Case study report on Abilene Christian University

New Media Project

By Lerone A. Martin
December 31, 2011

Introduction

I am grateful to the faculty and staff at Abilene Christian University (ACU) who agreed to be the subject of this case study for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. John Weaver, Dean of Library Services and Educational Technology at ACU, showed me great hospitality and assisted me in scheduling interviews and coordinating several helpful observations and tours. Dr. Scott Hamm, Director of Mobile Learning Research, and the staff of the Adams Center for Teaching Excellence graciously and patiently walked me through the history and bevy of technological innovations that constitute the mobile learning initiative known as ACU Connected. A special thank you to Leonard Allen, director of the ACU Press. His insights provided much reflection on new media and the future of university presses. And finally, much appreciation is due to the faculty and students who kindly volunteered to participate in a set of focus groups. Their candid responses illuminated the various intersections of social media, religion, and education. ACU is a thriving and buzzing community of higher learning and cutting edge new media technology. Their willingness to take the time to welcome me into their fast-paced community testifies to the timeless gift of showing kindness to the stranger. Many thanks.

Abilene Christian University (ACU) is affiliated with Churches of Christ and maintains a vibrant religious commitment “to educate students for Christian service and leadership throughout the world” (ACU website). This religious educational institution innovatively employs new media to practice and accomplish this mission. The school launched ACU Connected, a mobile learning initiative, in the fall of 2008. The program has as its foundation the belief that “humans learn best when they are in community—collaborating with others in a learning environment without boundaries” (ACU website). To this end, the school equips faculty and all entering freshmen students with the choice of an iPhone or iPod Touch mobile device. This provision is aimed at creating “a profoundly connected learning experience” across the boundaries of time and space.

The infrastructure (especially the myACU mobile app) and training conducted by the savvy staff of the Adams Center supports the initiative and enables faculty and students to use their mobile devices to engage in cutting edge pedagogy and learning for the twenty-first century.

Faculty and students use their mobile devices to access various educational and programmatic materials, such as course records, assignments, deadlines, readings, university social and sporting events, as well as financial information and obligations. For example, faculty members use their devices to take course attendance. The myACU mobile app displays pictures of students enrolled in said course and allows faculty to mark them present, absent, or even tardy. An automated message is sent to students informing them of their status for the day. These daily records are compiled, making it easier for faculty to tally attendance records as well as match student faces with names.

Mobile devices also serve as “clickers.” Students use their mobile devices during class to respond to quiz questions, posit questions during and after classroom lectures, as well as respond to discussion prompts and even polls during class time. This option, according to several students, proves particularly useful when addressing controversial subjects such as evolution, abortion, and homosexuality.

In addition to classroom interactions, mobile devices offer faculty and students multiple venues of engagement outside the classroom. Faculty and students often use their mobile devices to interact via online discussions, podcasts, Skype, class blogs, classroom chat portals, email, and social networking. The school’s million dollar learning studio with its recording studio quality rooms and Hollywood caliber Chroma key compositing studio, or “green screen,” assist in producing top notch sound and audio production.

Furthermore, several members of the faculty testify to using their mobile devices to assess student work. The feared criticism of the professor’s red pen is disappearing. The recording feature of the iPhone allows faculty to record verbal messages offering critique, guidance, and correction on student assignments. The ease of accessing student profiles and contact information via myACU provides teachers with a quick and seamless way to send these evaluative messages directly to students. Some even embed the audio files as hyperlinks in the content of the paper.

In all, the mobile learning initiative is re-shaping how faculty and students engage in the educational process at ACU.

Research problem

This case study was conducted as part of The New Media Project’s larger research agenda. This undertaking utilizes several case studies and various forms of research all aimed at addressing questions concerning the intersections of new media and religious institutions, namely: How should faith communities and religious institutions and leaders of the same understand the vast and rapid changes in digital communication? Moreover, can religious institutions and communities employ new media and forms of communication to faithfully convey and practice their mission—an undertaking that is rooted in religious tradition and conventional forms of communication and authority? Abilene Christian University (ACU) is an emblematic site to engage such questions.

