February 19, 2021

Small Colleges Leverage Digital Tools to Deliver Big Educational Benefits to Students in the Midst of Worldwide Pandemic

At Centenary University, national-level speakers and research opportunities enrich the educational experience and expand opportunities for students.

HACKETTSTOWN, NJ, Feb. 19, 2021—While many large universities opted for virtual fall semesters due to COVID-19, many smaller universities offering in-person instruction leveraged digital tools to reimagine the college experience—and deliver big educational benefits to students. In fact, Centenary University President Bruce Murphy, Ed.D., points out that institutions like Centenary were perfectly positioned to pivot quickly and capitalize on the benefits of virtual instruction, without sacrificing the on-campus interaction that is the hallmark of a small college education.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that smaller colleges hold big benefits for students during the current health crisis,” said Dr. Murphy, pointing to Centenary Choice, a program introduced last fall that allows students to attend classes on campus or virtually, as well as in a HyFlex format combining in-person and virtual learning. “At a time when students need more support than ever to continue their studies, small colleges have stepped up with enhanced academic programs and personalized support systems. HyFlex and remote courses have also created opportunities to invite influential national-level speakers into virtual classrooms—an option that would have been prohibitively expensive for smaller colleges prior to the pandemic.”

At Centenary, academic agility sparked by the pandemic has spurred an initiative to broaden educational opportunities. Last fall, Raymond Frey, Ph.D., professor of history, assigned an independent research project to students in his African American History course using the digital archives of the Truman Library. The charge: to analyze the library’s original documents to determine the motivations for U.S. President Harry Truman’s call for racial justice in a 1947 speech to the NAACP’s national conference at the Lincoln Memorial.

“Rather than passive learning through lectures and textbooks, I wanted students to get their hands dirty like real historians, searching through the archives and coming to their own conclusions,” said Dr. Frey, who has served as a consultant with the Truman Library. “Historians go beyond history.com to find answers. Some of my students struggled at first. They had never been asked to do this kind of research, so it was a huge transition for them. In the end, I was very proud of how they responded.”

In addition to creating more hands-on learning opportunities for students, digital tools have the potential to broaden their world view through virtual presentations that encourage students to interact with national level thought leaders. Vice President for Academic Affairs Amy D’Olivo Ph.D., explained, “There’s no doubt that the pandemic has presented many challenges to educational institutions. Yet, it has also presented extraordinary opportunities. For instance, the digital landscape has translated into the ability to bring national-level speakers directly into the Centenary University classroom, without the need for large travel budgets. Now, our students can learn from top experts in their fields, in a format that encourages one-on-one interaction.”

Among the renowned guest speakers to address Centenary students virtually during the fall semester was Dr. Craig Spencer, global health leader and national expert on COVID-19, who served as the semester’s Gates-Ferry Distinguished Lecturer. In addition, members of the WNBA addressed the Centenary women’s basketball team from their protective bubble, and a Leadership Enhancement course taught by Dr. Murphy provided opportunities for Honors Program students to view leadership through the lens of virtual guest speakers including Norman R. Augustine, founding president and retired CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation and a former undersecretary of the U.S. Army; Belle S. Wheelan, CEO of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges and former secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Virginia; General John W. Nicholson Jr., one of the most combat seasoned four-star generals in American military history; and Kevin Kit Parker, Ph.D., Harvard professor and leading researcher in cardiac cell biology and tissue engineering, traumatic brain injury, and biological applications of micro- and nanotechnologies.

Ultimately, the goal at Centenary and the nation’s other colleges and universities is the return of all students to campus for in-person instruction. While the pandemic has been difficult to weather, in many ways it has prompted educational institutions to take a hard look at every aspect of college life and find ways to improve the experience. At Centenary, that has meant evaluating how to leverage the benefits of digital tools when students return to the physical classroom. The University is also exploring new virtual partnerships with educational institutions across the nation to pool resources and expand educational offerings. A deepened comfort level with digital learning born during the pandemic has now accelerated that effort and will help to level the playing field between small universities and their larger counterparts.

“The hallmark of a Centenary University education will always be the face-to-face mentoring our faculty provides to students,” Dr. D’Olivo said. “That’s something technology will never change. The big difference now is that we have new digital tools that create more opportunities for our students to interact with a broader range of ideas and engage even more powerfully with the world outside of the classroom.”


Founded in 1867 by the Newark Conference of the United Methodist Church, Centenary University’s academic program integrates a solid liberal arts foundation with a strong career orientation. This mix provides an educational experience that prepares students to succeed in the increasingly global and interdependent world. The University’s main campus is located in Hackettstown, N.J., with its equestrian facility in Washington Township. The Centenary University School of Professional Studies offers degree programs in Parsippany, as well as online and at corporate sites throughout New Jersey.

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