The decision to attend seminary or graduate school is rarely as simple as finding the perfect program and signing up. Today's graduate students tend to be older, and their lives are already full of professional, family, and church responsibilities. Given the complexity of daily living and the ubiquity of the Internet, the practicalities of distance learning can be very attractive: earn the degree without quitting one's job or uprooting the family, complete coursework at any hour, and do it at a reduced cost.
"One of the first things prospective students look at is how accessible the programs are: can they stay in their current ministry context and go to school without relocating? This is a huge concern for our students," says Joseph Dworak, director of Admissions and Strategic Initiatives at Bethel Seminary (with locations in St. Paul, San Diego, New England, and Washington, D.C.). Just as important is whether the degrees offered through Bethel's InMinistry Distance Learning program are compatible with their own professional goals.
"Typically, those in ministry place a high value on godly stewardship," says Rick Walston, president of Columbia Evangelical Seminary (CES) in Buckley, Washington. He adds that students "carefully weigh their priorities in an attempt to determine if the tuition is a good investment of their finances."
One of the other pressing questions, Walston observes, concerns academic integrity. "Students want to know that they will receive a solid education that is comparable to the traditional classroom setting. In many cases the same curriculum and professors are used in the traditional classroom as well as through distance learning, thus assuring the prospective student that the education itself is virtually identical."
Geographical distance doesn't always drive students toward distance learning, observes Mary Lowe, dean of the Erskine Virtual Campus (EVC) at Erskine Theological Seminary (with campuses in Due West and Columbia, South Carolina). Jobs and other responsibilities can also prevent people from committing to traditional on-campus programs regardless of their proximity. These students "express interest in taking courses in a manner that allows them to continue working in their places of ministry," Lowe says, and they appreciate the "anytime, anywhere" flexibility that online classes offer. "They are also looking for quality course content and professors who will guide them through areas of interest that will impact their work and ministry."
Program options and delivery systems vary widely. Seminaries that are accredited by The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) are required to structure most master's degrees so that "at least one year of full-time academic study or its equivalent" is completed on campus, according to the ATS Standards of Accreditation. To comply, these seminaries have constructed their Master of Divinity (M.Div.) and Master of Arts (M.A.) distance programs so that the equivalent number of credit hourstotaling one-third of the M.Div. and one-half of the M.A.are taken on-site, usually through periodic intensive courses. For instance, distance education students in Bethel Seminary's M.Div. and certain M.A. degree programs complete their online courses in the fall and spring and then come to campus for one-week intensives in January and June.
As much as possible, distance education providers strive for continuity in course content. Through the Erskine Virtual Campus, students may take online courses that can be applied toward any of the seminary's M.Div. and M.A. programs. "Erskine Theological Seminary seeks to align its [curricular] building blocks with the standards required by the ATS, which stipulate that schools must 'provide opportunities through which students may grow in personal faith, emotional maturity, moral integrity, and public witness,'" Lowe says. "We want solid theological education of the same quality as offered in our on-campus courses, we want pedagogical soundness in course delivery so students maximize their learning, and we want online courses to form students spiritually just like [our] on-campus courses. In essence, although the delivery system is different, the content, process, and goals are identical."
At the Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (GRTS) of Cornerstone University (Grand Rapids, Michigan), students may take up to five distance education courses toward any of the seminary's master's degrees. "Most [GRTS] students will take at least a couple of online or distance classes during their degree," observes Graham McKeague, director of Admissions. And oftentimes, McKeague adds, "The fulltime GRTS faculty also teach the classes for our online degrees."
At Northwestern College in St. Paul, all of the course requirements for two of its master's degrees can be completed online. Whether students choose to work as part of an online learning group or do an independent study, all coursework must be completed during the semester. However, the curriculum is the same regardless of the chosen format, says Michelle Ulland, senior admission counselor. "Our admissions staff is very attentive to the individual needs and goals of prospective students. They are eager to make sure the student finds a right educational fit, rather than just fit someone into 'our program.'"
Flexibility and specialization have always been hallmarks of Columbia's degree programs. All of themfrom an associate's to a doctoral degree are completed via distance learningand with no residency requirement. Coursework consists of self-paced study under the guidance of a faculty mentor, allowing students to pursue highly specialized majors or interdisciplinary studies as fits their educational goals. "Not only may students select mentors from our faculty, but also
pastors or educators from their own denominations or fellowships," Walston says. "They may also build their curricula specifically to study the beliefs taught by their own denominations or fellowships. This is especially important for the person who desires to become a full-time minister with a particular church."
Because there is so much diversity in terms of program options, requirements, and delivery systems, prospective students are urged to examine any school's distance-learning programs carefully to ensure that their educational and professional goals will be met. Prior to enrollment, students who want to teach at the undergraduate or graduate level "should first speak to prospective employers about what they require," advises Walston. When the goal is ordination, missions, or some other form of church or parachurch ministry, "we advise students to communicate with the 'gatekeepers' of the careers or ministries they wish to pursue and find out if the specific organization will accept the prospective student's distance education degree."
Students are also encouraged to honestly assess whether a distance education would be a good fit for them personally. One challenge in distance learning, Northwestern's Ulland says, is "the personal discipline required to stay on track with studies without a weekly face-to-face time; a great deal of self-discipline, motivation, and time management are required for success in the program." Northwestern helps students maintain a healthy
level of accountability, she says, "primarily through access to student support services staff and by creating opportunities for ongoing contact with professors and other students."
"Learning at a distance requires students to be disciplined about setting aside time to work through their classes," agrees Bethel's Dworak, noting that weekly assignments are one way to help students stay on track. Additionally, Bethel students "receive excellent support from our staff throughout the entire process. Students who are at a distance cannot drop by campus to receive student support. Our InMinistry team is readily available online and by phone to help students register, to answer advising questions, and more."