Research questions

I posed the following questions to the interviewees and focus group participants:

  1. How have you experienced the massive changes in communication patterns and tools, especially regarding social media?
  2. Do you think theologically about new media? Do you assist your respective communities to do the same?
  3. How do you keep up with the new trends? How do you evaluate the usefulness of trends in technology, education, and Christian practice?
  4. How do you use new media and social media? For what purpose? Does the purpose further your educational mission and objectives? If so, how?
  5. Has the social media revolution changed what you expect of faculty, students, and staff as well as Christian thought and practice?
  6. How has this massive shift in communication patterns and tools impacted the way in which communities gather and are formed?

Method and data

I traveled to Abilene, Texas, and spent three days on the campus of ACU. My goal was to understand how the robust use of new media in this religious institution was altering the community and its mission. My primary methods of investigation were interviews and observations. I had the pleasure of participating in lengthy interviews with Dr. Scott Hamm, Director of Mobile Learning Research; Leonard Allen, Director of the ACU Press; and the faculty and staff of the Adams Center for Teaching Excellence. In addition to these interviews, I conducted two small focus groups. The first focus group consisted of six students representing all stages of matriculation, including students who began their studies at ACU before the launch of the mobile learning initiative. The faculty interviews included three faculty members. Admittedly, these focus groups are a small sample of the school’s approximately 4,000 students and 249 faculty members. However, the findings of this case study qualitatively mirror in microcosm the significant quantitative research ACU has conducted with the same populations concerning the learning initiative.

Summary of findings

Some may be surprised that an evangelical Christian institution would be on the cutting edge of communication technology. However, religious historians Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll are helpful in historically understanding the technological ingenuity of evangelical religious institutions such as ACU. Contrary to popular depiction, Hatch suggests that evangelical Christianity has never really been an epicenter of resistance or disdain of modern culture. Rather, evangelical Christianity has continually been an integral part of modernity in America. This is particularly evident in their trendsetting use of new communication technologies (print, oratory, phonograph, radio, television, internet, and of course now mobile technologies) for religious ends. Evangelical faith communities do not possess exclusive rights to employing emerging communication technologies in the service of religion. However, many of the best-known religious media pioneers in American religious history embraced this faith tradition. Twentieth-century religious media entrepreneurs, such as Aimee Semple McPherson, Paul Rader, Kathryn Kuhlman, Charles Fuller, and Marilyn Hickey, to name a few, used the emerging new media of their days to facilitate Christian instruction and formation.1

The application of popular culture in the service of religion has also been a hallmark of American evangelicalism. Evangelical groups often modeled their use of new media after popular forms of entertainment. Evangelical preachers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries employed the oratorical skills of the theatre in their delivery. Radio broadcasts mimicked popular serial radio shows. Likewise, popular religious television bears a resemblance to leading talks shows and late night entertainment. Mark Noll points out that this employment of popular culture typifies evangelical approaches to American mores. Evangelicals refused to retreat from culture like fundamentalists did. Such groups also refused to assimilate and adapt their religious commitments according to popular culture as in the case of many liberal Protestants. Instead, evangelical faith traditions used emerging communication technologies and popular culture to “in-culturate” their religious proclamations and commitments. This move enabled evangelicals to saturate the marketplace and popular mediums with their messages and mission.2

Similarly, ACU uses popular new media and culture to communicate and carry out their religious mission. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, mobile phones are the favored communication hub for the majority of American teens. To this end, ACU Connected uses new communication trends to transmit religious messages and ethos to their student body. Scott Hamm aptly states that the mobile learning initiative has made the institution’s educational ethos “part of the ambient noise of everyday life.” In short, ACU Connected enables this religious institution to permeate students’ lives with the educational and religious mission of the institution in an increasingly mobile society. This saturation has become so entrenched in the community that it appears, in many ways, that mobile devices have become part of the normative educational ethos—chalk and blackboards for the twenty-first century.

