By Lauren Campbell (’13)
Over Skype, John Horsman is a bit blurry, but this is the closest we can get to a face-to-face conversation.
Horsman lives in Lake Country, British Columbia, just a little north of Kelowna and a five hour drive from Spokane. He’s also a full-time Organizational Leadership professor for Gonzaga.
Most of Horsman’s classes are online, allowing him to teach students from all over the world without being on campus himself. Instead of lecturing in a classroom, he spends most of every day on his computer, preparing lessons, facilitating discussions and communicating with students. Online education is still evolving, but Horsman has complete faith in its potential.
“People can take one course at a time wherever they are,” he explained. “Our courses run for eight weeks, and we encourage students to take one at a time if they’re working. Not many people can stop mid-career, move their family to a university campus, and stay there for two years. I think there’s a tremendous market out there.”
Horsman certainly understands the importance of nontraditional education. He was 32 when he came to Gonzaga for undergraduate studies, after 13 years of farming and selling farm equipment in Saskatchewan.
“I sat in a room with 18-year-olds who were bright and knew the answers and I had to figure out how to read and write again, I hadn’t had to do that for years,” he said. “That’s profoundly influenced how I teach and the way I interact with students and my commitment to teaching them as adults.”
After a year of business school in Ontario, he decided the business world wasn’t where he belonged. Horsman went on to earn a Master’s in Organizational Leadership and a Doctorate in Leadership Studies, both from GU. He taught as an adjunct, and when a full-time professorship became available in the Organizational Leadership program, he knew it was the perfect position. He was able to live where he wanted to retire, and be a part of a program he believed in.
“I’m really sold on the Org-L program,” he said. “It’s a program that fits who I am and what I want to teach. I’m not interested in going to work at any other university. Gonzaga is where I want to finish my career because of the people, but because of the program too. I get to teach the moral, spiritual and business side all together.”
Once or twice a month, Horsman makes the drive to Spokane, sometimes for meetings, sometimes to teach on-campus portions of his regular courses. For the most part, though, his interactions with students are entirely electronic. Student reactions to his courses repudiate any claims that a professor can’t be effective in an online environment:
“I have never before experienced a professor at Gonzaga who was so involved in the discussions,” one student said. “His comments often caused me to pause, reflect and re-think. Many of his posts I copied into a Word document to read them again.”
Online education forces professors to teach in a completely different way, taking away a lot of the spontaneity of a classroom setting. Horsman learned by trial and error, quickly realizing that to successfully offer a class online required a lot more than uploading PDFs of the readings. Because his courses are so discussion-based, he has found it helpful to treat every student as a teacher also, encouraging them to share skills they have learned from their years in the workforce. He has had to find ways to engage electronically, participating in discussions and sending personal emails. The literature is always the primary authority; after all, it is often the only thing all his students have in common.
The challenge is worth it, because of what students can gain from learning online.
“The introverts get just as much time online as the extroverts, and an opportunity to express themselves better than they might in the classroom. Also, a lot of times I can’t tell if a student is male or female, or what race they are. We like to think we’re not biased but we are in a lot of ways. Online, people are judged just for what they write and much less who they are or their accent or other stuff that gets in the way of what they’re saying. It’s a lot more legitimate assessment of the person’s work.”
Unbiased, engaging education that doesn’t disrupt adult learner’s lives and careers? Horsman just might be onto something here.