As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter every aspect of our world, it’s fair to wonder what the future of higher education will look like.
I talk with Dr. Gary Weier and Dr. Beverly Cormican about how Bob Jones University is adapting to the new reality that the novel coronavirus has presented and how BJU is preparing for the different future of education.
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“What is the Future of Education at BJU” podcast transcript
Burak: Welcome to Highest Potential with Steve Pettit, a podcast that explores how Bob Jones University empowers individuals to reach their highest potential for God’s glory.
Pettit: Well, we’d like to welcome you today to our podcast of Highest Potential. We’re trying to help people to reach their highest potential for God’s glory. Today we are honored to have Dr. Gary Weier with us, who is the provost and executive vice president of Bob Jones University, along with Dr. Beverly Cormican from her home in Atlanta, Georgia. She is vice provost for academic initiatives, and she is the dean of the School of Online Professional Education, which we fondly call SCOPE which is our online and nontraditional programs. So, welcome Gary, glad you’re here with us.
Weier: Well, thank you Dr. Pettit, it’s great to be here.
Pettit: And thank you, Beverly, for being with us today on the telephone line from Atlanta, Georgia.
Cormican: Thank you, I’m happy to be here with you and Gary this afternoon.
Pettit: Well, of course, we’re talking today about higher education, and that’s our business here at Bob Jones University and of course, this is on the minds of literally millions of people as we look forward to this fall and wondering what’s going to be happening, what is the impact of the coronavirus on our campuses and the mindsets of parents and students. So, let me begin with just a very general question and that is—how would you describe these times today for education. Gary?
Weier: Unprecedented. That’s a key word that comes to mind. I don’t think anybody could have anticipated the suddenness and the widespread effect this virus has had on higher education and of course, on all sectors of society. And odd is another word that comes to mind. It’s just weird to be here on campus in April, one of our busiest months of the year, and there are no students.
Pettit: Nobody’s here.
Weier: Faculty and staff. I mean, there are a few here for essential, but it’s very quiet. It’s surreal. I mean, that’s another word that we hear a lot of people using to describe their lives right now, and that’s the way it feels for us here at BJU right now.
Pettit: How about you, Beverly, down in Georgia?
Cormican: Well, I would agree with Gary. It is surreal, it is very weird, but from a different vantage point for our online programs, they just continue. That’s how they operate is online. But it’s different for a residential student and an online student. But it has definitely been weird.
Pettit: Well, it is definitely a new normal. I mean, it came very, very quickly; in some worlds, they would call it a “Black Swan.” So, it is definitely a different time. So, a question I want to ask as we begin to move forward here is, what has been the immediate impact on students at Bob Jones University following the coronavirus and the closing of the school?
Weier: I think what you just said, the suddenness of it all, how quickly it happened. It was sudden change for our students to hear in chapel when you announced it on March 12 that the next day, we would be suspending classes on the campus because of the virus. So, that brought sudden change to their lives. Many of them, the seniors particularly, began to realize that things they had been looking forward to in the remaining weeks just weren’t going to happen, and so it was sudden change and shock for them. I think that was a big part of it. Then of course, as weeks and days have gone by, I think another big effect on students and really all of us is that this has had personal effect on us. It’s affected our lives very personally. For example, me in my own situation, I had a close friend, a very, very close friend was diagnosed with the virus and actually was in the hospital for some time, for a few days, and thankfully, praise the Lord, is on the road to recovery. But I also have a son-in-law is a nurse and having somebody on the front lines in the health profession, it just affects you personally, and we know that we have—this is true of our students. They’ve had family members affected by this, maybe somebody in their family has been diagnosed with the virus, maybe a parent who’s lost a job or new financial pressures, or somebody in their home who is vulnerable to the disease, so they have to take all kinds of precautions, so it’s been very personal in its effects.
Pettit: How about you, Beverly?
Cormican: Same, very personal, and I think for our online traditional students, they were already balancing part-time or full-time work with their own education online, and then they have this additional responsibility, perhaps, managing their children now being at home, now being homeschoolers, or caring for family members and perhaps, working on the front lines fighting the coronavirus. So, those are some of the immediate things that come to my mind.
Pettit: Well, it’s definitely put everybody in difficult situations and stretched a lot of people. It’s going to affect a lot of people emotionally.
