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Not Online, Not Distant – Quality Education Can Create Connection from Anywhere

Antioch’s Graduate School in Leadership and Change’s highly successful PhD in Leadership and Change and its new Master in Leadership Practice are not online degrees. We always referred to them as low-residency or hybrid. Those words might not seem very exciting and energetic, but these words were specifically chosen to focus on a delivery model not the technology of delivery. But those two words, low-residency or hybrid, do not capture what we do or how we do it.

Vocabulary Matters

As Provost of the Graduate School, I struggle with the words we use to describe what we do. There isn’t a perfect vocabulary. It is absolutely true that our students and faculty can study, live, and work from anywhere across the country and world. But that alone does not make our programs “online.” Technology allows access to our distinctive programs and does not about what happens once students are enrolled. 

Our students and faculty come together in powerful residencies several times a year using all manner of tools – from email to Zoom, from Google to phone – in a robust set of individual and group learning processes. The most important factor in our programs is the power of learning, the transformational journeys of our students, the caring community of learners – not the delivery structure. Words matter a lot because they frame how we understand something, they can enrich or limit our imaginations. When it comes to graduate education we want students to successfully achieve their degree in a timely way but also we want that journey to completion to be stimulating and meaningful. 

Long before the pandemic upended our lives and prompted colleges and universities by the hundreds to go “online,” offer distance education, and provide virtual courses, Antioch University has been offering high-quality graduate studies to geographically dispersed students for more than 20 years. We have esteemed faculty and alumni from around the globe. 

What comes to mind when you think of ‘distance?’ I think about the space between things or an aloofness between people. Yet, quality education cannot be distant – it holds and empowers learners. Or, what comes to mind when you think of “virtual?” Not real, right? But teaching and learning has the potential for profound individual transformation and professional growth. More real it could not be. And, “remote,” conjures up thoughts of being removed in space or time. But when I think of education, I think of the power of connection, of the days when “a teacher touched

my soul,” or a “book blew me away.” If teaching and learning has the power to shake one’s world like that then it cannot be remote, or distant or virtual.

That’s why I think the words we use matter. They can become unquestioned descriptions that frame the meaning about the endeavor of higher education. But we should question them and I would hope that those interested in the Graduate School of Leadership & Change would ask about what they mean. 

Words Can Mislead

It isn’t always easy to use words that need more explaining. I’ve been told by dozens of marketing consultants over many long years that for “search engine optimization” we should include the descriptor, online, as in online PhD. I have said no – consistently and emphatically. While more viewers might hit us, they would be misled. 

The defining characteristic of our education is NOT the technology or tool, just as it was never about the pencil or pen. It is about the very nature of our mission-driven, personalized and experiential pedagogy rooted in the power of education to help students build meaningful lives. This is our core. Modality is only a means. The ultimate goal is to educate students as compassionate citizens and socially engaged professionals committed to “furthering social, economic and environmental justice.” 

Every university’s definition may differ. For some, remote delivery, virtual learning, distance education may be precisely who they are and what they do. My point, however, is not to deny the tools but to use them most expansively, to not let the conversation about quality education be reduced to delivering content efficiently as if the act of transmission is the purpose. 

Words Frame Expectations

So, I search for words to describe what the Graduate School of Leadership and Change does. One colleague suggested we call it a continuum model. The notion of movement holds promise, however, it brings to mind a linear progression of one stage, the physical classroom, moving to another stage, a mix of on-site and on-line, to a completely online stage. While there is some truth in a mixed model approach, it fails to capture an embodied design in which each and every learning moment holds all possibilities of connectivity at any one time. I know that sounds grandiose but it is true.

Another colleague suggested we use the term fusion. I like that. Fusion is about merging diverse, distinct elements into a unified whole. It is about a union that results in something bigger than the parts separately, like fusion cuisine. We indeed are about boundary-expanding graduate education that resists narrow confines and definitions. That’s why we’re interdisciplinary and not specialized, that’s why we’re cross-sector and not sector-specific, and that’s why we’re a fusion approach rather than an online degree.

This shift in words does matter. The degree programs of the Antioch Graduate School of Leadership and Change are about personalized pedagogy that focuses on the student as an individual learner. Cohort connectivity powers a diverse and dynamic learning community from around the world. Highly skilled and experienced faculty are devoted full-time to the success of our students. Our programs deliver transformational learning with high graduation rates and alumni who are leading change in organizations and workplaces around the world. 

Antioch’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change offers an energetic fusion of imaginative curriculum, community and care from anywhere. It may need explaining, but so does life. It may need unpacking, but so does education. It may not be found easily by organic search optimization, but those who find it will know what we stand for.