You are eager to deepen your faith and prepare yourself to be better equipped for the ministry you're involved with (as a volunteer or paid ministry staff member). You desire the discipline of a classroom experience. But, you are too busy ministering to spend time on campus at a college, university, or seminary. Can I take courses from home? You ask yourself. How might distance learning effect the quality of my educational experience? You wonder. Could I actually earn a degree this way?
Those questions run through the minds of application-oriented believers every day. To answer these questions and more CTI surveyed a cross section of institutions that offer distance learning courses and degrees. Eight established schools offered their insight regarding the quickly growing trend of distance learning.
What are some benefits to distance learning?
Students enjoy the freedom to take classes while staying in ministry or at their job. They maintain their family life while studying. Participants in distance learning say they appreciate the flexibility in schedule which they can arrange around their already established responsibilities.
First Lieutenant and Executive Officer Lance Sellon serves as an example of a distance learner as he serves our country. Sellon took classes from Asbury Seminary while on duty in Kabul, Afghanistan. Those courses will eventually add up to a master of divinity degree enabling him to answer a call to military chaplaincy.
Another benefit to distance learning is that all students have an equal voice in the classroom. P.J. Oswald at Western Seminary, wrote, "In the distance education 'classroom,' no one is in the back row. Those reflective thinkers among us have an opportunity in an asynchronous environment to consider their responses carefully before engaging the discussion. They are not forced to the background by the spontaneous responders who may dominate the traditional classroom. In carefully moderated discussion forums, the integrity of the argument and not the level of the voice carries weight."
Simply put, "Shy people matter too," in distance learning situations.
How will I get the information for these courses?
From basic email to more advanced cyberclassrooms complete with conference calls and video technology, classrooms are leaving their traditional brick and mortar environment.
Delivery systems for course information varies from school to school. According to Don Bouchard at Crown College, for instance, all their distance education material is transferred through the internet, pairing that mode with traditional text book reading assignments. Students also post responses to various topics on the class online bulletin board and then check back to see what other students have to say on the subject. This "threaded discussion feature" is promoted as a way to build a learning community.
Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) uses CD's along with MP3 lectures to convey material. Included on the CD is the syllabus and notebook with course outlines in a PDF document. Because of the difficult nature of other languages, RTS also offers online Greek and Hebrew in an asynchronous format so students can have contact with the instructor via email.
Each semester RTS offers some courses in a live web-conferencing format. This allows the student to see and interact with the live courses via the internet. If they cannot be present at the live session, they can view it later in a playback session. RTS, and several other distance learning centers, are developing some course lectures to be presented at I-Tunes University.
Students appreciate being able to hit rewind and pick up a phrase missed while watching a lecture on DVD, video, or streaming video. Technology has rendered the learning process more flexible when it comes to self-pacing.
Will I interact with students of different backgrounds?
Some students have voiced concern over becoming isolated from other learners through distance courses. They desire to be challenged through thoughtful dialogue with other students from a variety of backgrounds. These concerns were alleviated by students who have already studied in a virtual environment. The many chat rooms, bulletin boards, email connections, and video conferences included in distance learning allows students to interact with an even wider variety of students than may be found in a specific locale on a traditional campus.
Dr. Rick Walston of Columbia Evangelical Seminary writes, "Our seminary, while being conservative and evangelical, has more than 50 faculty members representing around fifteen denominations and fellowships. So a strong possibility exists for students to foster new relationships with believers from different backgrounds as they interact with faculty and fellow online students, primarily through email."
A bachelor of science in management student at Indiana Wesleyan Online writes, "I have made many friends, enjoyed the courses and personal challenges, increased my biblical/spiritual relationship with Christ, and met some wonderful facilitators, professors and faculty at IWU, and all online."
Liberty University students are located around the world: Greece, Asia, South America, Canada, and Europe, as well as deployed military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. Through the use of discussion boards and email, students from various cultural and geographic backgrounds form communities that are strengthened by the richness of their diversity.
As students become more comfortable with connections made over the internet, the learning community has gone global and our interactions with fellow learners has expanded exponentially.
Does a distance learning course match classroom quality?
Every seminary strives to maintain the same level of quality for their distance learning programs as they offer in their on-campus courses. For example, Tina Pugel at Asbury Theological Seminary wrote, "It is essential that our online classes have the same quality of learning that our in-class students receive. Therefore, the majority of our online classes are taught by our full time faculty members."
P.J. Oswald at Western Seminary wrote, "Student evaluations reveal that those who prepare for classroom work through distance learning courses are adequately prepared at the same level of quality as they receive on campus." He said, "the students who prepared through distance learning felt well prepared for the campus courses and succeeded equally with other campus-track students.
Others even suggested that the distance learning experience exceeds the quality of a classroom experience. If you drift off in the middle of a lecture in a "real" classroom, they say, there's often no going back; however, if you are interrupted in thought while viewing a DVD, there's always the rewind button.
