“I’m starting to see [the non-traditional students and traditional students], they’ve been blended together in a significant way through this whole pandemic and I don’t know if they will be teased apart in the same way that they were before.”
As the Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships and Digital Learning for Evangel University, Mark Fabian has had a front-row seat to the gradual then all-at-once transition to digital learning. In this conversation with Dr. Rob Reynolds, Mark talks about how Evangel University was able to focus on their students because of the work they started 10 years ago. They also discuss how the changes of the past nine months will continue to affect education long after the virus has run its course.
Education Futures Podcast: Mark Fabian and innovation in higher education
Hey everybody. Thanks for joining us again for another podcast. Today, I’m really happy to be talking to Mark Fabian who’s the Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships and Digital Learning at Evangel University, Missouri. And welcome Mark. Glad to have you onboard today.
Thank you so much, Rob. Glad to be here.
Now, Mark, why don’t you give people an idea because you know and I do too, as higher ed keeps evolving our titles and responsibilities, keep growing and changing. And this thing of digital learning is just getting traction and really growing at most universities. So what is the executive director of strategic partnerships and digital learning encompass for you?
My position actually started off with just the digital learning piece and I’ve recently added the strategic partnerships. It is an interesting thing as you start to look at the landscape of higher education, almost every school has some analogy, something analogous to digital learning office. It may be a center for teaching and learning.
Sometimes it is actually labeled as an online education or an educational technology, but the focus there is on using educational technology usually, when both contexts either online programs or blended learning on campus, just the effective use of that to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of education that takes place. So there’s a whole body of best practices that have grown up around that. And again, there are different labels for what those offices are and what those roles are.
But as you go from university to university, you see that the job description is basically the same. It’s focused on the pedagogical side, the use of educational technology. So it’s not just the technology side, but it’s actually the implementation of that technology. How would it’s to affect student learning and student learning outcomes and to provide flexibility, to develop online programs, all the innovative things that broaden the net, so to speak, in terms of what’s available to students.
And the partnership side again, as you look at the landscape of particularly private Christian higher education, most admins are wearing multiple hats. That’s just the reality. We’ve got our hands in a little bit of everything and some of that just comes back to personal capacity, passion. We follow our strengths and allow people to run with their area of strengths.
I love working with our partners and because of our online programs are really the main product that our partners are interested. So these are organizations or churches, they’re Christian schools, as we’re working with those partners, they are primarily interested in our online programs and that kind of stuff, the non-traditional if you will, graduate programs and so forth. And so there was just a natural bleed over into that area anyways. And I had a real passion for working in that area. So that’s how we’ve combined it here.
It gives me the opportunity to be involved with those innovative relationships that are launching new programs, or they’re giving students practical experience working with different organizations or it’s allowing people just to pursue professional development while they’re still embedded with their organization.
Now that makes a lot of sense, Mark. So with regard to COVID, I know like every university Evangel certainly had to put together its own strategies for that. So how has that impacted, particularly the digital learning side of your work?
It was all hands on deck. I am really thankful for the team that we have here and the investments that the university has made over the last several years. My role was solidified back in 2019. And I’m sorry, 2016 is when we solidified the role of the digital learning office when that was officially launched. Since then, we’ve added an instructional designer and a digital learning support specialist to the team. We’ve made investments in some great technology.
We’ve been using Canvas as our learning management system since 2014. We have a number of other integrated tools that give us a read on student learning analytics. These allow for communication and tracking of students and the combination of investments really when it came to the pandemic and what we quickly realized my team was at the front end of sounding the alarm and getting some resources in the hands of our academic leaders.
And that ended up being really fortuitous for us being able to be on the front end of that and have people think through it before it was forced upon them. But when it came to the decision to move everything remotely, again, I was just kind of like my experience here in online education for the last 10 years, the investments that we’ve made, the team that we built, I was able to stand in front of our faculty and say with confidence, “We can do this, we can move forward and we can teach out the rest of the semester. We can do it with excellence.” So we really emphasized caring for our students.
