Mary Quinn, Laura Foote, and Michele Williams argue that the growth in online learning and in the number of adult students provides opportunities for Christian colleges and universities to reach a larger segment of this population. The authors note that with this opportunity, care must be taken to keep the integration of faith and learning in the forefront of course development. They offer suggestions and practical examples of the integration of faith and learning using an adult learning theory model for course development. Ms. Quinn is an Associate Professor in the School of Business and Leadership, Ms. Foote is an Instructor in the School of Business and Leadership, and Ms. Williams is an Assistant Professor in the College of Theology, Arts, and Sciences at Malone University.
The advent and popularity of online learning and the increase of older, adult learners going back to school have changed the landscape of postsecondary education. In fall 2008, over 4.6 million students took at least one online course, an increase of 17% from fall 2007.1 In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education forecasted a 25% increase in enrollment for students between the ages of 25 and 34 and a 12% increase in enrollment for students who are 35 years old and over by 2018.2 Many institutions have recognized these trends and are focusing on developing and delivering programs for adults and online learners. Online programs have been shown to be profitable and have served to keep many institutions financially solvent during lean economic times: a survey of ninety-six institutions found that nearly all of their online programs were either profitable or broke even. Of the non-profit universities surveyed, 62% reported that their online programs were profitable in the sense that their revenues exceeded their expenses.3 Although profitability is a positive outcome of online programs, as Christian educators, interest in such programs should include a focus on a deeper appreciation and understanding of how Christian online education can be used to carry out the faith-based mission of the Christian university. This faith-based, mission-centered approach requires Christian educators to develop courses that not only meet the educational needs of the student population, but also reflect a biblical worldview and integrate faith and learning. This essay addresses the development of online courses for adult learners using the Four-Lens Model, developed by Richard Kiely, Lorilee Sandman, and Janet Truluck within the context of a biblical worldview.4
The Importance of Faith Integration and a Biblical Worldview to the Christian Academy
Although one could assume the integration of faith and a biblical worldview at a Christian college, the ways and means of providing such are often ambiguous to students and teachers alike. Students often come to the academy immersed in an individualistic worldview that celebrates self-centeredness and ignores larger questions of meaning. These ideas are not only unbiblical, but also counterproductive to a Christian academic ethos. This idea of faith integration and worldview formation within the Christian academy is important to the discussion of course development, as course design determines the kinds of ideas students will engage, influences the kinds of learning experiences students will have, and affects the kinds of epistemological underpinnings students will carry with them once they leave the academy.
The Christian instructor’s first responsibility when developing courses is to create a clear curricula that reflects a biblical worldview and answers questions of meaning, significance, purpose, and reality from a biblical standpoint. Stephen and Jane Beers offer some clear insight when they explain that faith-learning integration involves more than
merely encouraging personal relationships between educator and student … interspersing spiritual disciplines within a chosen method of teaching … sufficiently satisfied at the curricular level … the addition of biblical precepts, and/or … [Christian] programs and activities.5
More importantly, they argue that faith integration must undergird pedagogical practices with a thorough understanding of a biblical worldview. Therefore, educators designing and developing curriculum for online adult students need to integrate faith in a way that reveals their own thorough understanding of the Christian worldview: they must embrace the task of identifying the faith assumptions of their own disciplines, so they can then challenge their students to do likewise.
Four-Lens Model Considerations for Developing Online Courses
The convergence of the growth in online learning and adult learning pro-vides an opportunity for online course developers to reflect on current effective course development practices and to rethink course development in the emerging environment. Using the Four-Lens Model as a basis for development enables the developer “to construct a broader, more holistic vision of learning in adulthood.”6 The Four-Lens Model is comprised of The Learner Lens, The Process Lens, The Educator Lens, and The Context Lens. In this section, each of the lenses is examined, and general concepts of course development are identified.