The technologies required to participate in distance education can sometimes be a barrier to learning. So schools ask prospective students to take this into consideration; they also reach out to those who need a little extra help. At Erskine, "We provide our students with a number of options that assist them in overcoming [any] fears related to technology," Lowe reports, including "an online orientation, email and telephone access to a live help desk
[a] course that incorporates technology
and a tutorial that guides them through the course management system."
To aid prospective students in discerning whether or not online study would be a good fit, Erskine has developed a self-administered Online Learning Readiness Assessment that's available on the school's website. Lowe says, "We counsel students to consider online learning readiness, self-directedness, technical limitations, and personal barriers that might inhibit a successful learning experience. We also counsel them to consider the
technology requirements in terms of hardware, software, and their own technical abilities."
Admissions officers want to make sure that prospective students understand both the benefits and the challenges of online study. "In general, we want to discourage prospective students from thinking of online degrees as the path of least resistance," says Grand Rapids' McKeague. "Often we describe what online degrees are not like in order to emphasize what they are like. For example, they are not any less academically rigorous, they typically require more discipline and motivation to complete than in-residence degrees, and they are not for everyone." McKeague reports that he also asks potential students if their family, friends, and church support their decision to take seminary classes. "You will need their support to get through the tough times in the program," he says.
One of the most frequently raised questions about distance education is relational: Does online study deprive students of meaningful relationship-building experiences? This issue is one reason why many schools employ the cohort model. "At the core of a quality distance education experience is the cohort, a group of adult learners who journey together through their degree work at Bethel Seminary," Dworak says. "This group is critical to the success of its individual members, who are on campus but twice a year."
Students in the M.Div. and M.A. programs at GRTS complete their core Bible and theology coursework as part of a cohort of 15 to 18 students who work closely with a faculty advisor. Progressing through these core classes as a group "is important for building relationships and community as they learn together," McKeague says. Fostering "an environment for our students to build relationships with each other as learners, and with faculty, is a significant step in providing a quality education."
Discussion boards and chat rooms can help students cultivate interpersonal connections as well. "We have found that the organic development of communication within a class groupstudents and instructorsbecomes an enriching part of the distance-learning experience," Northwestern's Ulland says. She also points out that distance education students can interact with others on Moodle, the school's Internet-based course management tool.
While many point to isolation as being a hazard of distance learning, "Some would argue that disconnection is not just a byproduct of online education, but may in fact reflect a national crisis," says Erskine's Lowe, who also serves as executive director of The Association of Christian Distance Education. "It is not a foregone conclusion that face-to-face classes generate natural community," she points out, as some students use personal electronic devices to multitask incessantly while on campus, and others must leave immediately after class to meet the demands of their job, ministry, or family. "One
of the trends we have noticed in online classes is the intentional effort students put forth to connect with one another, engage each other, and reflect more deliberately with course content, professor interaction, and peer contribution.
Seminary curricula, particularly for the M.Div. degree, include spiritual formation as a critical component of preparation for ministry. For Bethel's distance education students, "The cohort model is essential to this processspiritual formation is tough to do in isolation," Dworak says. "The cohort members know each other very well, and a community is built that allows for spiritual formation to take place during intensive classes, online chats, and more."
EVC students are expected to participate in online journals, discussion boards, or chat rooms. Sometimes, Lowe reports, the discussion board becomes a prayer room in which students post prayers, prayer requests, items for praise, and words of encouragement to one another. "In one research study conducted with Erskine Seminary students, the issue of community formation in online courses was self-reported to be instrumental in spiritual growth," she says. "The terms used by study participants to describe their online interactive experiences included uplifting, prayerful support, encouragement, and reinforcement."
And relationship-building efforts between students and faculty members offer another context in which spiritual growth can blossom. Walston says Columbia's mentorship model gives students "far more access to their mentor/professor than students typically have at traditional seminaries. Often, CES students and their mentors develop longer-term friendships, and their interactions during their degree programs become enriched by their personal interaction."
For those who are prepared to meet the challenges of distance education, the benefits can be immensely rewarding. "The first and perhaps most obvious benefit is that such students do not have to uproot their families and careers," Walston says. "They can remain gainfully employed in their ministry and keep their family solidly in their community while they earn their degree through distance education."
Grand Rapids' McKeague agrees: "For those who could not [otherwise] gain access to a seminary-level education, it can be a very rewarding experience and a real answer to prayer."
In addition to the convenience and accessibility it offers, distance education may in fact enhance the direct application of coursework to ministry. "Traditional practices of theological education hold that students should be extracted from their ministry and relocated to a somewhat re-created sense of theological campus ministry," Lowe says. "Some studies have indicated that students feel it is more effective to stay in ministry while completing theological programs at a distance."
Bethel Seminary's Dworak has observed a similar dynamic. "Each of our distance students already serves in a ministry context, so every day they enjoy the opportunity to instantly apply what they are learning," he says.
The key to a successful distance education, Walston argues, is self-motivation and the ability to set both short- and long-term goals. "Those who know how to set goals for themselves and are able to reach those goals will be more successful than those who do not. These people are often ambitious but also realistic."
Northwestern's Ulland agrees. "Like any educational endeavor, the student who has made a serious commitment to his or her education will succeed. We have seen great success stories emerge, from stay-at-home parents to busy executives to senior citizens," she says. "Success is determined much less by a particular profile than by a willingness to work, exercise self-discipline, and be dedicated to their studies."
Kathy Furlong is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA.