Technology has changed not only our lives, but our vocabularies. Words and phrases such as webcast, e-mail, text messaging, and chat room were unheard of just a decade ago. Now they are a part of most people's (especially young people's) everyday language.
Sometimes familiar words take on new meaning. The word virtual is a good example. This word has been around for a long time, but only within the last decade has it been paired with the word classroom. The implication of a virtual classroom, based on a traditional understanding of the words' meanings, is that such a classroom is not real, but rather, merely virtual.
One could, however, make a strong case that the term virtual classroom is in some sense a misnomer. After all, the people whose lives (not to mention careers) are being changed as a result of the virtual classroom of distance education are real. The knowledge people from all around the country and all over the world are gaining about the Old and New Testaments is real. Their increased understanding of Christian theology and doctrine is real, as is their spiritual growth and the new insights they are gaining in such ministry areas as evangelism, leadership, counseling, discipleship, and Christian education.
Through the virtual classroom, students are discovering that good information is good information, whether it is transmitted from a professor to students in a classroom or via an e-mail exchange from a teacher to a student who might, quite literally, be located halfway around the world. Indeed, distance education has, for all intents and purposes, eliminated the distance gap. It has provided people (who ten years ago could never have dreamed of getting a quality theological education) with an opportunity to see such a dream become real.
For some, distance education is a step toward a new career. For others it is an opportunity to pursue an interest. For many, the goal is to become more effective in Christian ministry. For all, the results are both real and significant. Following is a small sampling of testimonies to the real changes resulting from the virtual classroom.
Moody Bible Institute
Rebecca Giselbrecht, an online studies student in the Moody Distance Learning Center program, is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Biblical Studies from her home in Switzerland. She chose Moody because her mother had a friend in the U.S. who'd gone to Moody and who recommended it highly. "I had a real desire to understand God's Word," Giselbrecht says.
She started with an Old Testament survey class and, several courses later, will graduate in May 2005. She actually took more courses than she had to take in order to earn her degree. "It is important to me that I know the Bible well, and the Bible classes were a treat to me," Giselbrecht says.
"The Personal Evangelism class was an eye-opener, and Global Culture and Christian Missions changed me greatly," Giselbrecht continues. My desire to carry out the Great Commission has grown and become a big life motivation for me. In the process of studying, God has changed my character, lifestyle, and priorities."
Giselbrecht was pleasantly surprised by the relationships she formed. "Some people think that online programs are impersonal or make it difficult to have friendships, but this wasn't true of my experience. I've had lively contact with other students and the professors. It was always encouraging when my professors would write an e-mail or join in the discussion boards."
Giselbrecht plans to attend seminary, as does her husband. She will work toward a Master or Arts degree in Global Leadership. "We would like to work in missions, and have even considered developing some online training for missionaries in Europe," she says. "My studies have enriched my work and been a pleasure. All of the classes are useful for my work."
Indiana Wesleyan University
Dennis H. Rowell did his student teaching in the fall of 1972. However, he did not begin his teaching career until the fall of 2002.
Why the delay? Well, soon after Rowell graduated from college over thirty years ago, his father-in-law was injured and could no longer operate the family's dairy farm. Rowell had grown up on a farm. "The opportunity to buy and operate a dairy farm seemed like the right decision," he says. "At that time, I thought that people who couldn't do anything else became teachers. The best people became farmers."
Nearly three decades later, in 2000, Rowell sold the dairy farm and worked for two years in a lumberyard before sensing it was time to rekindle his interest in teaching. "I felt a little like Moses," he says. "I had a good education, then had gone into the wilderness for several years, and now it was time to come back."
In the fall of 2002, Rowell was hired to teach algebra at Jay County High School in Portland, Indiana, 16 miles from his farm. And in June 2003, he began working on his Master of Education degree online at Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU).
"I needed to get caught up with what was happening in education throughout the country," Rowell says. "IWU's online program was just right for me. I've done all of the work for my master's degree on weekends, so I can keep up with lesson plans and grading during the week."
Rowell says the M.Ed. program at IWU is just one of the ways the Lord has affirmed that he made the right decision to return to teaching. Rowell completed work on his master's degree in January of 2005 and is scheduled to graduate in April.
Columbia International University
Cheryl Erb is a perfect example of how Columbia International University (CIU) reaches non-traditional students as part of its mission to develop and equip people of all ages to know Christ and to make him known throughout the world. She is 40, single, and has lived near Mandeville, Jamaica, for almost seven years. Prior to moving to Jamaica, Erb worked in a bank as an administrative assistant. She says that earlier in her life, she felt anxious and worried, and thus chose not to go to college.