The Learner Lens
The Learner Lens focuses on the individual adult learner. Considerations under the Learner Lens include participation and motivation patterns, characteristics of adult learners, learning styles, role of experience, mind-body connections, andragogy, self-direction, and rich learning environments.7
Research in adult learning theory has identified key aspects of the adult learner that coincide with Kiely, Sandman, and Truluck’s Learner Lens. For example, in regard to the characteristics of adult learners, research has identified several attributes such as “a desire to participate as much as possible in the content, delivery, and evaluation of curricula within a climate of mutual respect” and the need for autonomy and self-direction.8 Online learning, by its very nature, satisfies these attributes. Students can access courses at their convenience. Self-direction is required to be successful since face-to-face contact with an instructor is often limited or non-existent. Richard Berenson, Gary Boyles, and Ann Weaver’s research determined that generally there is higher motivation for older students when compared to younger students, and this enables older students to perform better in an online environment than younger students.9 Sarah Ransdell found that chronological age and a critical thinking disposition are two strong predictive variables of successful online students.10
When developing courses with the Learner Lens in mind, the course developer might consider the following suggestions. First, the course developer should allow adult learners to participate as much as possible in the content, delivery, and evaluation of curricula. Second, the course developer should design curricula that provide the adult learner with greater autonomy and self-direction. Third, the course developer should plan on incorporating opportunities for students to share their vast and unique experiences. Fourth, the course developer should sequence the curricula in accordance with the developing knowledge and experience of the adult learner. Fifth, the course developer should include opportunities that take into consideration real-world situations.
From a biblical perspective, one understands that students are “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the image of their Creator.11 Thus, they have unique abilities and creative propensities that shape who they are and what they desire. Moreover, those propensities and desires to use their unique abilities in significant ways often drive participation and motivation. Consequently, when adult students can demonstrate those attributes and have some autonomy over “content, delivery, and evaluation of curricula within a climate of mutual respect,” participation and motivation are enhanced.12
Adult learning theory informs the developer that students not only desire self-direction, but learners are resources as well.13 In other words, students enjoy sharing their unique knowledge and experiences with their classmates, enabling them to express their God-given abilities and creativity even further. Therefore, when developing courses for adult online learners, developers can offer opportunities for students to become resources for fellow classmates through expressing their experiences, their uniqueness, and their creativity within the context of content, delivery, and evaluation.
For example, adult students in an online liberal arts course could be given an opportunity to choose from several genres (art, literature, and music) and asked to develop a presentation outlining information about the history, purpose, meaning, and worldview (comparing and contrasting to a biblical worldview) of the piece and their responses to it. Students could choose among mediums (written, audio, video, drama, art, or multimedia) and delivery methods (via webcam, on site, video, or YouTube). Likewise, the students would give feedback and evaluate each other as part of the grading process. The assignment is rooted in an understanding and evaluation of worldview and demonstrates an understanding of mutual respect for students by allowing them autonomy and motivating them to use their unique and creative God-given abilities.
Another way to allow adult learners to participate as much as possible in the content, delivery, and evaluation of curricula can be done by providing assignments in which the students can choose from a variety of options. The choices might include a variety of assignment options: conducting a content analysis of textbooks related to the topic, writing a major paper on a theory related to the topic, conducting a web-based analysis of the topic, designing a training module on the topic for a particular audience, or completing a special project of student interest related to the topic.
The incorporation of worldview considerations and faith integration can be applied by asking students to consider and identify worldview issues through identifying questions of meaning, significance, purpose, and reality implicit and or explicit within text material, theories, or topics of interest. For example, students might analyze the common business theory of management, Douglas McGregor’s Theory X/Theory Y, from a biblical worldview by identifying the assumptions made in each theory about the nature of workers, the nature of management, and the assumptions about human nature.14 Then students can compare how these assumptions align with a biblical perspective of human nature and propose an alternate management theory. Additionally, a student might evaluate the ethical considerations of a case study from a biblical and secular worldview and then draw conclusions about how each worldview would affect one’s perspective on attitudes, actions, and implications. Another option is for a student to design a training program for a particular audience on a special topic of interest founded on a clear and evident biblical worldview that asks audience members to consider questions of faith as part of the training module. These types of exercises also can take into consideration real-world situations (such as case studies, world events, political issues) from a biblical worldview that move the students from the theoretical understanding of material to practical, real-life application.