The mobile learning initiative has as its goals “to extend or enhance faculty teaching and research, to lead to more engaged and active student learning, to improve campus community and interactions, and, finally, to establish conversations and relationships between ACU and other campuses” (ACU website). Integrating the use of mobile mediums into the very fabric and infrastructure enables the university to advance its goals in three areas: pedagogy, educational expectations, and community formation and interaction.

The mobile learning program at ACU is revising pedagogy at the institution. Scott Hamm asserts that the rapid changes in communication technologies as well as the increased access to knowledge and information has shifted the role of educators from “prognosticators to interpreters.” He suggests that this reality calls for “technology guides, not sages.” Mobile learning, he continues, has “revisioned the classroom…. The walls of the classroom are coming down and the world is coming in. I think we are moving from an 'anytime, anywhere' environment to an 'all-the-time, everywhere' environment for learning.” It is clear; the use of mobile devices in the classroom provides new avenues to deliver information and exercise authority across the divides of time and space.

Subsequently, classroom pedagogy is changing. Faculty still lecture.  However, as my student focus group pinpoints, “lectures have been modified,” because the learning environment is complemented by the universal mobile access to information. This increased access to knowledge, students report, endows them with a feeling of autonomy in their learning experience. New media allow individuals to shape their own experiences of entertainment and commerce through iTunes, Facebook, MySpace, personalized YouTube channels, and even Amazon shopping preferences. Likewise, ACU believes that education should also allow individual users to shape their own experience.  As one staffer from the Adams Center tells me, “’One size education fits all’ does not fit well with my idea of the imago dei. God has created us in God’s image as individuals. One size does not fit all!”

This approach to education is altering the role of the professor in the classroom. Faculty are viewed no longer as the font of all knowledge and expertise but rather as guides who help students discover, interpret, and synthesize multiple streams of knowledge. Students increasingly participate with the teacher in the production of knowledge and research in the educational experience. For the academic year 2010-2011, 84 percent of faculty reported using their devices frequently in class to facilitate enhanced classroom collaboration. Fifty percent reported that they employed their mobile devices during every class period. (ACU website). As faculty use of media devices increases, they will still possess authoritative power for direction, vision, and assessment, however it will be significantly different. The professor will increasingly morph into more of a guide or mentor in the pedagogical experience.

In addition to pedagogy, the mobile learning initiative is also altering the expectations of students and faculty. In short, faculty and students expect more from each other.  Scott Hamm believes the ability to access an infinite amount of data raises the expectations of students. Vic McCracken, professor of Bible and theology, agrees. He says that he expects “more creativity” in his students’ assignments and presentations.

Students also expect more from themselves. One student tells me that the normative use of mobile technology at ACU has removed “all excuses” for not completing assignments. The infrastructure of ACU Connected offers students multiple ways to access assignments, due dates, and course materials.  Students also expect more from one another. The social reliance on the iPhone means that access to group expectations and obligations are nearly omnipresent.

Such heightened expectations apply to faculty as well. McCracken says that students expect more from teachers in the presentation of classroom materials. One student tells me plainly, “I expect a lot more from my professors!” For many students, not to engage some form of multi-media presentation in class communicates that the faculty member is not as relevant in their respective field of expertise and technology. As access to information has risen so too have the expectations of the educational experience.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, mobile learning at ACU is positively influencing the formation of communal interaction within the university. Public commentary on new media these days often reflects a deep concern for the loss of community. Media observers wonder if virtual communities such as online congregations and distance learning programs might become proxies for physical interactions. The use of new media at ACU, however, seems to be promoting physical gatherings. Students who matriculated during the advent of the mobile learning initiative report an increase in group study sessions and gatherings. From 2010 to 2011, 86 percent of students reported improved student-to-student and student-to-teacher collaborations and interactions after employing their mobile devices in the educational process. Mobile technology and the multitude of social networks allow students to connect with those whom they might not ever physically engage in conversation. These virtual connections often blossom into face-to-face connections. Using the organizational tools of social networking and the myACU app, these relationships often develop into gatherings for meals, study sessions, and group discussions. Even the ubiquity of new media is not a complete proxy for physical gathering and contact at the school.