Weier: Right, especially going forward, and we’re seeing that even with our own students.
Pettit: So, as we look at this decision that had to be made, actually standing up in front of the student body one day telling them that all classes would end tomorrow, and that we would prepare for our own online presentation. How was Bob Jones University prepared to pivot to remote instruction. Gary?
Weier: Well, I don’t think that any college could say that they were fully prepared for something like that, but God has definitely shown Himself strong on our behalf and certainly, we’ve had things in place for a number of years to help us along these lines, so overall, I think the transition has gone pretty smoothly in terms of how prepared we were for it. I think one of the things that has helped us significantly through this, and we see this shine out, is the faculty and staff here and their commitment to the mission of BJU. I think that’s been a key way, because we have that longstanding commitment that our people have been prepared to help do this. And then I think the work that Beverly and her team have done in SCOPE, of which she’ll talk here in just a minute, has been a huge help for us. The fact that we had many classes online already, faculty with experience doing that, and even in our resident courses, the LMS (the Learning Management System) that we use, Canvas—our faculty have gotten accustomed to using that in their resident classes. So, that not only helped the faculty, but it helped the students because they were used to doing even resident work digitally in online. So, that was a big factor in our being prepared, but again I’d say, your leadership particularly in making the quick decision, getting the right mindset among our faculty and staff, those have been big ways that have helped to make this what we’re calling “pivot” for us.
Pettit: Well, I think we were able to make what seemed to be a pretty quick decision because we had so many things, so many foundational preparations going on before we even got to the decision that had to be made.
Weier: That’s right. We announced to the student body in chapel on Thursday, the 12th, which is at 11:00. I announced it to the faculty at 8:15 that morning, so they had like a two-and-a-half-hour head start on it. But again, by God’s grace, we were able to make the pivot.
Pettit: And Beverly, how do you see how BJU is prepared to pivot?
Cormican: Well, to echo some of Gary’s comments, we already had built several of our core courses. The residential core courses were already online and of course, already have several online graduate programs so the shift to remote was not as painful as it could have been. And we already had transitioned to a new LMS platform, or learning management system, a couple years ago, and we had already converted courses over to that platform. And then, as Gary was mentioning, we have a dedicated faculty and we also have a dedicated team of instructional designers who were able to come alongside faculty in our Center for Effective Teaching and Engaged Learning, our CETEL group, to support their pivot from face-to-face to remote learning. And also, many of our faculty, as Gary said, have already used the Canvas LMS and they’ve also taught online for us, so several of them already had that exposure, and I think that was a good jumpstart for us.
Weier: And if I could just add real quick as I think about some of the things that Beverly just mentioned, we’ve mentioned the work of CETEL, we’ve mentioned the work of SCOPE and the instructional designers and the faculty, but I think it is very, very important to emphasize that key thing that prepared us for this is the work of our staff. The IT department, all of their work; Student Life, the tremendous support the students received through Student Life discipling them, meeting their needs; just the support structure at BJU. Without that, I don’t know how we’d make a pivot like this, so that’s huge in all of this. And then of course, the focus that we have here, our foundation being the sufficiency of Scripture and pointing our students to that, the foundation that has been built and turning all of our hearts in that direction, you can’t make a change like we’ve had to make as quickly and as smoothly as it’s gone without God’s grace.
Pettit: That is so true. Just for those of you that may not know, our online offerings are found online at scope.bju.edu, or you could just type in “SCOPE” and “BJU” in Google and you’ll find it. Beverly, could you just real quickly tell us exactly what it is that we have online for those that are interested in either professional—these are adult learning or even other students that are interested in our online programs.
Cormican: Certainly. So, as I mentioned earlier, we do have most of our core courses online. That would be mostly 100- and 200-level courses. We’re always adding courses to that portfolio. In addition, we have several graduate programs online; several in education, several in biblical studies, biblical counseling. We also have a Master of Sport Administration, Coaching, and then our newest offerings are in degree completion programs. Those are targeted to students who have several credits of their undergraduate already completed but just never finished their degree. So, the two that we offer right now are the RN to BSN and then also degree completion in professional studies.
Pettit: Well, thank you Beverly. I think folks are interested in knowing exactly what we have, so with that in mind, what do you see as the future of higher education going forward? Or maybe I could say, how has the pandemic impacted higher education change going forward? How do we see that? And I’m going to start with you, with Beverly, with you on that.