Allowing adult learners to participate as much as possible in the content, delivery, and evaluation lends itself well to designing curricula that provides adult learners with greater autonomy and self-direction. An advantage to providing the students with options is they can work independently on their own projects. Additionally, assigning project and assignment guidelines and dates at the beginning of the course allows adult learners the self-direction they desire. The concepts of self-direction and independence reinforce the biblical principles of self-control, self-discipline, and personal responsibility. The instructor should make this explicit in the assignment rationale to reinforce these principles for the learner.
Opportunities should be provided for students to share their vast and unique experiences. Practically, this can be accomplished by asking students at the onset of the course to share some information with the rest of the class about their lives and work experiences. This provides an opportunity for the classmates to get to know one another and allows adult learners to share their backgrounds and experiences – indicative of acquired expertise and knowledge from which others can draw. Not only do students have different life experiences and knowledge bases, but they have different faith experiences as well. Developers can create ways for students to share faith experiences by asking students to reflect upon the importance of faith, or the lack thereof, in life decisions. This can be done practically through threaded discussions and journal assignments.
The curricula can be sequenced in accordance with the developing knowledge and experience of the adult learner. Typically, it has been a number of years since adult learners were in the classroom, and they enter their courses with varying degrees of knowledge and experience. Therefore, the course developer must recognize this and implement assignments that allow adult learners to begin at basic knowledge levels if necessary and progress forward. For example, lectures in an online course may include some simpler, basic material that some students may already know. The students who know that material have the option of skipping over those lectures. Assignments should not be given covering basic material that can be construed as busy work for the more advanced students but should be available for students who need to bolster their knowledge base. Additionally, instructors can offer resources and information that students who are in need can access. For example, challenged writers can receive help from a writing tutor. By recognizing the differences among students, instructors acknowledge and reinforce the biblical perspective that each person is important and valuable and that achievement is not as important as growth.
The Process Lens
The Process Lens focuses on the ways that adults learn, or how adults take an input, transform it, and produce an output. This lens is based on Jack Mezirow’s research on transformational learning.15Transformational learning involves “critical reflection on assumptions, discourse to validate the critically reflective insight, and action.”16 Considerations under the Process Lens include learning processes, interaction, reflection, dialogue, transformational learning, and experiential learning.
With regard to the Process Lens, the first conceptual suggestion when developing online courses for adult learners is to incorporate opportunities for reflection in the coursework. Mezirow argues that one’s culture shapes one’s worldview.17 Thus, the developer and the instructor’s role is to encourage transformational learning that encourages students to reflect critically upon their culture, their own worldviews, and the worldviews they encounter through their course work and in their fields of study as “learning never operates without faith assumptions.”18 Students need to understand that their faith assumptions directly relate to their worldviews. Thus, the discussion of ideologies and worldviews leads to questions about meaning, purpose, value, and truth. This likewise facilitates faith integration from a worldview perspective.
Additionally, to facilitate this type of learning, the course developer can incorporate journal entry questions that ask the students to reflect not only on their own personal strengths and weaknesses related to the topic, but also evaluate competing worldviews and consider how the Christian worldview offers something different. In other words, this practice of examining ideological underpinnings provides educators and students alike an opportunity to contend for “Truth” and a Christian worldview. Likewise, ethical dilemma questions can be utilized as a means of reflection. Discussing ethical dilemma questions together via an online threaded discussion provides an opportunity for adult learners’ cultures, worldviews, beliefs, and values to be challenged by others, prompting further reflection on the part of the students to identify why they believe what they do.
Educators can and should assist adult learners in reflecting critically on the validity of their assumptions and beliefs. Furthermore, students may need assistance in identifying the underlying assumptions, values, and beliefs of the materials they study and help reflecting deeply on the “visibility of integration”19 within their academic disciplines. Students can and should work to integrate faith, and Christian instructors must model how to do it. This will look different depending on the academic disciplines, and students will need some guidance and coaching through the process. The critical thinking required will enhance their educational experiences, make them more aware of the necessity to think critically, and deepen their understanding of the importance of worldview issues.
