Photo Emily Willard, Learning Systems Manager, Australian College of Ministries.

How the Australian College of Ministries is Teaching Spirituality through Blackboard Open LMS

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The following story is an update of an article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Nov. 11, 2016. Click here for the Spanish version

Over 20 years ago, the Australian College of Ministries (ACOM) made the shift from being a campus-based college to a dynamic and flexible online learning community. With the goal of developing Christian leaders for a rapidly changing world, ACOM enrolls 600 students in undergraduate and postgraduate programs taught via Blackboard Open LMS.

It’s 2019 and technology is changing all areas of life. With spiritual leaders around the world now using social media to communicate their ideas, it’s certainly a viable proposition for institutions to use online learning to teach Christianity and spirituality. And this is precisely what the Australian College of Ministries aims to do: educate its students about the Christian faith, how to help their local communities, and how to promote healthy spirituality through classes like International and Local Community Development and The Personal Work of Christ.

A Vibrant Online Learning Community

ACOM has been a distance education institution since 1990. Before online learning was a viable option, the college would print and mail out course materials to their students.

The first reason why they chose to be mainly a distance learning school is that it would allow ACOM to reach anyone in Australia and around the world interested in the school’s values.

The second reason was to align themselves with their slogan “Your church is your campus,” as the school encourages its students to serve in their local church, hospital or shelter, and thus give back to the community what they have learned. If their courses required classroom attendance, that would create a limitation for students outside of Sydney.

ACOM’s objective is to establish ministries, which includes activities a student may be involved in that lead to providing a service to a community, such as church service, working at a fundraiser or within a community classroom. Ministries are a necessary part of every discipline, and it is important for the institution to make sure that the knowledge their students acquire actually translates into making an impact and a difference in how they lead their lives.

A member of the Sydney College of Divinity, ACOM is recognized for having some of the highest education standards. Teachers upload course content and reading material onto Blackboard Open LMS and students can complete the classes at their own pace. As with any course, there are some deadlines students will have to meet, however, they can take one to six units per year and take the time needed to complete their degree.

At some point during the trimester, the teacher and the students have a three-day facilitation. This three-day retreat is used to review various topics seen throughout the course, go through different terminology, and talk about what they have learned and what it means to them.

Creating the Best Student Experience

According to Emily Southwell, ACOM’s learning systems manager, Blackboard Open LMS was a great addition for the institution because it has allowed them to reach more students and to find out if any of them are slacking or having trouble with their assignments. As a result, this allows for better communication and enables visibility to student behavior and the ability to offer timely help. Blackboard Open LMS also allows ACOM to keep an online library to store coursework and any additional reading materials that students might be interested in.

Southwell has been working at ACOM for six years. She manages the content and student data within Blackboard Open LMS. “I also work with content developers to dream about how we can make our student experience the best that it can be.”

Southwell affirms she would absolutely recommend Blackboard Open LMS to other educational institutions. “Blackboard Open LMS takes care of all of the complexities of hosting a digital learning environment. They upgrade the site for us, manage security, storage, and if we have any issues with bugs or just need help, the tech support team at Blackboard Open LMS is patient and effective.”

The learning systems manager says that at ACOM they are very conscious that a quality platform does not determine the quality of students’ learning. According to Southwell, as Blackboard takes care of all of the ‘behind the scenes’ parts of hosting a digital learning environment, her team can focus on what’s most important — the educational experience.

“We are always looking for ways to improve the learning experience. Blackboard leaves me and my team free to dream and play in the LMS, developing new ways of managing student progress and content presentation,” Southwell explains.

It’s All About Connection

Southwell says that the majority of students who choose to enroll in ACOM do so because they want to feel a deep and real connection or find answers to questions they have in order to better understand their own spirituality, rather than gain money or status — it’s more of a life choice.

Many of their students are fairly young, but there are also mature students who may have reached a point in their life where they are seeking specific information or want to learn aspects of life they never learned in their younger years.

Students can enroll in four specializations: Biblical Studies, Christian Life and Ministry, Humanities and the Christian Tradition, and Theology. In addition, ACOM has recently developed new programs to meet the needs of prospective students, including a Diploma of Ministry and a Master of Leadership.

There are some minimum spiritual training requirements that all students are required to take, as this is where ACOM understands how students are responding to what they are learning, and whether it’s truly impacting their lives for the better.

Students choose other disciplines depending on their interests, but they also have free credits where, for example, a person who is studying the Bible but is also interested in leadership can take some related courses. Student Engagement Managers are available to help motivate students that fall behind or are not doing well. They are also there to help guide students towards their goals and interests.

Southwell doesn’t believe there is friction between religion and technology. However, she has a quote on her desk that says, “Learning requires humans to be curious, to communicate, to interact, to test, to define, to argue, to find hope and to reject. Technology alone cannot do that.” So, while it’s an important tool, she says it’s not all they rely on. For ACOM, it is the balancing of both which matters.

Photos:  AFP Wendell Teodoro