To posit that technology has changed the face of graduate theological education could be the understatement of the millennium. Yet it might be more accurate to say that technology "has changed" as it would be to stay that it "is still changing" theological education.
In other words, it could be that the best is yet to comethat what we have witnessed over the past few years is merely the beginning of a trend whose full force has yet to be completely understood or appreciated.
Those who are closest to the technological revolution as it applies to distance learning believe it is a revolution still in progress. "The technology of online learning will continue to develop exponentially so that today's cutting edge practices will be entry-level concepts in five years," says Ronald Kroll, dean for distance education and media development at Columbia International University (CIU) in Columbia, South Carolina,
Andy J. Peterson, president of Reformed Theological Seminary's virtual campus, says, "To think that there will be little change in the format or the extent of online seminary education is to be ignorant of the great changes in communications technology. Who ever heard of 'podcasting' just a couple of years ago? And now Meet the Press is available 24/7. We have little idea of the resources that will be available five years from now."
The capacity of a computer chip has been doubling every 18 months since 1968, says Gordon McAlister, dean of distance education at Crown College in St. Bonifacius, Minnesota. "I dare say not even the folks at Microsoft can predict what online learning will be like when computers have three times the capacity they do now," says McAlister. He is confident that in five years "we should be seeing online practice sessions in counselor training, sermon delivery, small group leadership activities, and other things that people up to now have associated only with face-to-face learning."
Lagging Learning Curve
"Traditional seminaries are behind higher education in general in making use of the online medium because they typically do not have the internal knowledge bases or technical infrastructures to employ this medium, do not typically have an entrepreneurial and innovative mindset, and don't usually have the development funds to launch into experimental programs," says David Wright, former director of the department of graduate studies in ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU), and currently the dean of the school of theology at Azusa Pacific University.
Wright adds, "Because the ministerial profession is primarily about interpersonal relationships, seminaries have been reluctant to embrace a medium that they believe provides for less personal interaction than the [traditional] mode of course delivery. To be sure, there are differences between [traditional classroom] and online learning, but the fear that online learning must be impersonal is a consequence of not having tried the medium. Most people who use online learning (faculty and students) say that it can be intensely personal, but in different ways."
As technology and new learning techniques charge forward, the public largely lags behind with respect to its understanding of what distance education is all about. The fact that things are changing so rapidly has for some broadened the divide between what the public perceives distance education to be and what it actually is.
"For many years, accredited seminary programs at our most prestigious schools dismissed distance education as an irresponsible educational option, leaving much-needed non-residential ministry training to unaccredited schools that frequently did not have the training or resourcesand, in some instances, the inclinationto provide high-quality, educationally sound options," says James Stewart, director of distance education at Western Seminary (Portland, Oregon).
Stewart adds, "The fact that most states offer religious exemptions for Christian schools meant that almost anyone could start a school or seminary. Thus, much of the church's exposure to distance education was, by the default of our established schools, with programs that often failed to meet learning expectations." Stewart concludes, "Over time, that impression stuck."
"Many 'older' people who spent seven or more years in the traditional college and seminary setting as I did often find it difficult to see how one can receive a solid education through online or distance learning studies," says Ric Walston, president of Columbia Evangelical Seminary (Buckley, Washington),
Nevertheless, says Walston, "while there is still a gap between what online education is and what the public believes it to be, that gap is becoming smaller all the time." Walston predicts that "as more and more pastors and scholars are produced through online and distance learning education, we as a Christian society will catch up with this technology."
The "Quality" Question
According to Len Pellman, director of online admissions at IWU, there remains a "lingering misperception" with regard to "the quality of online education." But, Pellman notes, in more than 300 studies comparing online and classroom education, the majority have shown no statistically valid difference in the quality or quantity of learning.
Says CIU's Kroll, "The quality of distance education used to be suspect because it was different and because numerous products of inferior quality in the public market cast a shadow over the high quality educational programs that were developing."
CES's Walston observes that the two most often cited drawbacks to distance learning are the lack of face-to-face student interaction and no physical library to do research. In response he observes, "I did the traditional route all the way through my doctoral program. During that time, while I did have interaction with other students, we rarely talked about academics. We far more often discussed sports or cars or where the best pizza joint was."
As for the library, Walston notes that while he pursued his doctoral degree in a traditional program, neither he nor his fellow students used the school's library very extensively. "The Internet had far more resources, and the information was much easier to access."