Four of the eight surveyed schools, Indiana Wesleyan, Columbia Seminary, Western Seminary, and Crown College, mentioned their emphasis on academic writing skills employed by their distance learning students. By emphasizing academic writing in response to their study, these schools believe the students digest information "at least as effectively" as they do in a traditional classroom.
Bottom line: Quality is high in distance learning courses.
What courses or degrees may I obtain?
Some schools offer individual courses aimed at continuing education without a specific degree in sight. Others make available certificate programs, and still others offer upper level courses including both master and doctoral level studies.
For example, through the distance learning programs at Asbury Theological Seminary students can earn 62 credit hours towards a master of divinity program and up to 50% (approximately 30 hours) for other master level degree programs
Crown College Online offerings include associate, bachelors, and masters degrees in ministry, communication, and education. They also have a new R.N. to B.S.N. program that allows registered nurses with associate degrees to complete their bachelor of science.
Dallas Theological Seminary offers sixteen of their course credits online, taught by the same faculty and with the same expectations of course work as its on-campus programs. These course credits will transfer toward a degree, the bulk of which must be earned on one of their campuses.
Indiana Wesleyan Online includes one of the most extensive and varied lists of course and degree offerings available at a distance, ranging from associate to masters degrees, along with a variety of certificate programs. Areas of study broaden beyond theological education and ministry to include criminal justice, accounting, business, nursing, health management, education, communication, human services, and special education.
Liberty University's Distance Learning and Graduate Studies program currently offers more than 30 online degree programs ranging from associate degrees to doctoral level degrees. Areas of study include religion, psychology, business, accounting, criminal justice, nursing (RN completion), general studies, and B.S. degrees in management information systems and multi-disciplinary studies.
Master level and some doctoral level degrees from Liberty include business administration, management, accounting, education, clinical counseling, nursing, human services, and a Ph.D. in counseling (through their intensive program).
Liberty's seminary degrees include master level degrees in religion, pastoral counseling, Christian leadership, evangelism and church planting, theological studies and a Master of Divinity.
Reformed Theological Seminary's virtual campus offers a fully accredited Master of Arts in Religion degree. 90 percent of this degree program can be completed at a distance. The remaining 10 percent is completed on campus in two seminars.
In addition to the M.A. degree, Reformed offers certificate programs in Biblical studies, theological studies, historical studies, missions, and disability ministries. They also offer special student status for those who only desire to take some courses, but do not desire a degree or certificate.
Two distance learning centers in this sampling of institutions offer programs that connect students with local mentors: Columbia Seminary in Washington State and Western Seminary in Sacramento, CA.
Columbia Seminary offers a unique approach to distance learning, allowing students to choose a mentor from their local denomination or fellowship, with the student taking a personal role in developing his or her own curriculum.
Columbia is up front about not being accredited and highlights its mentoring approach and student-involved curriculum development as benefits that set them apart.
Degrees offered by Columbia include associates to doctoral degrees in apologetics, Biblical studies, counseling, evangelism, ministry, missions, philosophy, and theology.
Western Seminary, base in Sacramento, offers a catalog containing more than 80 audio and video courses that students may take for credit, audit, or enrichment. Western's for credit courses provide the distance student a realistic opportunity to advance toward a degree program, to complete a 30-hour Graduate Studies Diploma, or a 16-hour Graduate Studies Certificate.
Similar to Columbia's approach, a Western student in either the certificate or diploma program may apply credits earned toward a degree program so that each individual can build a program as time and resources permit.
Western's Advanced Studies Certificate (ASC) is a flexible option for those not wishing to earn a degree. Each Western Seminary student in the ASC program benefits from a mentor who helps guide their progress toward an integrative project.
Is distance learning for you?
Some students still prefer to be physically present in a "real" classroom, complete with live questions and lively debate, and the intoxicating aroma of dry erase marker. Others prefer bringing the classroom into their home where the flexibility of schedule, delivery systems geared for people on the go, and DVD lectures that can be paused or rewound outweigh the benefits of on-campus study.
Distance education won't suit everyone's needs. It requires a high level of self-discipline and self-motivation that some students just don't possess. Because the learning styles of students differ there will always be some students who simply respond better in a live classroom situation. P.J. Oswald believes that if someone thinks distance education is the "easy way out," they will soon discover otherwise.
Bob Abegg from Dallas Seminary writes, "While distance learning does not replace the valuable face to face classroom setting, all of the elements necessary for truly life-changing theological education are present in online formats: instruction from world-class faculty, challenging assignments, and a strong community experience."
For those self-starters who also possess strong study skills, distance learning may be just what the professor ordered.
Clark Cothern is the Sr. Pastor at Living Water Community Church, Ypsilanti, MI. He has authored three books and contributes to Leadership Journal, Focus on the Family, and other periodicals