However, a deeper desire to understand the Bible coupled with a mission board requirement for her to get some kind of Bible knowledge to become a missionary led her to CIU. She is currently a Mission to the World missionary in a co-op with the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf.
Erb took two Old Testament Survey classes and is currently finishing up New Testament Survey. She has been challenged in her walk with Christ and uniquely equipped for her work in Jamaica because of the program CIU offers. "It's great because it can fit into my individual schedule," says Erb. "Having the cassettes means that you can go over a lesson again or keep it and listen to it long after the course is finished."
This flexibility is something that all non-traditional students cite as being critical to their on-going progress and success at CIU. Erb could not have achieved this balance of work and study without this distance learning relationship. "The opportunity to learn and grow without taking extended time away from the ministry God has called me to is one of the biggest plusses for me."
Trinity Theological Seminary
Although a veteran college-level mathematics teacher, Graham C Ashworth has harbored a lifelong passion for theology. That is why he was delighted to discover Trinity Theological Seminary's doctoral program. "Trinity provided me with a distance educational program that was accredited, unique, and challenging," Ashworth says. "It was an exciting opportunity for me to earn valuable academic credentialing without being required to relocate or sacrifice current employment."
Soon after the materials arrived for the first course, Ashworth embarked on a demanding yet fulfilling and enriching journey that he was both determined and highly motivated to finish. "I found it tremendously gratifying to realize that my interest in theology had progressed to formal study," he says.
Compared to his two traditional degrees (undergraduate at the University of Wales and graduate at Harvard University), Ashworth quickly discovered the advantages that come with being able to work according to his own timetable. "Without the pressure of meeting a professor's deadlines, I found that I was researching and reading more, rather than less, in preparation for writing papers. The modular course structure enabled me to pursue learning and complete research that was personally interesting and completely relevant."
"Teaching is my ministry," Ashworth says."My doctorate from Trinity provides a new level of academic credibility among my peers, allowing me to extend that ministry to other disciplines." For example, Ashworth's took for his English elective a class on the Bible as literature. The degree "also provides the credentials necessary for me to teach in a Christian college or university, which would add a new depth and perspective to my work with young adults," Asworth says. "There is no question that my life has been enriched by doctoral level study and research, as offered by a quality distance-learning course of studies."
Fuller Theological Seminary
About five years ago, after 23 years in ministry with the Worldwide Church of God, Charles Fleming began looking for a special program of study. "The demands of ministering in a confusing world had been compounded for me by a radical change in theology, administrative structure, and practice in the Worldwide Church of God," says Fleming. "Our move from cultic existence to orthodox Christianity required that after decades of legalistic thinking, we all learn to minister out of the grace of Jesus Christ."
Fleming says he felt ill equipped to meet this demand, especially when he was asked to provide leadership for the denomination's churches in Latin America and the Caribbean. "It took me two years to find the right program," says Fleming. But "Fuller Theological Seminary's Master of Arts in Global Leadership (MAGL) program was worth the wait."
"Helping to renew a denomination involves more than just changing its official teachings," Fleming says. "Ultimately, renewal means a transformation of the heart. God renews a church one member at a time in a process that is both supernatural and organizational. Individual growth is strengthened by the formation of a culture that enhances spiritual transformation and reinforces mission initiatives."
"The MAGL, with core and elective courses taught largely online, has given me the flexibility to grow and meet these challenges, becoming both a facilitator of individual spiritual growth and an agent of structural change. Most precious and transformational for me has been the deep spiritual community that emerged within the cohort and with the Fuller staff." Fleming adds, "The richness of this community will remain with me fully as long as the profound intellectual stimulation of the program."
Such testimonies demonstrate both the power and the promise of distance education, including in the theological realm. Among other things these testimonies address what some have considered to be the virtual classroom's biggest drawback, namely its impersonal nature.
Those who have experienced distance education, however, have found that it need not be impersonal. People have, from a distance, formed close relationships both with professors and with "virtual classmates." Many would contend that a knowledgeable and caring teacher of a virtual class is preferable to a mediocre professor in a traditional classroom.
Few, if any, would argue that virtual education ever will or ever should replace traditional education. But it is hard to deny that distance education has opened doors that were previously closed to people because of family or employment responsibilities. As programs have expanded, people have more and more opportunities to pursue a new career or gain knowledge in an area of interest. The virtual classroom is changing their real lives.