Cormican: Sure. So, for Bob Jones University, we like to think about beyond the four-year degree. I think many times in our society we think about the four-year undergraduate degree, and we really are trying to think more in terms of a sixty-year curriculum. That’s kind of a new term in use in the higher ed landscape. Most of our recent graduates will hold what many estimate to be an average of 17 positions over their career. And the workplace is constantly changing, so to be competitive, continuous workforce development in the form of certificates, micro-credentials, stackable credentials, that will be the norm going forward. And speaking about micro-credentials, a lot of times people say what in the world is that? It’s really a fairly recent concept; it’s probably has had different terms over the years. But it’s really continuous education, a response to the skill set caused by the needs of technology. Essentially, micro-credentials are bite-sized chunks of education, whether delivered in online course, or bootcamp certificate format, or an apprenticeship, usually from a traditional university or specialty provider or some other kind of online learning platform. And we know from our data that we see in higher education that the shelf life of new technology skills typically is about three years but in core digital skills change even faster. But the in-demand skills that are nontechnical are the skills that will always be important. Those are skills that are uniquely human. Skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, negotiation are a few of those skills. Those skills coupled with key communication skills such as oral communication and the ability to relate to others, listed regularly—those skills show up on employer lists of what they are seeking when hiring new employees. I think that’s where our teachers will be, helping students gain those particular skills.
Pettit: I definitely would say that that is a major emphasis of our education here, especially in the area of character development, soft skills and communication skills. Dr. Weier?
Weier: Yeah, I would primarily echo what Beverly just said. I think more and more, people are looking for a relevant education. That was in play before the pandemic; it’s even more in play now, and thankfully what is relevant are the kind of soft skills, or people skills, that Beverly was just alluding to. So, as she said, micro-credentials are going to be big going forward, and it’s not just for the post-traditional student. It’s for the traditional college student. They might be doing a degree in business or a degree in ministry or in some other area, and they want to embed some sort of skill set or some form of certification within that. I think we’re going to continue to see that increase. I think we’re going to see an increase in experiential learning where students want to apply immediately what they’re learning in the class through projects. I even think of what happened earlier this semester during Bible Conference and our student body and how they rallied together in all kinds of creative ways to raise money, to raise over $180,000 to purchase the Stork bus for Save the Storks. That was, in some measure at least, applying what they were learning through their education here. So, that kind of experiential learning is going to be really important going forward. And then I think there is going to be recognition that more and more students are going to be working while they’re in college. They’re going to need to do that. So, that’s going to be a big change on colleges like BJU in terms of how do we support students who need to be working while they’re in college.
Pettit: So, how is Bob Jones right now adapting to these changes?
Weier: Well, under your leadership, we’ve got the pedal to the metal already, so we appreciate that. As I think about BJU and our adaptation to these changes, it’s not really changing us, of course, off of our mission at all. It’s not even changing the direction that we’re headed in strategically. It’s simply emphasizing it and accelerating it. So, for example, some of the things that Beverly just talked about in terms of in making sure that those key competencies — they’re actually from a lot of research from an entity called The National Association of Colleges and Employers — key skills that students really want. We’ve been working very aggressively to make sure that students recognize we actually do have those in our curriculum — ways to learn problem solving, critical thinking, ways to learn to communicate better. Global dexterity is another big thing that we emphasize, so these kinds of things we were already embedding within our curriculum; we’re just working to accelerate that even more. I think we’re looking to leverage the skills and strengths of our faculty and staff even more. They have all kinds of creative ideas — new micro-credentials that can be offered. I think that coming out of this, obviously, there’s going to be a focus on the health care industry, so we have a growing School of Health Professions. We have a new facility, Lord willing, that will open up in the first floor of our library in the fall, but there’s opportunity to add to what we already have in place with key kinds of micro-credentials. For example, one thing that comes to my mind is that a lot of health care workers are gonna be exhausted and at a place of burnout after this. How can we minister to them? How can we provide, maybe even partnering between the Seminary and the School of Health Professions to create some micro-credentials, some training, some help that reaches out to those in the health care industry? So, there are a lot of opportunities that we specifically can focus on through our mission as a result of all this.
