Dordt College News

Online M.A. brings with it diversity and creativity

June 23, 2014

Education Professor David Mulder is excited about the online format of Dordt’s master of education program. Of course, Mulder gets excited about many things. It’s what made him a good and well-loved middle school teacher.

He knows Dordt’s master’s program from both sides; he’s been both a student and a professor.

In the years since Mulder was a student, the program has moved from primarily a face-to-face classroom program to an almost entirely online distance education program.

“It’s actually a pretty similar program,” he says. “It’s the way we engage students that has shifted.”

Mulder speaks appreciatively of his graduate experience in the pre-online program. He describes the weeklong courses as an exhausting but enriching time on campus during the summer. The depth of understanding he gained and the bonds that developed between people who spent such an intensely focused week learning together affected him deeply.

He’s just as excited about today’s program. While each version has its strengths, the new format done well can better meet the needs of a diverse group of adult learners who are increasingly spread across the world, he feels. Last year, his class included students from Asia, Africa, and Central America; he had students who taught in Christian schools and teachers who taught in public schools.

“Online education changes the way you interact, but not necessarily in a bad way,” Mulder says. As a distance education instructor, he takes advantage of the benefits online education offers rather than relying on the strategies he might employ in his campus classroom. That means he consciously thinks not only about the interaction between students and instructor but also about the relationships that develop between student learners—because interaction doesn’t happen automatically when they’re not in the room together.

“Students learn more when they connect with one another. If there is no peer connection, it is simply a correspondence course, and then you do lose something,” he says.

Even though they aren’t sitting together in a room, Mulder’s students give presentations via video upload that all respond to. He doesn’t hold in-time interactive group sessions, although some professors do, because having students be able to do their work when it fits into their schedule allows students from places like Japan and Nigeria and Nicaragua to participate. It also allows both him and his students to respond more reflectively to ideas and presentations than they might in face to face sessions.

Mulder finds that having Christian students from varied cultural settings in the same class together enriches all of them. The varied experiences demonstrate that some issues and topics are common to all, and it provides opportunities to share fresh insights.

It also helps them more consciously wrestle with the implications of what it means to “teach Christianly,” Mulder says with a nod to his former Professor John Van Dyk.

“When we only talk among teachers who share similar teaching experiences and settings, it’s easy to rely on phrases and ways of saying things that we’re familiar with—and assume we all know what we mean,” he says. Having to think about what ideas mean in different settings, whether in a Christian school or a public school, a school in the United States or one in another country, presents exciting challenges and opportunities to ask together, “How do we do this based on our Christian perspective on life and learning?”

Christian students who have not grown up in or thought about teaching and learning from a Reformed perspective often find it gives them a fresh and authentic way to think about how to teach, says Mulder.

“If our program is to be effective, we need to keep wrestling with how our faith and worldview affects our teaching practices,” he says. “What does it mean to treat children as image bearers of God in contrast to talking about them as image bearers. How do we plan lessons that demonstrate our convictions in concrete ways?”

Teaching Christianly is not about God talk, he points out. It is the concrete result of asking questions like “How do we bend our will to God’s will in the way we grade papers and even arrange our classrooms for learning?”

The results may not always look completely different from other classrooms, but they are conscious attempts to put into practice what teachers believe about children and how they interact with God’s world.

As they engage with such ideas and more, Mulder’s students use and learn plenty of technology—something he believes is imperative for teachers today.

“We’re past the point where a teacher can say ‘I’m not good with computers,’” he says. Mulder teaches a course titled “Teaching and Learning with Technology” and his students learn how to think about the role of technology in teaching as they gain practical skills. They ask questions dealing with issues such as:

Mulder’s students learn how to create digital stories using graphics, video, and music. They practice using communication channels such as Twitter, blogs, and video chats. And, each week, Mulder shares a free, online “Tech Tool of the Week”—presentation tools, communication tools, content tools, and more.

He also uses technology to build in face-to-face contact, scheduling time to talk with his students via Skype or Google Hangouts. He sends each of them a short weekly video that gives an overview of the week and helps them get to know him. He also requires his students to work on some projects together, using the wide range of technology available today to do so.

“One of the things I love about online teaching is that no one can hide behind the person sitting in front of them, as they sometimes do in a classroom,” Mulder says. Because each person must respond, Mulder also engages with each of them in very specific and actionable ways.

It can take more time to respond thoughtfully and intentionally, but the results are almost always more beneficial for students and more rewarding for professors.

“Teaching is not for the faint of heart,” says Mulder, who describes himself as coming into the profession kicking and screaming. He’s never looked back, though, as he continues to thoughtfully model what he is teaching.

“If I say one thing and do another, the doing speaks more loudly.” Collaborative learning needs to be practiced, the scientific method needs to be demonstrated, cognitive learning needs to be modeled.

“It’s immensely fulfilling to have a hand in shaping the cognitive and heart development of students, to come alongside parents in fulfilling their baptismal vows,” he says. “I never take that lightly.”

Sally Jongsma

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