Maintaining Institutional Values in the Online Space: Abilene Christian University


Maintaining Institutional Values in the Online Space: Abilene Christian University

Published on May 12, 2014

Abilene Christian University prides itself on its values and on ensuring that every student is a part of the ACU family. Listen in as ACU’s Corey Patterson shares the strides the university has taken to make sure that even its online students share in the university experience and are supported not just as scholars, but as people.


My name is Corey Patterson. I’m the Managing Director of Online Programs and the Director of Graduate Operations and Program Development at Abilene Christian University. Abilene Christian University is a non-profit institution located in Abilene, TX, located in the center of TX about 150 miles west of Dallas Fort Worth. We are a mid-size institution. We have about 4,000 undergrads and about 700 graduate students, and about a quarter to a third of those are online.

Of our online graduate students, about half of those have an average age of 35, so our online students are more adult learners who have already established themselves in their careers. They have a family. They have things they don’t want to drop to go back to college. They want to keep doing what they’re doing and continue their education as well.

The university really prides itself on providing flexibility and significant learning outcomes for our students. We know that they’re busy, we know that they have commitments with their family, they have commitments with their churches, they have commitments with their jobs. We want to provide them an environment that doesn’t require them to spend a lot of time in a certain amount of time. They can get up early in the morning; they can stay up late at night. We do work on time schedules, of course, but we do try to provide them with enough flexibility to work within their lifestyle.

We also try to give them some real-world experiences they can use right away. Most degrees, it seems like you have to get the degree to put that into practice. We want to create learning experiences through the modules so that they can take those experiences and use them right away in their jobs and careers. For example, our Conflict Resolution master’s provides skills that they can use right away in their workplace. If they need to mediate, if they need to be in arbitration, if they need to resolve a conflict within their organization, they can use those skills right away.

We also have a team of people that work with our students on a higher level, checking to see if they’re ok financially, how their personal lives are, and really checking in with them, and we want that to set apart our program with the way we treat our students, not only in the program, but outside of it as well. We like to treat them as human beings. They’re just looking at a screen, it’s not face-to-face, it’s not me looking at you, checking in on you, so they do have that opportunity to feel disconnected. We want to pride ourselves on – though they may never set foot on our campus until graduation, even though they may never meet another person in their cohort – they feel connected, and we want them to feel connected by the way we treat them.

We don’t want to be risk-adverse. We don’t want to say, “Well, we’ve never done that before,” “we don’t want to try that because it might hurt what we’re doing; we don’t want to see a drop,” “we don’t want to take the time to look at a new strategy; our enrollments are fine.” The key takeaway for us is “roll the dice.” We want to think about ways we can try new things, but we’re not going to do that blindly. We’re going to test them first.

It’s very important to us to have data from our online programs from our online students, whether it’s on the lead generation side, whether it’s on the conversion side, whether it’s how they’re doing in their courses. It is very, very important for us to know that the strategies we’re providing are creating significant learning outcomes. Whether it’s from the birth of the student at their lead generation to their graduation, we want to analyze those things because it’s always changing.

Innovation to me is trying to figure out what’s next. It’s really easy to take something and tweak it a little bit and call it innovation. “We’re going to use something that exists and take it in a new direction.” That’s one definition of innovation, taking something and maximizing it to its full potential. I see innovation as the long-range vision as to what’s coming down the pike.

It’s a community and when part of the community is struggling, the rest of the community is struggling. We see that because of the bonds that are built in our online programs. Coming from a Christian university, that’s the foundation we build everything on—the community we have in our residential programs—and we want to translate that to our online programs and we feel very successful in doing that.