There are several areas of concern that emerged during my study. The educators voiced several moral trepidations. The equity of the program is of major concern. Some students cannot afford the monthly data service charge for the iPhone. The iPod Touch solves this problem, but only in part. The device, unlike the iPhone, uses only Wi-Fi capability, severely limiting mobile access. The digital world is spiked, not flat.

Several faculty members also voiced concerns regarding spiritual formation. Hamm is worried that perhaps the mobile learning initiative is educationally beneficial but might not be an effective tool for spiritual growth and formation. Are students only cultivating the practice of consumption and not giving and sacrifice, he wonders? Professors in the religion department wonder if mobile devices are too ubiquitous and potentially detrimental to students in the long run because the mobile devices make it “too easy to check out.” McCracken acknowledges the benefits of the initiative, however he also admits that he is “increasingly ambivalent” to mobile learning.

Many are also anxious about time. Students divulge to me that mobile learning is helping them organize their time more efficiently. However, the device also presents a multitude of distractions. Sizeable amounts of study time can be drained by one-touch instant access to Facebook, YouTube, and the Internet. Nevertheless, as one student proclaims, “Whether you have an iPhone or not, if you want to be distracted, you will find a way to do it. If it isn’t Facebook, it will be doodling!” The use of new media has not eliminated the same old classroom dilemmas.

Finally, several people expressed social and ethical concerns. The universal access to mobile technology easily facilitates porous boundaries between faculty and students, which can allow inappropriate contact and interactions to occur more frequently. The Adams Center offers faculty training on appropriate ethical and moral practices for new media users. However, faculty and student apprehension remains. In addition to appropriate interactions, concerns about community formation continue. Most agree that students still gather for educational and social reasons. However, the ability of new media to channel group interactions remains a concern. The Adams Center staff recognizes that one risk ACU Connected poses to community formation is the potential for the expanding mobile community to increasingly self-segregate into like-minded communities. New media has not stifled nor replaced physical gathering, however the social and religious diversity of said gatherings is in question.

Narrative responses to research questions

1) How have you experienced the massive changes in communication patterns and tools, especially regarding social media?

Scott Hamm seems to embrace the rapid changes in communication technology. He views the potential of such transformations as a way to re-imagine the classroom and learning. Mobile learning has “revisioned the classroom,” he says. “The walls of the classroom are coming down and the world is coming in. I think we are moving from an 'anytime, anywhere' environment to an 'all-the-time, everywhere' environment for learning.” This allows education to permeate every aspect of life and culture. ACU’s “educational ethos is now part of the ambient noise of everyday life,” Hamm says, adding that this increased access to information has shifted the role of educators from “prognosticators to interpreters…technology guides, not sages.”

2) Do you think theologically about new media? Do you assist your respective communities to do the same?

Hamm helps the university community understand how to use mobile learning and to recognize the potential pitfalls to spiritual formation. He wonders whether mobile learning can be a tool for spiritual growth. In other words, are students only cultivating the practice of consumption and not the practice of giving and sacrifice? In addition, Hamm is concerned about the spiritual practice of accountability. “We are equipping 18 year-old boys with raging hormones with a mobile device that can access pornography with no accountability or oversight,” he says. And what about authority? Hamm has deep concerns about the plethora of religious and secular voices that may influence the spiritual formation of the university’s student body. To combat these potential pitfalls, ACU has a virtual accountability program. Students exchange digital prayer requests with an anonymous accountability partner for an entire semester.