The use of discussions and ethical dilemma questions lends itself well to the Process Lens as the incorporation of discussions or group activities that require students to reach consensus facilitates transformational learning. Other group activities, such as team-building exercises, can also be used to foster group decision-making skills. From a worldview perspective, students can further reflect on the nature of making group decisions and reaching consensus from the standpoint of what the Bible shows us about these processes.
When developing faith-based online courses, it is important to understand the process of the integration of faith as it relates to student’s views. Terry Lawrence, Larry Burton, and Constance Nwosu address this idea:
The drive to reclaim godly truth in subjects we teach has been encouraging, and there is much information to help clarify what teachers and institutions can do. But the ultimate consideration is whether or not students are learning to integrate their learning with their faith – to think Christianly and to develop a Christian worldview that will sustain them beyond their college years and through the rest of the life journey.20
Lawrence, Burton, and Nwosu found that most students viewed integration of faith and learning as something the instructor did rather than something they did. The study explains that most of the literature dealing with integration focuses on references to teaching praxis and related philosophies. Although mostly commenting on the focus of integration as being teacher centered, Lawrence, Burton, and Nwosu suggest that developers must give attention to the learning process so that they are intentional about getting students to “understand and develop ability to integrate their faith in whatever topic they are learning.”21 Developers must implement intentional pedagogical practices that cause the student to connect with the importance of integration from the student’s perspective rather than the instructor’s perspective.
The Educator Lens
The Educator Lens focuses on the instructor’s teaching philosophy and role. Considerations under the Educator Lens include teachers’ beliefs and assumptions; philosophical orientations; teaching styles; and behavioral, liberal, progressive, humanistic, and radical approaches to adult learning.22
Although distance education has been in existence for many years, some institutions are still in the beginning stages of this form of educational delivery. Such institutions are seeking instructors who can successfully transition from the traditional classroom to the online environment. The online environment requires different skills. The traditional role of the educator changes in the online environment. The online instructor is no longer the primary source of information. The instructor becomes a facilitator: someone on the sideline removing obstacles to learning rather than the subject matter expert. This type of praxis is perfectly suited not only to the online environment, but also for the adult learner who views the instructor more as a facilitator, resource, and peer.23 Faculty will need support from the institution to navigate this transition. Support must be extended beyond technological support.
Two aspects are important here: technological support and faculty development programs. Practically speaking, many institutions that offer online courses provide training workshops to acquaint the instructor with the online program hardware and software. Technological training should be ongoing, periodically offering training on various aspects of the software and new advancements in technology that should be incorporated into the course. In addition to technological support, faculty development opportunities should be frequent and ongoing as well.
Since the Educator Lens focuses on the teaching philosophy of instructors and the instructors’ role, it follows that Christian educators have the responsibility of examining their teaching philosophies, roles, and practices in light of a biblical worldview. Clearly, the biblical precedent of a harsher judgment for those who teach should provoke developers, instructors, and the academic institutions that support them to seek ways continually to improve and show the excellence associated with God and His kingdom. This can be facilitated through establishing communities of practice and mutual support.
Pamela Scherer, Timothy Shea, and Eric Kristensen discuss communities of practice as an effective way to provide faculty development.24 Communities of practice are informal groups that face similar problems and seek solutions to these problems. Etienne Wenger defines a community of practice as having three characteristics: the domain or knowledge and competence in the focus area, the community or members that interact together, and the practice or the sharing of resources.25 Scherer, Shea, and Kristensen state that because of
current technological options, faculty developers can enhance the opportunity for the entire faculty to learn through the use of online communities. Designing a faculty development portal using community of practice concepts can be an effective means to jump-start, facilitate, develop, and sustain faculty involvement in academic communities.26
This portal can be used to encourage faculty development programs that focus on best practices for online adult learning instructors with regard to course development, delivery, evaluation, participation, facilitation of courses founded upon a biblical worldview, and faith integration. Faculty portals should enable online instructors to share ideas, evaluation rubrics, class activity ideas, and group discussion exercises in a community atmosphere of mutual support and Christian encouragement and fellowship.
