The landscape of higher education is undergoing a transformation. Advances in technology, along with the rising cost of attending private and public colleges, have sparked both a need and an opportunity for a new model.
Students entering their college years are looking for alternative, more cost-effective approaches to earning their degrees. And because of the Internet, they can broaden their searches beyond the traditional bricks and mortar options. Students today are making online education a part of their college portfolios.
The Master’s College began offering some of its courses in an online format in 2009 and true to the trend, students have been quick to incorporate the option. The college enrolls between 120-200 students into online courses per online section, and about 1,000 a year (online courses run along an eight-week track, rather than the 15-week track employed in traditional courses).
Today, TMC offers 21 courses online throughout the year – most of which are designed to help students fill their general education requirements.
Students from all over the world and across the age spectrum are also enrolling. In any given online class, it is not uncommon to find a menagerie of home school high school students, working adults, stay-at-home-moms and church leaders.
The TMC online program has become a strategic component of how the college reaches the world with a biblically sound education. It has become a part of its ministry.
We recently sat down with TMC director of online education James McLaughlin and TMC Online administrative coordinator Caitlin da Silva to get their thoughts on the program, its impact and its future.
Online courses represent a growing sector in higher education. What makes them so popular? What are the benefits?
JM: Online courses offer a few things. The first is flexibility. Students can fit the online portion of their education into their schedules as it works for them. The courses are offered in an eight-week format, which enable students to take more in a given period of time. So we get working dads and moms who are perhaps homeschooling their kids wanting to continue their education. Online education provides an opportunity to do so.
Can you explain the format?
JM: The format consists of recorded lectures from the full-time professors on campus that the students watch, along with discussion questions and forums that allow them to interact with each other and the professor. Students upload homework assignments and take tests through the system. These are 15-week courses put into an eight-week format, so the pace is accelerated.
How does an online course work in the student-professor interaction we prize so highly on campus?
JM: For now we are using online discussions where students comment and professors respond. For the future we’re exploring other live options as well. We’ve found that unlike a regular class, where there can be a segment of students who are quiet, online classes require all students to participate in the discussion forums. And we’ve found that many students are more comfortable contributing in that way.
In what ways has the college’s approach to online education grown?
JM: We started off posting lectures online that we captured in the classroom. Now there are a lot of possibilities. We can have lectures. We can add documentaries. We can set up a live feed with a subject-area expert. The possibilities are limitless. We’re going to start to think through how we can make the most of them. There are pros and cons within online education. But we don’t have to look at it from a polarized perspective. It’s the responsibility and the challenge of every institution to make online education better. There’s a lot of opportunity to do that.
What kinds of students are taking online classes?
CD: We have traditional students, we have high school students getting dual credit, we have degree completion students who are supplementing and we have online only students. In our online only group there are a lot of military students, people who are going to transfer either here or elsewhere for a degree and we have people who are taking our Bible program, which is a bundle of 10 of our Bible classes.
JM: The Bible program consists of 30 units that cover a wide range of subject areas: theology, biblical counseling, New Testament and Old testament surveys, life of Christ and biblical interpretation. So it gives a good foundation to build upon in a student’s study of God’s Word.
CD: We also have a lot of international students.
Who is teaching these online classes? Are we talking about the same professors who teach here on the campus?
JM: The course creators for the most part are members our full-time faculty. In some cases we have adjunct professors acting as facilitators of the courses, but the lectures and materials are from the full-time faculty.
What are the most popular courses?
CD: Our survey courses are always popular – courses like Old and New Testament. A lot of general education courses are also popular, like our history and economics courses.
Talk about the traditional students who take online courses – the students who are enrolled as full-time students who are also taking the occasional online course. Why do they take these courses?
CD: A lot of them are trying to graduate in three years, so they’ll take online general education courses in the summer. Sometimes students will take a semester off from being on campus to save money, so they’ll keep up their education by taking a course or two online.
Is it less expensive to take courses online?
JM: Yes, but the thing we want to emphasize is that students are already pursuing online options elsewhere … community colleges, for instance. Our program allows them to take those courses here – to have that consistency in their college education.
CD: There’s a cap on how many online courses a student can take for credit … the registrar has a minimum number of units that a traditional student pursuing a degree needs to take on campus in order to graduate.
In what ways does the TMC online program further the mission of the college to equip believers to go out into the world and make an impact?
JM: The first way is by making this education accessible. I travel to different states and I hear countless stories of people who are familiar with our president, John MacArthur, or who are familiar with the college and our commitment to a truly biblical liberal arts education. but who can’t afford to send their children here. I hear from adults who live elsewhere, who have jobs and who are involved in ministry – people who can’t uproot and move to Southern California. Now they can sit under our Bible professors, our English professors, our history professors. We’ve take our education to them and that’s our mission – to reach the world. This enables that to happen.