KLAIPEDA, Lithuania (Mennonite Mission Network) — Although dependence on electronic communication is often criticized for insulating people from each other, at LCC International University, e-learning builds community in unprecedented ways.
In 1994, I arrived in newly independent Lithuania to teach at a new school housed in five rented classrooms. Today, I find myself as director of an online teacher-training program that spans continents.
Though I initially questioned the benefits of e-learning, I am now convinced that online education can be as powerful as classroom instruction— and more affordable. LCC's online program convinced me of this. Three of our students — Elizabeth, Kaitlyn, and Maria — completed a master's TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) degree. This blended program brings students to campus for two-week summer residency sessions that then allows them to complete courses throughout the year online.
Elizabeth's goal was to complete her degree while living in the Middle East. Kaitlyn had raised funds to teach in China with a Christian organization; although a master's degree seemed like the next step, most programs were too expensive for her missionary budget. Maria had studied in the United States and in Europe but was attracted to a program in her home country of Lithuania that aligned with her Christian world view. All three women discovered personal connections and high-quality instruction through LCC's master's TESOL program.
Elizabeth was skeptical of distance education because she wanted to relate to her classmates in a more personal way. She said wanted to study in a community, not with "avatars."
"I needed some kind of connection with my classmates," Elizabeth said.
Elizabeth, Kaitlyn and Maria got to know each other and the other six students in their cohort as they lived and studied on campus. Relationships strengthened as the nine students interacted through the required forum posts and video chats. In addition, the cohort launched their own social media group to help connect personally over the winter until they met again in Lithuania the following summer.
Alumni of the master's TESOL program and currents students are widely international. Kaitlyn describes them as a "network of classmates who are around the world." They are teaching English in Canada, China, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Mongolia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Ukraine, and Vietnam. For example, while Kaitlyn (American) teaches in Mongolia, she communicates with Maria (Lithuanian) in Spain. And, while Luan (Vietnamese) teaches adults in Norway, he does a class project with Bobby (Canadian) who is teaching in a corporate setting in Saudi Arabia. This cross-cultural communication is normal for students in the LCC program.
"I really love this program because it ... brings great students from all around the world," said Dr. David Broersma, an associate professor who has taught in the LCC program for more than a decade.
The global outlook is balanced with the perspective that teaching is a practical, "people-centered" profession, Elizabeth said. The distance-learning program helps students to conceptualize language acquisition theories and pedagogical frameworks, while also requiring reflection and research in real classrooms with real pupils. For example, in the first year, students take a practicum course in which they reflect on how theory is realized in practice. In the second year, students engage in action research which has them observing their classrooms with the goal of improving instruction.
A benefit of distance learning is that students are not required to leave their teaching jobs to move to a campus. Rather, they can teach English while studying about best teaching practices. Most master's students are employed full-time while they study.
"I was able to apply a lot of the things that I was learning directly to my work because I was working at the same time," Kaitlyn said.
LCC International University promotes "a Christian worldview that invites all people to grow in truth and restoration through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ." Professors teach from their personal Christian perspective. While students are not required to profess any particular faith, they are encouraged to grow in understanding their own faith. Many students say they are drawn to the LCC community because of its support for the integration of faith and learning.
Maria said her Catholic faith was strengthened while studying, which leads her to see teaching as a vocation rather than just a job. She attempts to live out her faith by caring for her students, even beyond the classroom, as they sometimes come to her with their personal problems.
"I want not just to grow as an expert in my field of studies, but also, as a person who is able to share [her] beliefs and worldview," Maria said. "I feel like that's where God calls me to be, having this kind of empathy for [my students]. I feel that I'm in the right place, just being there for them."
In August 2019, Elizabeth, Kaitlyn and Maria graduated from LCC's master's TESOL program. They will carry what they learned in the virtual classroom into their own classrooms around the world. Distance education opens endless possibilities that can't exist within the four walls of a classroom.
Robin Gingerich has served at LCC International University in Lithuania for more than two decades, supported by Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Mission Network. She chairs the English program and teaches TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) courses and writing courses.