We wanted to make sure that they were able to continue their learning, that they had ample communication, that they, again, was all hands on deck, it wasn’t just the course side of it, but it was the care side of it. We had teams from our advancement office, for instance, made phone calls to students and their families not to ask them for money, but just to check in on them and now, what do you need? What are you facing? How can we pray for you?
And things like just as a demonstration of our commitment to community and caring for our students for us, we extended our spring break for a week and then our team collaborated with a team from our information technology help desk. And we put together a whole slate of trainings on how to use Zoom, how to set up assignments, how to do online tests. We were able to do some training with our center for… We have a center for student success and a testing center and an academic support that’s done out of there.
When everything was closed down, those people are like, “Well, how can we help?” And so we were able to do some training with them. They were available to help faculty create online quizzes, just going through the legwork of, I’ve got this test in a word document, but I need it set up as an online test or an online quiz ready for my students. So we were able to rally and make those connections with different parts of our university, so that everybody was able to just “Hey, we’re going to work together on this.
We’re going to do whatever needs done so that we’re able to serve our students and make sure that the faculty have what they need in order to get up and running.” So it was several weeks of very intense work, of just two-47, just being on call and working with faculty and groups, working to troubleshoot things individually.
And some of the most challenging things were these, we have studio classes where we have clay, what do they do with? It’s like the art class, where it’s a pottery class. And we had applied music lessons and our theater program. And there’s so many things that we’re like, “How can we translate this and have a have something that will be effective?”
So one of the things we did with our theater program is, since they were not able to do a production this year. They ended up doing a 1960 sile radio show in place of their normal production, but it was just like, “How can we adjust and allow our students the opportunity they’re learning in this too, they’re going to be entering into fields and careers that are going to have to cope with this type of reality.
And so how can we give them that experience where they’re finding a way even if it’s not obvious how we’re going to do it, we’re going to find a way to do it. It was a great collaborative spirit on our campus. Everyone buckled down and worked hard. And in a few weeks, we transitioned over 700 face-to-face courses to an online delivery. And again, it was an amazing effort and it was just great that we had the team that we had and all the resources that we had when we were faced with that challenge.
Now that’s great. And it’s exciting that you’re able to do that. And I know that was a real help and a real blessing to everybody, not just your students but your families as well, those students, but one of the things that strikes me in all of that and listening to you talk, Mark, is there’s obviously that course design and redesign effort that goes in.
And a lot of them never really have invested in the time, just the rank and file of like, “Well, I’m going to actually offer quizzes through my learning management system.” But so one of the positive effects as it were of this whole thing that we’ve lived through, this pandemic is that, I think it has for a lot of institutions like yours, pushed forward some learning about the digital tools, et cetera, that faculty might not have done for another few years or after they retired and they were replaced with someone else, because it really forced people into a learning mode.
It did. And the day came so to speak.
And well also-
And there were people who were trying to hold out and avoid using some of those tools. But what’s really been interesting is we had some of those faculty who were pretty resistant to it, minimalistic in terms of what they did with the learning management system, use it for grades, assignments, and some communication, but not really as a part of their strategy for engaging students.
And we have seen some of those faculty come full 180 they have gotten in there and used some of these tools they’ve seen the impact it can have on student engagement and the efficiency that it can give them in their teaching. And so they are now the proponents of it, they’re like, “Hey.” They’re the ones pushing it. “Hey, I want to use this more in my class. I see how this can be used.” So I know it has made a significant culture shift when thinking about our faculty, we had a great group that had been very engaged and our power users, but now I think we’re over that hump of the general adoption COVID has forced that wave. And now we see broad acceptance and broad usage of a lot of different tools.
I think one of the great things is because of the circumstances, people are much more open and positive about doing it because they are there because they want to serve students, they want to help students. That’s part of their life mission. And, “Okay, so we got dealt a little bit of a shift. I’m still committed to the same thing here’s some tools to help me do that.” So it was for a good cause. And I think that really helped keep attitudes positive, and you’re right once people start learning they go, “Oh, now this has expanded my repertoire. I can even do more than I could before.”
