Lessons From the Big Leap to Online Learning

By Andrew Myers

In 2010, Mariale Hardiman, a professor and former acting dean in the Johns Hopkins School of Education, set out on an adventure to transition her popular Mind, Brain, and Teaching graduate certificate program to the online world. At the time, the prospect was a relative novelty, especially among the bastions of higher education. Many experts feared the highly personal nature of face-to-face education would suffer, or even disappear, in the computer-based online setting.

“I knew that it was time to offer the program to students beyond Baltimore, but that plunge felt like I was jumping off of a high diving board into a deep lake of murky water,” says Hardiman now.

Hardiman worked with the Center for Technology in Education to take her Brain-Targeted Teaching model online and to make the Mind, Brain, and Teaching certificate one of the first Johns Hopkins School of Education programs to be offered fully online.

Back then, Hardiman would have counted herself sympathetic with the skeptics. But today, 10 years on, she tells a refreshingly different story: one of remarkable and lasting emotional bonds that developed among that first group of students.

She was reminded of the lessons learned during a recent online reunion of those students via the medium that’s become familiar to today’s pandemic-hardened educators and students: Zoom.

Surprising even to Hardiman was that a group of four students would not only complete the program together, but they would remain close friends. Those students—Vicky Krug, Kelly Murillo, Jeremy Mettler, and Victoria Douglas—were as disparate as one might imagine. They came from four different states, pursued four different disciplines, enjoyed four very different backgrounds, and had four different reasons for entering the inaugural online MBT program.

With each assignment and project in that first semester, trust grew among the four. Long after the course concluded, they continued to share professional and educational resources, as well as book suggestions. They still connect today, intellectually and personally, through a text group that supports their professional and personal lives. Inspired by the reunion and the flood of introspection it begot, Hardiman asked her online protégés to recount their experience of the last decade.

If anyone was the glue of the group, it was Vicky Krug. She was teaching at a community college south of Pittsburgh at the time. Her connection to the course was perhaps more personal and concrete than that of anyone in the group. Seven years prior, Vicky had sustained a severe traumatic brain injury in a car accident. Only an astounding recovery allowed her to enter the MBT program. Almost instantly, the friends’ group became part of her recovery.

“I maintained contact with each of them for advice, wisdom, support in subsequent courses,” Krug says, who has met Jeremy, Kelly, and Victoria in person on separate occasions. “The program became interwoven with my personal philosophy and approach … in and out of the classroom.” She finds herself, even today, wanting to share her life events with the three people she met online.

Working in an impoverished small rural town in southern Colorado, Kelly Murillo says her experience in the online course was no mere blip in her life. “I am grateful for the beautiful connection to learning and relationships at JHU that became the hallmark of my experience,” she says.

Prior to the MBT program, Jeremy Mettler was finding it hard to get his students past the state tests and was looking for a new approach to teaching. He describes himself as being diagnosed with a learning disability.

“I call it ADHG,” he says. “The ‘G’ is for GIFT!”

He knew almost upon being paired with the others that it was going to be a special group.

“This was the first group where I felt comfortable asking any of them for help without fear of judgment. We’re not only classmates anymore, we’re friends,” Mettler says.

The fourth member of the group, Victoria Douglas, was teaching French and English at private school when she decided she needed to be more effective in the classroom. The Mind, Brain, and Teaching graduate certificate was not only the best she could find reputationally, but it also met her personal goals. She now works at a public school in Delaware as a college and career readiness coordinator and the assistant district director of AVID. Whether coaching educators or working on curriculum, she says she can rely on the firm foundation of research, thinking, and learning gathered back at JHU and from Hardiman.

“I am beyond grateful for the experience. We’re forever friends,” Douglas says.

While such stories may make it easy to look back at this first cohort as somehow special, 2020 certificate earner Kara Seidel can tell a similar story of her close bonds with classmates that developed online. She’s proud to be part of the program and now has a permanent group of colleagues with whom to discuss experiences and research in education.

“There are many Vickys in my class who came forward to be the glue binding us together,” she says. “The shared experiences of online learning, and personal connection we built, will endure.”