Cormican: Well, to further what Dr. Weier mentioned, through SCOPE we offer several fully online grad programs already and a couple certificates, but we’re also looking forward to building certificate programs that respond to other workforce development needs, and I’ll give you two examples. One such certificate is focused on in-demand soft skills with a leadership development program, and that program is a very practical, behavior-based program targeted to individual contributors, supervisors, mid-level managers. The certificate will also have an option for the health care and the manufacturing environment, both of which are high-demand industries in Greenville and the Upstate. And that’s really where we’re trying to win, is to have programs that meet the demands of our local area in our region here. Another in-demand program we are looking to launch in the fall is a degree-completion program in business with a focus on accounting and finance. Again, that’s another high-demand area in Greenville in the Upstate; we’ve been hearing that for at least two or three years now, and we are going to respond with a program that we hope will launch this fall. Also, we’ve been focused on our infrastructure to support our students. Our services team has been redefining its processes to be more responsive to students. We know from practice and from the landscape that our students appreciate when someone helps them navigate the inquiry to advising to enrollment cycle. So, our desire to provide our students a one-stop shop experience for those particular areas when they are initially inquiring to applying to admission to advising and then finally enroll into their courses. So that something we are actively working on right now to streamline that process.
Another key focus is our faculty development. We have great faculty, and we have revamped our faculty training program for course development and course facilitation to equip them to succeed in teaching an online course and providing our students a great engaged learning experience.
Pettit: Well, thank you so much. This always is encouraging and gives us a lot of hope. So, I’d like to ask one final question and that is, in the midst of so much change, what is it that will remain constant in higher education?
Weier: I think that that is a very important question because our focus is on change and being adaptable and that’s very important, but as believers, particularly, we also need to have those key anchor points and think about what should remain the same and what should not change, and obviously, as we talked about before, our commitment to Scripture, our foundation on Scripture as a Christian liberal arts college should not change at all. And one specific thing I’ve been thinking about, not just BJU but all these other colleges, it’s been interesting during the midst of all this change, is what they have sought to preserve through all of this. And one of the things that’s stood out to me is the relationship that students have with their professors or with their faculty members. That seems to be a key thing in terms of delivering the value that we want to deliver, that relationship with that faculty member, between the faculty member and the student is so important. Whether it’s online or in person, that becomes critical. And I think about our faculty here at BJU. If you were to ask them what they teach, I think you’ll probably get two answers. You might get first of all the answer, “Well, I teach history” or “I teach business” or “I teach theology” or “I teach nursing,” but very quickly or maybe even before that, you’ll hear the faculty member say that “I teach students.” That just emphasizes the importance, the primacy of that relationship that we really recognize that we are teaching other people. We’re teaching fellow believers in this context and that relationship is so important. And then just carrying out that mission — think of the name of this podcast, that “highest potential.” We exist to create more opportunities, greater opportunities, give our students better pathways for opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And in the secular world that’s often viewed financially, in terms of allowing students to progress from middle-class to upper-middle-class, but for us, it’s about greater opportunities to serve other people. And I think about that, and that’s one of the key things that needs to remain constant through all this change.
Cormican: Well, I’m going to piggyback that with a little different slant. In the midst of change, I think our ability to be nimble and to be ready to change will be constant because I think our world is always changing, and we have to be ready and we have to be equipped. I think that requires us to adjust our pedagogy and business practices to meet learning objectives and expectations of the students to prepare them to succeed in life in what their mission that they have, call from God and what God has for them in their life’s mission and to respond to the ever-changing workforce demands from employers who hire our graduates. I think we always need to be prepared to change.
Pettit: Well, I think both of those answers are really powerful truths, and the most important thing is that in the midst of these changing times, we have an unchanging God that we can look to and trust in and lead and guide us. And we are confident in Him and we’re confident in His truths, and we’re thankful for the good things God is doing at Bob Jones University. So, Gary and Beverly, thank you both for taking the time today to meet with us here on Highest Potential, and I hope that you’ll continue to follow us week after week as we try to address the issues and the relationships of the day that God’s people find that are important, the things that they are interested in. So, thank you so much, and we’ll look forward to meeting with you here again on Highest Potential.
Burak: Thanks for listening to this episode of Highest Potential with Steve Pettit. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a positive review on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Please don’t forget to follow BJU on social media at @bju.edu and Dr. Steve Pettit at @bju.edu/president.