The Context Lens
The Context Lens focuses on the concept that learning is not an isolated process. It is based on situated cognition, or as Rosemary Caffarella and Sharon Merriam state, “the interactive dimension of context shapes learning in adult-hood.”27 Some of the considerations under the Context Lens include learning communities, interactive and structural dimensions, situated cognition, critical pedagogy, and multiculturalism.28
The benefits of the formation of learning communities have been documented. The benefits include an increase in extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, an increase in persistence, and a positive impact on student learning.29 The two most significant variables in fostering a learning community online with adult students are interaction with the instructor and interaction between the students.30 Online course developers should provide ways for the instructor, as facilitator, to be actively involved in the course and ways for students to interact with each other. This creates a positive and effective context for adult learning and the facilitation of the biblical context of fellowship and community as well.
The Context Lens focuses on the fact that learning is not an isolated process. Therefore, an online learning community must be fostered so there is interaction between the instructor and students as well as between the students. The idea of community is especially important from a biblical context, as it is clear that God created humans with the need for social interaction and social support. A community of faith can offer support and encouragement not found in other contexts. Thus, interaction that demonstrates the fruit of the spirit and follows biblical guidelines of interest, caring, respect, and dignity are particularly important to the online community within the Christian academy.
Practically speaking, interaction between the instructor and the students can occur in various ways. First, providing online students with quality feedback on assignments is crucial to their learning, demonstrating diligence and respect. Second, online instructors can “touch base” with online students with a phone call shortly after the course has begun to ascertain whether or not they have any questions or concerns, demonstrating care. Third, online instructors can participate in online threaded discussions along with the students, demonstrating interest. Interaction between students can also occur through these online discussion questions. It is also important to provide avenues through which students can interact with other students informally, such as online “coffee houses” where students can informally and freely chat with one another. Reinforcing the guidelines for civil and thoughtful discussion indicative of Christian character is necessary. Additionally, the course developer can provide opportunities for the online class to meet in person. For example, if delivering a presentation is one of the course assignments, students can come to campus and deliver them live in front of their classmates and instructor. For the online learner, meeting and interacting with their classmates and instructor in person a few times throughout the course can enrich their education.
When discussing the context of learning, educators understand that learning always takes place within communities and culture. Ultimately, faith and learning cannot be separated. All learning takes place on the foundation of one’s worldview. Worldview not only informs learning, but also it guides all learning as well. Instructors and course developers can help students embrace the reality that Truth is never threatened by learning; rather, it should be revealed. The goal of a Christian pedagogy ought to be to produce students who articulate and live out their Christian values in a faith community and who can understand that “their service throughout society will be refracted through a Christian worldview that informs their understanding and practice in business, education, science, art, and other vocations.”31
The increase in the number of adult students and the popularity of online learning provides institutions with opportunities to increase enrollment and increase or maintain financial solvency. While these are positive benefits for Christian institutions, care must be taken not to lose sight of the faith-based mission of the Christian institution. Christian educators are not only required to meet the educational needs of the students in the growing population areas, but are also challenged to reflect a biblical worldview and integrate faith and learning in their curricula. Deliberate attention must be focused on this responsibility in order to lead students to a thorough understanding of biblical worldview in their fields of study and the integration of faith in their courses. This requires Christian instructors to reflect deeply on their own faith assumptions and how those faith assumptions influence their instruction and development of courses. Instructors must also facilitate and model the kind of reflection necessary for a fully integrated transformational learning experience that merges biblical faith assumptions with academic rigor and curriculum formation and delivery.
