Online Instructors Help BYU–Idaho Lead Way in Educating Students Worldwide

Contributed By Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News staff writer


Sean Robertson works in his home in Layton, Utah. Through BYU–Idaho's online learning, instructors—and students—are able to work from their own homes.  Photo courtesy of BYU–Idaho.

Article Highlights

  • The aim of online learning is to reach as many students as possible.
  • Homemakers, for example, can be at home and learn simultaneously.
  • More than 30,000 students enrolled in online classes at BYU–Idaho during spring 2016.

It is a weekday afternoon and three of Kami Howard’s four children are home from school. Her husband is still at work, and her children are doing their homework in the living room of their home. This school year marks a big year for her family—her oldest, 18, recently moved away from home to attend college.

She sees her kids working and grabs her computer. She decides this would be a good time for her to work too.

After staying home with her children full-time for 17 years, Sister Howard decided, just over a year ago, she was ready—and looking for—a way to do something more with her time. She had always wanted to be a teacher, and once her youngest child was in school all day, she realized she had some time—not a lot, but some—she could devote to something else.

As a busy mom, Sister Howard knew adding one more thing to her list would take work. But she also knew it would be possible.

With a desire to know what to do, she prayed.

“I asked Heavenly Father, ‘What do you want me to do? How do you want me to use my time?’” she recalls.

The opportunity to teach an online class at BYU–Idaho presented itself, and Sister Howard decided she would give it a try.

“For years I have said when our youngest is in school I would love to teach,” said Sister Howard. “I love being a stay-at-home mom, but there is something about reaching out to others.”

JanaLee Meeker works from her home in Rexburg, Idaho. She teaches a family advocacy course through BYU–Idaho’s online classes. Photo by Michael Lewis.

Now in her second year of teaching, life hasn’t become any less busy, but Sister Howard, who serves as second counselor in her ward’s Young Women presidency, says the experiences she has had as an online instructor have strengthened her faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and helped her become a better wife and mother.

“It’s not a piece of cake, but it gives me freedom to be with my kids and husband and still have that growth opportunity for myself,” she said. “Everything is on my time. I can do it during the day or at night, and it allows me to still be part of my kids’ lives.”

Sister Howard is one of more than 1,500 online instructors at Brigham Young University–Idaho who are working with students from around the world. For Sister Howard, teaching has now become an important part of her life.

“I plan on doing it as long as I can,” she said. “I still have to find balance, but it has brought a new energy to my life, and I have a lot of love for my students.”

What Is online learning?

In the year 2000, President Gordon B. Hinckley visited the Rexburg, Idaho, campus and announced the transition from Ricks College to Brigham Young University–Idaho. In addition to a change in name, the junior college transitioned into a four-year institution, bringing a year-round academic schedule and online courses.

Although online learning first took shape in the year 2000, it wasn’t until 2008 that it really started to grow. What started as a way to reach out and provide educational opportunities for a higher number of students—many of whom may never visit the Rexburg campus—has become a program primarily focused on helping students earn a degree.

Specially designed to “mirror the campus classroom experience,” BYU–Idaho’s online courses allow students the flexibility of attending BYU–Idaho wherever and whenever their schedule allows.

“It is convenient and they don’t need to move,” said Alan Young, online learning managing director at BYU–Idaho. “And in many cases they are still working.”

Offered as a way to help people become educated, the online program has been a blessing to thousands of students around the world. While some of the online student body started their studies at a Church school but for some reason weren’t able to finish their degree, many students in the online program didn’t have any college credit or even the prerequisites needed for admittance to college. It is through the Pathway program that those students are able to complete courses that allow them to matriculate into the online program (see “BYU–Idaho's Pathway Program Blesses Students Worldwide,” Church News, Oct. 29, 2015).

Most important, the online program helps students—many who would not otherwise have the opportunity—continue on their path to more education and better employment opportunities.

“We have students all over the world,” said Brother Young. “Anywhere there is a Pathway site we have students. … We even have [online] students where we don’t have Pathway sites.”

Depending on where a student lives and what would be helpful in their local area, there are a few options through BYU–Idaho for them to pursue—certificates, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree.

During the spring 2016 semester, 30,151 students enrolled in online classes at BYU–Idaho. More than half of those online students came from students enrolled in the online or Pathway programs.

