December 7, 2017

Not all Wheaton graduate school students reside in Wheaton. Not only are there current Wheaton students living in other U.S. states, but members of Wheaton’s graduate school programs reside in countries including Cambodia, Turkey, Korea, Jordan, China, Vietnam and Myanmar, as well as others. These students are part of a growing trend since 2012 that has exploded in the past year at Wheaton as non-traditional methods of offering courses and recruiting students are being developed in graduate departments.

According to Alan Seaman, professor and director of the M.A. in TESOL — “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages” — the department currently has more remote than residential students for the first time since the low-residency models were introduced in 2012 and the programs are still growing and bringing in more prospective students.

In the evangelism and leadership department, Associate Director of Academic Programs Christina Walker has seen their student numbers grow from around 37 to 87 students since she was hired in January as a result of new methods. “There’s a recognized perspective in the grad school that we want to grow. It hasn’t been growing for a while, and so I’m excited that there’s [now] momentum for growth, that’s good for the graduate school and Wheaton as a whole.”

New programs

There are two types of low-residency programs — modular and hybrid. In a modular format, students come to Wheaton for residential classes during January and July, taking online courses during the fall and spring semesters. In a hybrid model, students receive a few days of intensive course work residentially at the beginning of a course and the class continues throughout the rest of the semester online.

All departments are offering residential programs in addition to the modular or hybrid models, except the Psychology programs, which have important residential components.

Interim Dean of Humanities and Theological Studies Lynn Cohick said that this process of moving toward low-residency is a result of the changing reality of graduate education. “More options are available and more businesses are interested in these graduate degrees,” she said, explaining that people who want more training can get it without leaving their job.

These new types of programs were introduced much later at Wheaton compared to other universities. Seaman explained that “a lot of schools started [low-residency] back around 2000. Wheaton’s identity has been largely residential for the last 20 years or so, but we’re recognizing that … only certain kinds of people can leave home and go to grad school.”

However, according to Dean of the Graduate School and Intercultural Studies Professor Scott Moreau, “because [Wheaton is] so late, we can take advantage of the best practices and thinking that has come about. [For example], before I taught an online course, I took an online course on how to teach online courses.”

All the new programs still have some residential components because “Wheaton College is not certified to teach an all online program. A percentage of classes must have some sort of [face-to-face] contact,” Cohick said However, Wheaton has hired Director of Academic and Scholarly Technology Steven Park to continue developing online technology and training faculty in best practices.

New methods

Hybrid or modular courses are not just second-class replacements for residential classrooms — they can actually improve learning and provide valuable perspectives in the classroom.

According to Cohick, student learning can be higher in online courses for two reasons: “One, faculty need to be very intentional about the preparation beforehand for the class,” and two, “the students are invited to learn on their own. They have to take responsibility for their own learning … so they’ve found that [graduate] student retention can be higher.”

Seaman feels more connected to the world when teaching a modular course. “[There’re] students all over the world taking these classes and I’m interacting with them every week. They’re bringing their unique insights from the Muslim world or from China or from other places to the assignments … I love teaching [this way],” he said.

In addition, the Evangelism and Leadership department has changed the way they recruit students. Walker explained they have moved to a “cohort model” where students come in groups from the same source — such as a non-profit or mission organization — and go through the whole program together. For example, the organization “Every Nation” has sent students from nine countries to study together at Wheaton.

New technology

Seaman structures his courses through videos in five to seven minutes segments, which students download from Schoology weekly and watch according to their schedules. He also provides digital copies of hand-outs, reading assignments and powerpoints. After every lesson, students turn in written responses, for which he provides feedback. Students also do video presentations, often in mixed groups of residential and remote students, which they watch in class and comment on each other’s work online. He has Skype office hours available for remote students on Fridays.

Recently, Park developed new technology that provides a way of creating these online videos to look more like a weather report where the professor films themselves in front of the powerpoint screen, and can point at things as well as write directly on the screen as they talk. “I don’t particularly like just having somebody’s voice just talking over a powerpoint. This kind of thing is more visually interesting and really makes [students] feel like they’re getting the content from the professor,” Seaman said.

The introduction of these improved modular and hybrid structures has created both new opportunities for students and new challenges, as well as a new type of community at the graduate school.

New opportunities

Many students would not be able to study at Wheaton if they were not offered the flexibility that the modular and hybrid programs allow. James Apker, a TESOL and Intercultural Studies graduate student, said that the addition of the new programs at Wheaton allow him to get an M.A. while living and working in Turkey.

“The online courses are condensed and more fast-paced but offer the benefit of taking courses while still on the field. This allows for immediate application of what’s being learned and the ability to do field research that is relevant to the topic being studied. That, to me, more than makes up for what I miss by not being in a traditional classroom,” he said.

Apker admitted that the online community isn’t the same as a residential community. However, “when I return to take the summer classes … there is an immediate connection with those of us in the program who only see each other for perhaps 4 weeks out of the year. The stage of life I am in and the call which God has placed on my heart doesn’t require the community that might come with a traditional program,” he said.

New room for growth

Seaman explained that with the new programs have come structural challenges. For example, remote students have a hard time with registration, advising, or accessing resources like Student Health Services. “The college has to adjust,” he admitted.

Remote students may also feel overwhelmed by the courses without a physically present community to support them. “because these students are so busy, they don’t necessarily feel like they have the community to support them academically,” explained Assistant Professor of TESOL/Intercultural Studies Pam Barger.

Wheaton is still experiencing the “learning curve” of how to best support these students. “I would like to see low residential students be considered a part of the Wheaton community and not having them feel marginalized. I would like to see Wheaton being able to streamline resources for these students like they do for their undergraduate, residential students,” Barger said.

Wheaton also must learn how to support professors who agree to teach online as developing and teaching these courses is more demanding on faculty, according to Moreau, since they have to redesign every week of the course with an online approach in mind, as well as read more student work and provide constant feedback.

Even with these challenges, the graduate school still wants to continue to expand the programs and reach more students in more places.

Walker believes that “lots of different people from different perspectives within the evangelical world can come together here [at Wheaton] … As we get partners from different organizations, Wheaton benefits from that variety and the students benefit from that variety at Wheaton.”  These programs allow Wheaton to “expand that more globally,” Walker said, as more non-traditional courses are offered.