Inspired Leadership Guides HBU Into the Next Frontier

The News Magazine of HCU

College in the Cloud-Part 4

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Interview with Steve Peterson, EdD and Jay Spencer, DMin

“Online learning is not the next big thing, it is the NOW big thing,” said author Donna J. Abernathy about higher education nearly 20 years ago. Thanks to the vision and guidance of HBU President Dr. Robert B. Sloan, HBU now is poised to become a leader in a world-class, Christian-based, online university education.

After three years research and planning, HBU hired the best online education developers in the field, Dr. Steve Peterson and Dr. Jay Spencer; the two joined HBU in February. The Pillars spoke to them to discuss the new HBU Pinky Pampell Online Division. 

You spent 20 years building a leading online program at the nation’s largest Christian university. What was attractive to you about building a program at HBU?  

Steve: Over the years, we’ve visited with many university presidents and provosts who are intrigued with online and digital learning and they want to move in that direction, but they don’t know how. When we met with Dr. Sloan and the Executive Council, we could tell HBU had made the culture shift necessary to take a world-class education and expand it outside its campus through digital means. So, we were excited to join the HBU team.

Jay: HBU has a solid academic reputation that we can build on. And the strong fundraising indicated the support within the HBU constituency to expand the online program.

Why is the expansion of online learning opportunities critical? 

Steve: HBU has a rich history and tradition. For more than 50 years, we have offered a quality education in a faith-based environment. Online education is no longer a separate track of the educational experience but a complementary one.

Jay: There are people throughout the country and perhaps the world that would love to participate in a program on campus. For many with careers, families and other responsibilities, it’s just not feasible. HBU Online offers them a quality education with world-class faculty and programs that will enrich their life and allow them to fit school into their schedule.

How do you respond to critics who question the quality of online education? 

Steve: I believe the debate has been settled whether online education is the same quality as a traditional bricks and mortar education. Distance education, in fact, has been taking place for hundreds of years in the U.S. What the internet has allowed us to do is simply change the delivery format. Universities must meet strict accreditation standards. So, an online program must be comparable to a residential curriculum. And you must prove it using metrics about the outcomes of our students in professional and academic progress.

Jay: The strength and quality of faculty and HBU’s unique program specialties already exist in our online course offerings. We’ll strive to make it more robust and tailored for each student.

Describe the challenges of building a program like this. 

Steve:  Jay and I joke about being the old guys in Christian higher education, a fancy way of saying we have figured out all the ways to fail. You can’t just jump into a new project with both feet; you must test and modify and then retest until you have a sound plan for moving forward. And, of course, you must also have faith.

Jay: We live in a society that is used to instant responses, especially online. So, adult learners expect a quick response to their questions, grading, etc., especially when taking courses online. Most institutions of higher education don’t move quickly enough to satisfy these expectations. HBU’s culture already seeks first to meet its students’ needs, and this is critical.

Will online learning, one day, replace the bricks and mortar higher education experience? 

Steve:  I don’t think so. A residential campus provides an environment for a traditional student that is more than about the classroom. Between on-campus activities, academic and career counseling, a convocation with world-renowned speakers, and Division I athletic teams, there is a maturation process that takes place on campus that can be vital to the development of young people. Of course, these same students may take online courses to accelerate their degree completion. The two go hand-in-hand.

Jay: To the contrary, the online program can help expand the mission and vision of HBU throughout Houston and beyond. We expect increased resident enrollment as the online program begins to expose many more prospective students to the quality of an HBU education.

For more about getting involved in the online program mission, go to:

Phone: 855-HBU-1960

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Dr. Steve Peterson and Dr. Jay Spencer are featured on "Think About It," a podcast from HBU

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