And I think a lot of people don’t realize as they just look across higher ed, that when we come to a lot of what I would call our smaller private universities, Christian, and non-Christian, we do find more of a teaching faculty, people who are used to really trying to engage with students in doing that is more the rule than the exception. And I think in those institutions faculty have really responded well and almost above what I might even expect to this call and say, “This is why I got into this business, this is why I’m here and I’m all in. And so I am not surprised at all that that was the case that Evangel of course.
And I think their experiences for some of them, we know that they were in a zone where they’re comfortable using the tools and doing the things that they had done with their classes. And so it’s always a little bit scary when you try something new. I think some of our faculty were afraid of what they didn’t know.
And it’s just a reality, with faculty, there’s a little bit of… You’re the expert in the room. You’re supposed to be this expert and there’s a little bit of ego and there’s a little bit of… Any area of insecurity faculty can tend to avoid that. Because you don’t want to look dumb in front of your students when you’re trying to convince them that you know what you’re talking about.
So helping faculty to get past, I think some of their initial fears of using new tools and having them have some experience of it. I had one of our faculty called me and he had to teach the entire semester remotely, both the end of the spring and then this fall semester because of his own health concerns, high-risk faculty, and one of those situations. And he called me just to say, “I didn’t think it would go this well.”
He had his hopes at a certain level. And actually, the experience of his students, the engagement that they had, the learning that they demonstrated, exceeded what he thought was possible. And as we have those experiences, you get over the fears of using technology, get over the fears of how your students are going to respond, or how it’s going to apply to a particular subject. Then it’s open. We’ve got a new opening here to be able to explore the use of these tools. And it certainly has gotten me thinking about the application of our tools to different educational scenarios.
Now, one of the things you said there about faculty and people don’t realize this. I remember back in an earlier time for me in my career when I was Director of IT at the University of Oklahoma. And so help desk fell under me, but we had a separate help desk for faculty and for students.
And I’d always tell the faculty help their students. I said, “Remember, the people you’re talking to are experts in their area. Some of them, are designing robots for NASA. They are experts. They are used to feeling like experts for some of them this is the one of the few areas in their lives where they don’t feel like an expert. And so often when they call, they may feel a little defensive, etc. So just keep that in mind. They’re great people they’re feeling this is a weird feeling for them.”
They can’t fix something, they don’t know it. And that was in the early 2000s. But I still think some of that with online learning is a little bit of that today for some of those faculty. And I’m really happy that we are seeing more faculty because they are smart people, they are experts and it just takes a little bit of trying, and then they start mastering and go, “Oh, and then there’s something else I can do with this. That’s really great.” So, Mark, I want to jump now into this more of a personal level. So here you are the executive director of strategic partnerships and digital learning.
And it’s not something that one carves out when there are 10 playing out in the backyard and saying, “Hey, I’m going to grow up and be that someday.” And it’s always fun when I talk to people like you, because our paths to getting there tend to be, sometimes they have similarities, but they’re also pretty crazy individual routes. So why don’t you tell me a little bit about your personal journey and education and how you got here?
It’s certainly, like you said, it’s not something that I actually set out to do, but I feel a strong sense of calling. And when I think about the technology and what I get to do, I feel like God has really given me a capacity to lead in those areas. And so I get really excited about the work that I get to do day in and day out. But my journey started out. I came out to Springfield, I grew up in Northeast Ohio, and I came out to Springfield to go to Bible College.
And at that point, my perspective is really just undergraduate education. And then, take some role in church ministry. That was what my thought was. I will admit that my understanding of calling and my understanding of ministry at that point was narrow to just what can be done in the church.
I didn’t really have anything on my radar when it came to graduate work or any work in education. It was really just that narrow focus, but it wasn’t until the years of my junior and senior year and undergraduate education that I got to work with some great faculty there who just inspired me, encouraged me, really gave me a love for learning. And as a result of that, I felt like there’s more for me to do here.
And they had encouraged me at that point, “You should really think about going into getting a graduate degree.” And so that’s what got my gears turning on that. And I know it was when I stepped into a seminary education, that it was at the beginning of that, that I really felt like I really want to do this because I think someday I would like to teach. That was my first hint of that.
