Jeremy Enlow/Abilene Christian University
Abilene Christian University connects
A school in West Central Texas offers students the latest technology and the intellectual tools to theologically engage the digital world.
December 4, 2012 | Like many college students, Marissa Marolf is on her iPhone all the time.
But it’s not just Facebook or Instagram that holds the senior biochemistry major’s attention. She’s just as likely to be watching a professor’s podcast while in science lab, looking up notes in a digital version of a textbook or using an “awesome” app that offers an online lexicon for her ancient Greek course work.
As part of the uniquely connected campus at Abilene Christian University (ACU) -- the entire student body and faculty share the Apple platform through the iPod Touch, iPhones and, increasingly, iPads -- Marolf has received more than just knowledge.
She has also been given the world at her fingertips -- and if all has gone as planned, her time at ACU will have provided a solid grounding in sorting the most useful, relevant and effective parts of that world from the rest.
“You have this resource in your hands,” she said. “All of this information is available. But it’s up to you what you do with it.”
On a broader scale, the same could be said for the university, a Churches of Christ-affiliated institution of roughly 4,500 students in West Central Texas. Over time, information and ideas have become increasingly available. The school’s ACU Connected initiative sees professors conducting instant polls among students to gauge comprehension and holding test-prep sessions via text to boost participation.
But the conversation has also broadened to a greater type of “equipping,” including learning about community, justice, theology, servant leadership, relevance and interdisciplinary solutions -- all aided by the freedom of being able to learn anytime, anywhere.
Consider ACU@CitySquare, an emerging partnership between the school and an innovative nonprofit that addresses the root causes of poverty in inner-city Dallas. Teams of students have already been involved in the project, which exemplifies the core identity and central mission of ACU. But by next year, with the help of technology, ACU will have its own campus on the second floor of a building CitySquare owns, about 200 miles away from Abilene.
Students will be able to live and learn among those they hope to help, and the school’s technology center -- outfitted with the latest in touch-screen and video capabilities -- will also serve as a hands-on learning environment for area residents in the heart of Dallas, helping bridge technological divides.
“It’s the notion of community and servant leadership that drives this partnership,” said ACU alumnus John Siburt, CitySquare’s assistant vice president of programs, who is responsible for overseeing the ACU@CitySquare collaboration. “Technology will be a tool. What’s going to be interesting is to see how ACU’s theology gets embodied through it.”
Making technological history
ACU’s technological initiative has a rich past. The school’s mission is to educate students for Christian service and leadership throughout the world, and the ability to do that in today’s times must incorporate the already-prevalent use of technology.
In 2006, ACU was one of the first universities to use video iPods for downloading and accessing study materials in graduate distance-education programs. Faculty and, eventually, fellows at ACU began researching whether blanket use of a variety of Apple devices could create greater engagement, enhance learning and open new doors of possibility.
Questions to consider:
- How do you sort the “most useful, relevant and effective parts” of the world from the rest? Does technology help or hinder that effort?
- How have new technologies changed your organization and the way it pursues its core mission?
- What is the role of leadership in a world where everyone has “access to everything they want to know at their fingertips”?
- What practices do you use to ensure that technology is not cutting you off from the world but is helping you to experience it more richly?
In late summer 2008, ACU offered the choice of the Apple iPod Touch or iPhone device to every incoming freshman -- about 900 students -- in addition to select faculty. University visionaries had realized that students in the class of 2011 were born the same year as the World Wide Web, so that they -- and all those to come -- had never known a time without it.
That August, the school set the unofficial record for the most iPhone 3G activations in one location in a 24-hour period, with 612. National and international media attention followed, as did accolades, along with requests for site visits and faculty presentations elsewhere.
Today, all students and the roughly 250 faculty members employ the devices. (Each receives a $199 credit to be used as he or she chooses; data plans have never been included.)
Interest in documenting and researching the effort has been paramount since the beginning; faculty turned in more than 120 mobile-learning research proposals following an initial call. The school partnered with AT&T for the use and study of mobile devices among students and faculty, and has received grants from other sources as well.
“We jumped in with both feet,” said John Weaver, dean of library services and educational technology at ACU. “Among some individuals, I think the Christian label is equated with an anti-cultural or countercultural perspective. So the adoption of digital technologies as a predominant cultural form would fly in the face of that perspective. But at ACU we recognize that throughout the history of Christianity and, more specifically, Christian education, technology has supported Christian service and leadership.”
Today, with the world of information available at the touch of a button or screen, new ideas of community, the changing student-teacher relationship and the possibilities of contextual learning are shaping generations in ways not yet fully understood. The devices aren’t just changing the way courses are taught or subjects are learned. They’re changing the way people think.
And in a time of “crowdsourced” truth, Christian leaders both within and outside ACU fully realize they must be part of the conversation to help shape it, figuring out their own boundaries, opinions and best practices alongside everyone else.
“If we don’t, we will lose the opportunity to be a voice of faith and love and hope in this digital space, where so many people communicate, share and spend a lot of time,” said Verity A. Jones, director of the New Media Project -- an ongoing effort to help religious leaders become “theologically savvy” about technology -- at the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. “There’s an opportunity to bring the gospel, to bring God’s love, into this space.”
If Christian leaders and educators don’t help define the path, Jones said, “it will get defined for us.”