3) How do you keep up with the new trends? How do you evaluate the usefulness of trends in technology, education, and Christian practice?

ACU is very deliberate in assessing how mobile technology is transforming pedagogy. As mobile technology becomes normative, the institution has put into place mechanisms to track how mobile learning is altering the learning environment. They have launched research projects focused on evidence-based practices in mobile technology. Annually the university appoints a group of faculty to serve as mobile learning fellows to investigate trends throughout the university. Currently Hamm is conducting an ethnographic study of 100 sophomores. The subjects will be “pinged” randomly over the course of 21 days. Students then respond to a list of short questions detailing their usage patterns on their mobile devices.  Assessment is intentional at ACU.

4) How do you use new media and social media? For what purpose? Does the purpose further your educational mission and objectives? If so, how?

The mobile learning initiative is helping ACU further its mission to educate students for Christian service in all walks of life. Mobile learning facilitates this educational process by removing the boundaries of the classroom. As Hamm says, it makes the world an “’all-the-time, everywhere' environment for learning.” To this end, faculty and students use their mobile devices to access various course materials such as course attendance records, assignments, deadlines, readings, as well as financial information and obligations. Mobile devices also serve as “clickers” that allow students to use their mobile devices during class to respond to quiz questions, posit questions during and after classroom lectures, as well as respond to discussion prompts and even polls. This option particularly proves useful when addressing controversial subjects such as evolution, abortion, and homosexuality. In addition to classroom interactions, mobile devices offer faculty and students multiple venues of engagement outside of the classroom. Faculty and students often use their mobile devices to interact via online discussions, podcasts, Skype, class blogs, classroom chat portals, email, and social networking sites.

Furthermore, several members of the faculty use their mobile devices to assess student work.  Rather than fill a page with red ink, many faculty record verbal messages with critique, guidance, and correction on student assignments. The ease of accessing student profiles via the myACU app provides teachers with a quick and seamless way to send these evaluative messages directly to students or even embed the audio files as hyperlinks in the content of the paper. In all, the mobile learning initiative is re-shaping how faculty and students engage in the educational process.

5) Has the social media revolution changed what you expect of faculty, students, and staff as well as Christian thought and practice?

Hamm believes quite simply that mobile learning “has raised the expectations for students.” Moreover, the ability to communicate via one’s mobile device increases team-based learning and teaching.

6) How has this massive shift in communication patterns and tools impacted the way in which communities gather and are formed?

Mobile learning promotes the physical gathering of communities. Hamm says, “Mobile learning will not replace physical gathering.” In addition to group projects and collaborative teaching, Hamm sees students gathering for study groups, Bible studies, and reading groups, all of which were initiated via mobile technology. In many ways, digital communication is helping to forge community at ACU.

Conclusion

Despite some concerns, the mobile initiative at ACU is groundbreaking. Similar to others in their evangelical heritage, this religious institution is using trend-setting practices in the art of communication to further their mission. Students and faculty engage in education for Christian service in ways that were previously unimaginable. This use of new media is not without concern. The cultivation of consumption, dependence on technology, and questions of Christian formation linger. However, the university’s commitment to researching the trends of the mobile learning initiative will provide the institution with new forms of accountability and insight. The mobile learning initiative will help to shape how religious institutions think and approach new media, faith, and education.

1 See Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); and George M. Marsden, “Evangelicalism as a Democratic Movement,” in Evangelicalism and Modern America (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1984).

2 Noll makes this argument in several texts. See especially, Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994); American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001); The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys, History of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003); Mark A. Noll et al., Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond 1700-1900, Religion in America Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Mark A. Noll and Luke E. Harlow, Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); see also, Leonard I. Sweet, Communication and Change in American Religious History (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 19-25.

Lerone A. Martin, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of American Religious History and Culture at Eden Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, MO.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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