But then I had some experiences as part of my seminary education that I got to take a class. It wasn’t even the class I’d signed up for, but it was one of those things that I got switched into because the other class got canceled, but it was a class on education. It was higher education in Christian context.
And in that class, really got exposed to some educational theory and just some practical things of planning lessons and creating a syllabus and just thinking through that kind of stuff. And I had a couple of those classes through my undergrad and graduate work that helped me to give an understanding of education. And it just clicked for me.
After seminary, I started teaching as an adjunct here at Evangel University and had some great experiences here, got to know the faculty here after doing that for a few years, I ended up back at Bible College, my undergraduate Central Bible College, which is now part of our university here.
We’ve combined all of these schools a few years ago, but I’m back in my Alma mater. And I was stepped in there to teach online for them in Bible classes and to do some administration. At that point, it was just administration for their online programs. I ended up becoming the director of their online programs in a full-time role. So it grew into that. And then from there just continued to take on responsibilities.
As I said, we consolidated our schools a couple of years ago. So that’s what brought me back into the Evangel University a comprehensive university now. And what’s great is I get to work with some of the faculty who actually invested in me as a student. As an undergrad and graduate student had the privilege to work with those people.
It’s not certainly not the traditional route into higher education. The typical of, “Well, I’m going to go do these masters and graduate and get my doctoral and then, apply for schools and go into full-time teaching.” And actually, it’s not the role I’ve had. And when I teach to people or I talk to people who are interested in going into teaching at a higher education level, I share my story and say what’s really created an opportunity for me is online education.
It’s creating some proficiency in that area and demonstrating leadership in that area. That’s really opened up some opportunities for me. So I certainly see the importance of the non-traditional education when it comes to higher education. I think institutions need a person like me, a role like this in order to support the faculty.
We were talking before about that, the fears that they have, and perhaps insecurities that they have when it comes to using these tools. But if they’ve got colleagues, people that they know and trust who can help them and our job is we want to make them look like the rock star that they are, we don’t want to make them look like we want them, their classes and the things that they set up.
We want it to go exactly the way they have planned it so that it’s not any interruption or distraction from what the learning is what we’re trying to accomplish, which is the student learning. So as schools have those roles, instructional designers or a teaching and learning office of some kind that is in investing in faculty.
And that’s why I love what I get to do now is because I say I have a strong sense of calling to teaching and a capacity for the technology side. I feel like what I get to do now, even though not in the classroom, I’m only in the classroom part-time now.
I teach some online classes for the university, but what I get to do is I get to invest in and support other teachers. So for me, it’s a sense that I’m really multiplying my gifts, my ability, and serving others so that they can do what they do as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Now, that’s great. It’s just wonderful to hear about that journey and what you’re doing, and you’re so right. Both online learning and digital technology and educational technology has really given opportunities to people. And it’s more non-traditional paths and provided a place for people to explore higher ed and education in general. And it’s fantastic, but also to have people like you that have a really strong practical background and some experiences that traditionally we wouldn’t have brought into the university and that’s really helping our institutions.
Mark. So as part of your strategic partnerships, you’re one of those people at the university, that’s part of the centrifugal force of the university. Normally we think of universities as these places that pull people in, that’s a centripetal force. They come to the middle, come to the buildings we go to classes but you’re of course, pushing the university out in other ways.
So just tell me, can be personal too, not just institutional, but your vision for helping Evangel grow through some of the partnerships you’re doing, the things you’re doing, and it can be at any direction here, because I think that’s because I know you do have vision for that and you already done some great things and looking at more. So I’d like to just hear more of that. Because I think it’ll be helpful for people.
The partnership initiative is somewhat now as well for the university. And what we recognize is that there’s an opportunity to partner with different organizations in order to expand the reach of our educational programs to help students overcome barriers that would otherwise prevent them from engaging, particularly like private Christian education.
So those partnerships have been there they were of all different types and kinds and we work with different types of organizations and for us, it’s really just understanding what are the needs and the goals with a particular organization. How does the mission of our university and we want to do, how does that align with what that organization is trying to do and where are we find the alignment? Then there becomes a good opportunity for us to say, “How can we work together?”