This rise in online enrollment and the popularity of online programs calls for the recruitment and retention of faculty who can design and develop courses that meet the needs of the online audience. In particular, the need to develop courses for adult learners in an online environment is a necessity for many academic institutions, and the need to develop these courses from a biblical worldview is particularly important to the Christian university. One deliberate means of meeting this challenge is to develop online courses using Kiely, Sandman, and Truluck’s Four-Lens Model. The model enables educators to view curricula through four lenses, each lens focusing on a different perspective of adult learning: learner, process, educator, and context. Additionally, the authors propose that this model makes it easy to facilitate the development through a biblical worldview as well. This multi-faceted, integrated approach provides a holistic methodology to course development that encourages a fully integrated Christian educational praxis.
Cite this article
- Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, “Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009,” Babson Survey Research Group, 2010, http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/pdf/learningondemand.pdf.
- U.S. Department of Education, “Projections of Education Statistics to 2018,” http://nces.ed.gov/programs/projections/projections2018/sec2c.asp (accessed October 21, 2010).
- Benchmarking Online Operations: Snapshots of an Emerging Industry,” http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/online-programs-profits-are-there-technological-innovation-is-not/8517 (accessed October 21, 2010).
- Richard Kiely, Lorilee R. Sandman, and Janet Truluck, “Adult Learning and the Pursuit of Adult Degrees,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 103 (2004): 17-30.
- Stephen Beers and Jane Beers, The Soul of a Christian University: A Field Guide for Educators (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008), 9, 53-55.
- Kiely, Sandman, and Truluck, 19.
- Cf. Malcolm Knowles, Elwood F. Holton III, Richard E. Swanson, 1998 as cited in Kiely et al., 19.
- Richard Berenson, Gary Boyles, and Ann Weaver, “Emotional Intelligence as a Predictor for Success in Online Learning,” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 9 (2008): 1-18.
- Sarah Ransdell, ”Online Activity, Motivation, and Reasoning among Adult Learners,” Computers in Human Behavior 26 (2010): 70-73.
- Psalm 139.
- Kiely, Sandman, and Truluck, 21.
- Margaret A. Thompson and Michael Dies, “Andragogy For Adult Learners In Higher Education,” Proceedings of the Academy of Accounting and Financial Studies 9 (2004): 107-112.
- Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960).
- As cited in Kiely, Sandman, and Truluck, 22.
- Ibid., 23.
- Mark Cosgrove, Foundations of Christian Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2006), 47.
- Beers and Beers, 60.
- Terry A. Lawrence, Larry D. Burton, and Constance C. Nwosu, “Refocusing on the Learning in ‘Integration of Faith and Learning,’” Journal of Research on Christian Education 14 (2005): 17-51.
- Ibid., 47.
- Kiely, Sandman, and Truluck, 27.
- Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood S. Holton III, and Richard A. Swanson, The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, Sixth Edition (Burlington, MA: Elsevier), 76-105.
- P. D. Scherer, T. P. Shea, E. Kristensen, “Online Communities of Practice: A Catalyst for Faculty Development,” Innovative Higher Education 27.3 (2003): 183-194.
- Etienne Wenger, Supporting Communities of Practice: A Survey of Community-Oriented Tech-nologies (version 1.3), http://www.ewenger.com/tech/index.htm (accessed April 25, 2010).
- Scherer, Shea, & Kristensen, 183.
- Rosemary Caffarella and Sharon Merriam, as cited in Kiely, Sandman, and Truluck, 24.
- Kiely, Sandman, and Truluck, 25.
- Alexander P. Rovai, “Sense of Community, Perceived Cognitive Learning, and Persistence in Asynchronous Learning Networks,” Internet and Higher Education 5 (2002):319-332; C. R. Stefanou and J. D. Salisbury-Glennon, “Developing Motivation and Cognitive Learning Strategies through an Undergraduate Learning Community,” Learning Environments Research 5 (2002): 77-97; A. Astin, What Matters In College? Four Critical Years Revisited (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997).
- Mary Quinn, Animating Distance Learning: The Development of an Online Learning Community, paper presented at the 28th Annual Adult Higher Education Alliance (AHEA) Conference (Mobile, AL, 2008).
- Vincent Bacote, “Abraham Kuyper’s Rhetorical Public Theology with Implications for Faith and Learning,” Christian Scholar’s Review 37 (2008): 424.