An important element—and major reason—for offering a BYU–Idaho online degree is the opportunity for more students to obtain an education from a Church school, without some of the major costs or proximity issues.

“The connection between education and faith is a very important part of a BYU–Idaho education,” said Jon Linford, online vice president at BYU–Idaho. “In Doctrine and Covenants section 88 it talks about a study by learning and also by faith (see D&C 88:188), and that is an essential part of a Church education. The marriage between the two is something we need to be increasingly intentional about.”

“From where you are”

Because of the increasing number of online students in recent years, a key factor in providing education to so many students remotely has been finding qualified, faithful instructors.

“The nice thing about teaching online is you do it from where you are,” Brother Young said. “We have instructors scattered throughout the country—about 1,500 of them—and they do it from wherever they are, from home.”

Just as the growing online student body continues to expand around the world, so has the pool of instructors. Currently, online instructors come from 24 U.S. states, and administrators hope to increase that number as state certifications are granted. While some of the instructors are already teachers by profession, many are not but are considered experts in their field.

“[The instructors] love the Church; they want to contribute in some way and have developed an expertise,” Brother Young said. “This is an opportunity to share their expertise and testimony with the next generation.”

Whether it is a way to give something to future generations or a way to share their talents, skills, and testimony, instructors come from around the country and all sorts of disciplines and backgrounds. Although a weekly time commitment—on average around 10 hours a week—is required, the flexibility in when that teaching occurs makes it ideal for a working professional or stay-at-home parent who completed a degree but, like Sister Howard, has spent a few years raising a family.

“There is a training process they go through,” said Brother Young. “We walk them through the skills of teaching online, and before they get into a section with students they get to practice.”

Because of the flexible nature of online courses, much of the interaction with students happens through discussion boards and teacher feedback.

“The courses are very action-oriented,” said Brother Young. “The students are doing a lot. The courses aren’t based on a read and respond class; most are built around active learning activities with teams, and the instructor becomes a facilitator in the learning experience.”

The average class size is around 32 students, and—just as if they were meeting together in a physical classroom—an instructor’s main job is to help guide students through the learning process.

“You would expect that being physically in the room makes you more present, but what we have found in the online experience is that the student has to be more present,” said Brother Young. “In the online space, everyone speaks—that is part of being in the class. You don’t have to voice your thoughts in [a physical] classroom, but [students are] required to speak—or type—in the online class.”

Brother Young said they are always looking for instructors and that anyone interested in teaching should not be intimidated by the online classroom.

“The way we do online learning at BYU–Idaho is a team approach,” he said. “For every online instructor there is a group that is working together to help them. An instructor doesn’t have to be a tech guru. We have help and support or a fix-it person to take care of that.”

Instructors teach from a prepared curriculum, making it so they don’t have to come up with content to teach on their own. They are part-time employees of the university and are paid for their work. Prior to being hired, instructors must go through a three-part process including an ecclesiastical endorsement and an online certification.

“If they come with a passion for their discipline, a love for students, and their testimony, we can help them on the technology piece,” said Brother Young.

Lives changed

For most instructors, the benefits of teaching reach far beyond a paycheck and flexible schedule.

“I really do love what I do, and I love watching the Lord’s hand in it,” said Sister Howard. More than anything, her students teach her how to have faith and humility and that with the Lord’s help, “we can do hard things.”

Whether it is a young man from Ghana, a young woman from Russia, or a person in his or her 50s living in the States, Sister Howard said her students all have a thirst for knowledge and a love of the Savior.

“I get to help share the gospel and help educate those who may never have the opportunity,” she said. “More than anything, I am humbled and grateful to be able to be a part of the program. It is such a blessing to be part of something you know the Lord wants to succeed.”

For Brother Young, his favorite part of teaching comes as he sees the “students come alive.”

“Because we are in a gospel-centered culture, we are able to talk about faith and share testimony and life experiences. … Even though it may be a writing class or a physics class or a computer class, we are able to invite those experiences of faith.”

Visit the website to learn more about the online program and about becoming an instructor.

Kami Howard sits around the dinner table with her family. Sister Howard has been teaching online for more than a year. Photo courtesy of BYU–Idaho.

Photo courtesy of Deseret News.