"In higher education today, online courses are both as popular and as rigorous as face-to-face classes, and online programs can be found at the most prestigious universities," says CIU's Kroll. "Accrediting associations, generally regarded as the watchdogs of quality in higher education, have focused on student learning and student learning outcomes as the test of quality, and have removed language that defines quality in terms of delivery method." Kroll notes that all of the recognized agencies now accredit distance education programs.
Western's Stewart adds, "This quality concern was often over-stated, in my opinion. We often prefer to teach the way we learned, and we feel most comfortable in our traditional classrooms with students looking back at us happily." He continues, "I believe some of the quality concerns expressed were genuine and heart-felt and reflected a desire to reserve approval until distance education demonstrated its worth empirically. Some concerns, however, were simply because distance education was different because they asked the educator to be a learner as well as a teacher."
Whatever concerns people may have over the quality of online education have not stopped students from pursuing it. According to the publication Business 2.0, 40 percent of current MBA students are enrolled in online degree programs. "This is an amazing level of acceptance in view of the fact that online education has only been readily available for about seven years," says IWU's Pellman. He also notes that despite the far greater publicity and advertising for the "dot-com revolution," less than six percent of all retail purchases, according to the National Retail Federation, are being made online.
A Bright Future
Though the perception of distance learning may be somewhat checkered, its future holds a lot of potential. Says Western's Stewart, "Internet2 access should trickle down to the smaller schools, virtually obliterating bandwidth concerns for high-speed, full-screen content delivery and advanced communication systems. The continuing expansion of distance-pioneered technologies into the traditional classroom will change the way we schedule courses, how we teach, even how we hire faculty, and will effectively blur the line between distance education and campus course options."
But Stewart adds, "Much will depend on how the seminary community responds to the new systems. Unless individual seminaries, and the larger agencies that accredit distance education, decide to embrace new teaching and learning options, they have the potential to become an island in a sea of cultural change, reinforcing the perception that graduate theological education is out of touch and irrelevant."
RTS's Peterson observes, however, that "more and more accrediting associations, students, churches, businesses, and schools have embraced the idea of equivalent seminary education at a distance."
"When it comes to an understanding of effective online teaching and learning, the field of education has successfully made the transition from classroom to cyberspace," says Crown's McAlister. "Our perspective has moved beyond the phase that Marshal McLuhan described as looking in the rear view mirror, the classic example of which was to see the automobile as a horseless carriage. In fact, rather than simply trying to imitate a classroom experience, blended models are beginning to use online tools and techniques in the traditional four-wall class."
McAlister adds, "Each one of our courses and degree programs has a thoughtful set of learning outcomes that are established and approved by an academic review process. Course reading, presentations, assignments, discussions, testing, and papers all align with those outcomes. It is not difficult to see if students are learning and applying concepts and achieving the learning goals of the course at the desired level of academic quality."
The Advantages of Distance Education
More and more people are pointing to the advantages distance education offers. "For far too long, there has been a disconnect between the seminary and the church," says Columbia Evangelical's Walston. "I have seen many young M.Div. graduates come out of seminary with lots of head knowledge but very little practical application. On-line education, supplemented with a sort of internship activity at a local church, can be useful in correcting that problem."
Indiana Wesleyan has launched an online and onsite cohort model that leads to a master of arts degree in ministry leadership or youth ministry, with additional majors in missional leadership, cross-cultural ministry, and emerging evangelism being considered. "Enrollment has outpaced our expectations," says Bob Whitesel, interim director of IWU's department of graduate studies in ministry. More online cohorts, along with onsite cohorts in four Indiana cities as well as Kentucky, are planned for 2006. Says Whitesel, "Working outside the seminary model has allowed us to embrace a flexibility and innovation that we feel more efficiently equips church leaders to be world changers in a fast-paced postmodern culture."
William Larkin, professor of New Testament and Greek at Columbia International, points out another advantage. "A student can interact with and benefit from a teacher's instruction to the same degree at a distance as in person. Actually, students can't hide in an online course. The course process can be so constructed that they have to interact with the instructor and with each other."
Larkin adds, "Only through distance education is the benefit of immediate ministry application of what one is learning possible for the person who is not able to leave his ministry context for full time study."
"Another advantage of online courses, Larkin continues, "is that you can bring together students from a variety of geographical contexts to online classrooms. This past fall I had an online chat with students in Mexico City, Romania, Germany, and New Jersey about how to interpret and apply the example of humility in Phil. 2:5 - 11 in contemporary cultural context. The insights from the interaction among missionaries in Romania and Mexico, a student ministering to post-moderns in Germany, and a New Jersey pastor would not be possible in one traditional classroom."
Randy Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.