I always feel like the key piece in innovation is making connections. That’s been my experience is that when you’re able to say, “Hey, we got this thing, this product, or this idea, or this process over here, and this other thing over there.” The key in innovation is helping to make the connections. And a lot of those connections are built just through relationships. It’s an understanding of what these different organizations do. And it’s building trust between those organizations.
So for us, we started working with some church partners and just saying, “Hey, this is part of our demographic. This is our constituency. We are an Assemblies of God School. How can we connect more organically and more significantly with the churches that we’re supposed to be serving?” And just understanding what is the churches as we’re dealing with individual churches. What is your stance on Christian higher education.
How are you guys working with students and adult learners to encourage them to continue learning in pursuit of their calling? And then as they’re growing and maturing how are you partnering with them in that process? And so it gave us an opportunity to be able to say, “Hey, we can be your partner with that.”
As you’re working with people and you’re discerning hey, you’re encouraging them to continue their professional growth or continuing them to pursue educational options we’ll come alongside we’ll offer some discounts. And we want to communicate to the people that you serve, that we want you here. We want you to consider Evangel as an opportunity for your education, whether that’s an undergraduate or graduate online or on campus, whatever it might be.
And so that’s been really effective and that helped just build relationships and then help give those partners a story to tell on our behalf. For them, it’s an added benefit that they can extend to their constituents. And for us, it helps us to get our message out there and helps to recruit. We’ve also seen as we work with different organizations, we have business partners, we’re working with a local healthcare industry.
We have a lot here in Springfield as we work with those it’s their HR departments. They’re saying, “How can we provide options?” Again, it’s a no cost benefit that they can offer their employees to say, “Hey, we’re partnering with these different schools.” And we’re not exclusive with that. We want to put our option there to say we’ve got a Christian higher education option that’s available.
So if you’ve got people in your organization that are looking to pursue either complete undergraduate program or looking at graduate work. Here’s the programs that we have. And so we’ve been able to cultivate those relationships as well. We’re working with a couple of school districts where they have professional development money that they need to invest in their teachers.
And so we’ve taken our graduate education program and worked in partnership with the school district so that they can invest in their teachers and their teachers can actually pursue a master’s degree in education. And so just working at where are the needs? Try to get an understanding of where the needs are, how might we work together to do something that would be bigger and better than either one of us can do on our own?
So to me, that’s the real goal in innovation, and those types of partnerships is how are we actually demonstrating? We’re making our programs more cost-effective we’re demonstrating that we’re actually expanding access to our programs.
We’re investing in the efficiency or the effectiveness of the programs by giving people really relevant experience so that they’ve got a church or an organization that’s partnering with them on their side where students can put into practice what they’re learning in the classroom, through internships, practicums, or we’re even in the context of their work. So all of those things, like I said, I have a real passion for that of just spearheading, how are we connecting with different organizations, as you said, it is an outward focus of your typical brick and mortar institution.
But I see that as being a way for us to diversify our academic offerings for us to be able to expand the reach of the programs that we have, and for us to be able to really demonstrate the relevance of the programs that we have because we’re working with these organizations where the students are either they’re looking for employment they’re perhaps they already have employment there.
They’re looking for promotions, they’re looking for a greater area of service. If it’s a church, how can they better serve their church and their community? We both have a stake in that. We both want to see that outcome. And so we can work together to make it happen.
I love that. And I love the different types of connections you’re making the diversity of that and all the different people you’re serving. I think that’s just so awesome. So last question for this podcast, Mark. So we’re in 2020, it’s always a great time to talk about the years ahead, as well as the years behind I suppose, but we’re coming up starting a new decade.
So let’s look ahead over the next decade, if you could wave your magic wand and all the things that you think about could happen for you at Evangel and what Evangel is doing, and just the partnerships and everything, what’s some stuff that would be really cool if it could happen out there.
Because if you could just wave your… And things that you probably don’t talk about in all your tactical meetings week to week, because that would make people’s heads explode, or they’re just too busy dealing with this. But when you think about it, you’re just off and you don’t have to be constrained by all of that. What are some big visions that you have out there?
