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News Dec. 2, 2019

Getting a college degree doesn’t necessarily look like it did 10 to 15 years ago. Many students today are parents, business owners, managers in corporations or have full-time jobs that don’t allow flexibility for traditional education. Most are likely facing a combination of challenges, including time constraints, geographical distance or physical limitations that simply make an online program their best option.

To meet this need, Cornerstone University is dedicated to not only providing access to quality online education but also to serving students well in the process.

Meeting Students Where They Are

“Students are looking for flexible choices when it comes to pursuing their education for a lot of different reasons,” says Dr. Peter Osborn, executive vice president and COO at Cornerstone. “Online isn’t just a matter of convenience. It also opens pathways and provides access to learning opportunities completely different from traditional education.”

For example, Osborn points out that many introverts learn better in an online environment because it offers the opportunity to contribute and participate in discussions without feeling put on the spot in a classroom setting. Instead, students have the time to read, reflect and then participate in a thoughtful way through class discussion boards. Other students might be facing unique health issues or work situations that make traditional education impossible. “For students like this, online is the only way to succeed in reaching their goals,” says Osborn. “I think that’s the exciting opportunity we offer with online programs.”

Trevor McCready, director of online learning for the Professional & Graduate Studies division, agrees. “We know our students often have to fight through a lot of obstacles, but they’re also determined to succeed, so our goal is to meet them where they’re at and to provide the best education and experience possible in a way that supports them and helps them reach their goals.”

The PGS cohort learning model offers a sense of community and belonging similar to traditional education. Cohorts are comprised of 10 to 15 students who interact with each other and their professors during the course of their studies.

“Cohorts help students know that they’re not in this alone,” says McCready.

“Cornerstone does everything it can to work with you through evening courses and online options. It’s definitely doable. They make it easy,” says PGS student Micah Meendering (M.S.M. ’14, M.B.A. ’17).

Serving Students Well

Cornerstone offered its first online program in 2005, and today students from all over the world can receive associate, bachelor’s, master’s and even a doctoral degree online. While many universities offer online programs, Cornerstone’s goal is to not only provide an excellent education but also to serve students in a hands-on, personal way through engaged faculty members.

“Our faculty engage with our students and are interested in their lives,” says McCready. “We know they are likely leaders, managers, parents, and they carry all these things into their courses. So it’s not just about doing the work; it’s about building relationships.”

Students especially value the personal interest faculty members take in their lives and the support system they find at CU. “Supporting students is about open communication,” says Steve Graham, vice president of marketing for Radio America Network and an adjunct faculty member teaching online courses since 2012. “We don’t know where students are in their lives, so it’s about learning who they are, anticipating their needs and showing you’re with them in the process.”

Whether through prompt replies, video conferencing, or voice recorded feedback from faculty, students experience more connected and personalized online learning at CU. “Our online students express gratitude when faculty members make the effort to give personal and thorough feedback on their assignments,” says Connie Sattler, a PGS faculty member who oversees instructional technology at CU.

These personal connections also prove valuable for many years to come. Graham invites his students to connect via LinkedIn after classes so they can share in each other’s professional achievements, even years later. “Recently, a few of my former students got great promotions, and I wouldn’t have known that if we weren’t connected. I love seeing that.”

A Promising Future

CU has seen a 20 percent growth in online students each year since 2005. Shifting away from the paradigm of mere convenience, CU is providing unique ways to help a diverse student body overcome challenges to the education they’re facing. As technology has evolved, online education has also become accessible to more people. Students can connect to CU’s learning environment anywhere a computer has internet access or via a mobile device. All learning takes place in the context of this environment, including viewing course materials, communicating with professors and classmates, quizzes and grading. And because CU offers 24/7 support, those who don’t consider themselves “tech savvy” have the extra help they need, when they need it.

As online education continues to grow and evolve, faculty stick to a theme that remains essential: presence. “It’s about showing students you’re not only actively involved in the classroom, but also interested in their personal stories,” says Graham. “That speaks to the greater mission of what we do at CU.”

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