguish our offerings from our competitors. We have reconciled ourselves to the fact that technologies are always changing, meaning that we need to hold technologies with “an open hand” to a certain degree.

In short, we face several challenges related to our context, but I welcome them. They will force us to think hard about our work and will ultimately push us to produce online courses that reflect our identity as an institution.

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