The pandemic has been a disruptive force and a lot of those things what we would have typically perhaps predicted for the next 10 years. That’s shifted quite a bit. I think that some of the change, obviously some of the changes that sticks in place, it’s not going to go back to the same as it was before. I think the cat is out of the bag and higher education has demonstrated how flexible it can be.
And now, going forward, I think the market of students are going to demand a higher level of flexibility in the access that they have to their courses. I think some of the technologies that I’m excited about are, I’m really interested to see how adaptive learning platforms continue to develop and how artificial intelligence is a part of that.
Just providing that real time feedback to students and guiding them through a learning process. I’m really excited about open educational resources. We’ve seen a lot of development and a lot of initiatives focused around that.
And to me, that’s a practical way of how we’re demonstrating as educators, our commitment to reducing the overall cost of higher education as it were we’re using open educational resources in order to be able to provide a lower cost of reducing the high textbook costs and so forth.
So I see that as a great trend. I see that as something that will continue, that will help to, in the long run, reduce the overall cost of education. I think what COVID has left us with is understanding of the multimodal approach to course delivery, or what has been called the HyFlex course design.
It’s the ultimate in flexibility when it comes to students because they have choice come and show up sit for the lecture or grab it online. And then, you have this incredible flexibility.
And so I think again, that the cat is out of the bag on that one. Now we’ve demonstrated that it’s possible and that it can be done effectively. And with quality that again, I think the market is going to demand that going forward. So that is really going to change the paradigm for, I think, the way traditional education works, residents campuses.
I think blended learning is here to stay and the types of the ways in which students engage their material and demonstrate their learning is going to be increasingly flexible. With that I see institutions making investments in classroom technology to facilitate that asynchronous the combination of both a live audience and a synchronous remote audience.
And we’re doing a pilot project on that in the spring semester to get some outfitted classroom specifically for that purpose. That is something that a year ago, I probably would not have said. We’re going to be investing in this, but we’re seeing schools at least regionally here.
And I know the others across the nation schools have invested a lot in the technology to facilitate. It removes the walls of the classroom and now you can have a live audience, but you can also interact with students who are distributed across your region or even across the nation.
So I think those things really open up some possibilities. And again, I think it changes how we’re going to think about that residence experience. I’m seeing a blending together of what was called the non-traditional side and the non-traditional versus the traditional, this binary approach to what higher education was.
I’m starting to see those they’ve been blended together in a significant way through this whole pandemic. And I don’t know if they’ll get teased apart in the same way that they were before. I seem to think that they’re going to maintain that some kind of a blend where again, the residence campus is going to have a little bit different feel going forward.
And on our adults or non-traditional programs that they’ll be more mainstream than they were in the last decade. So those are some of the things that I’m for sure seeing in our… Not all of it’s driven by the technology. It’s really just driven by what are the things that are going to result in efficiency.
There’s been talk for years now, decades now about the cost of higher education and what are institutions doing to really demonstrate that they’re offering things that are relevant, that it’s efficient, it’s cost-effective, and so forth. And so working with partners like you guys are working with Tel, we’re also working with Convoy of Hope to launch a new program in community relief and development.
As we’re working with partners like that it’s demonstrating we’re willing to connect because we want programs that are quality. We want programs that are relevant. We’re looking for ways to do things as efficiently as possible so that we’re able to maintain costs and really provide a great experience for our students.
Oh, that’s great. And I totally agree with you and what we’re seeing. And again, it was coming anyway but the pandemic has certainly ushered it in probably the more quickly. This is a real mark or a stake in the ground for a type of significant, if not see change in higher education, both in what is expected from the communities around us, as well as what we expect of ourselves and how we… Business as usual is out the window.
And we’re seeing… And thanks to you and Evangel and groups like you, who are really taking a leadership role in showing what can be done. And then it’s really fantastic. Mark, I appreciate you so much being with us today. And for those who are listening this has been Mark Fabian, who is the Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships and Digital Learning at Evangel University in Springfield Missouri, Mark. Thanks a bunch.
Thank you so much, Rob. Great to talk to you.