By Kate Riney
I am a proud product of distance learning. I was homeschooled until my sophomore year of high school, when I entered public school at age 13. Yes, I was that kid. The homeschooler. I heard it all then — “Don’t you feel awkward being so much younger than your peers? Homeschooled kids aren’t well adjusted. They don’t get the crucial socializing they need to establish emotional intelligence (EQ). They’re lazy; they just stay in their pajamas all day. They fall behind and don’t get the attention they need. It does more harm than good. They’re too sheltered and naive, they don’t learn how to work well with others and collaborate.”
I socialized just fine. I joined Student Ambassadors and Leadership Council, Drama Club, Film Club and First Priority. I got a part-time job, I performed at a community theatre and I went to parties and football games like the other teenagers, and no one knew I was homeschooled unless I told them. I counseled one of my friends on her unexpected pregnancy while in the bleachers during gym one day. Another day, I stood up for my friend when a teacher was embarrassing her in front of the class. And I would go home and help my mom with my new baby sister because she was home alone all day and exhausted by the time the bus dropped my brother and me off. I graduated high school with honors, went on to college and seminary and I still haven’t met anyone who describes me the way they would a dirty “homeschooler.”
Homeschooling wasn’t a life-long solution for me, but for eight years it served me pretty well. I have this form of distance learning to thank for my ability to be self-led and for the study skills and discipline that have gotten me through higher education. I also have those years to thank for some of my early spiritual formation and calling as a minister. Perhaps I need more data, but I can’t believe that I am the one anomaly. Surely there are others who have learned and been formed as leaders through various types of distance learning.
Just because the experiences of “traditional” seminary have been formational in the lives of ministers for the last 40 years doesn’t mean those are the only traditions with the power to form effective ministers. We can’t afford to make broad-based decisions for schools and institute or cut programs based on personal experience, no matter how authentic and valid those experiences are. I would never suggest that all children should be homeschooled. When I speak to families considering homeschooling as an option, I encourage them to make the choice separately for each individual child. It will be a good fit for some, but not for others and it may not remain the best option from K-12. We have to adapt to the individual’s changing learning needs and goals.
It’s dangerous to limit our prophetic imagination to our own perceptions and experiences. I don’t believe homeschooling is right for everyone, even though it was certainly foundational for me. That’s why I’m thankful for a wide range of pedagogical models in higher education, from fully online degrees to hybrid classes and residency programs. Those at the stage of pursuing post-graduate studies should have the self-awareness and independence to select the best course of study for their unique needs. Students can choose what is the most helpful type of learning for them based on their unique context and life stage. As staff and faculty, our responsibility is to make the best options available and to clearly lay out their strengths and limitations.
While it’s shrewd and commendable to refuse to jump on the bandwagon of online education just because of the technological age, it’s equally as foolish to think that online education has no merit compared to “traditional” pedagogy. True, distance learning has its challenges and pitfalls. If a school is offering online learning solely as a means to increase revenue or enrollment, then standards will probably be lowered and the students who enroll won’t be fully committed and may even drop out or fail their congregations. But the problem in that scenario isn’t the program; it’s the vision for it.
We are educators because we want to empower others with the tools to be thinkers, to reach their potential and become leaders in their field. If this is the vision that guides us, then online education can be a Godsend for those who don’t have the luxury of taking classes on campus. They may have to sacrifice some of the benefits of classroom dynamics, but they don’t have to suffer the loss of their education and preparation for ministry.
The youth minister, who meets with teenagers on nights and weekends (Because when else are youth available?), can get the pastoral care training needed to work with those in crisis without leaving the ministry for two to four years. Preachers can prepare their sermon manuscript, deliver it to their congregation and ask their direct audience for feedback on the relevance, accuracy, delivery and meaning of their message, while demonstrating humility and building rapport with their congregation. The nonprofit worker can continue working full-time toward student loan forgiveness for her public service while getting the theological education she needs to give the ministry impact and longevity. The benefits of most distance learning models outweigh the deficiencies.
In the online education debate, one assumption I hear is that students’ education exists in a vacuum. Their only support comes from their seminary community. Their only formation comes through classes and conversations with students and faculty. Yet, we know that is not true. In fact, one of the things we look for at McAfee when admitting students is a support system outside of the school. We want to know that students have others to process with, to pray with, and to have fun with when the pressure of seminary mounts. We also want to be sure that students are connected to a community that they can continue to lead and impact long after their years in seminary. When seminaries try to corner the market on students’ formation, we actually do them a disservice, creating a “seminary bubble” that bursts at graduation. This is not the vision that leads to forming healthy ministers.
Rather than giving into hasty generalizations or setting up straw men, just to take them down, let’s admit that our personal experiences and recent data are limited in scope and applicability in this conversation. Schools across the nation are trying new methods with little information to go on, because it’s a new era and, in some cases, they are being forced to change. As the last three centuries of capitalism have taught us, some programs will succeed and thrive, but not all. To encourage students’ success, should we not diversify the options we offer, allow our ethos and vision to guide us, and coach prospective students to make the best program choice for their own needs and goals?
Accessibility doesn’t have to encourage laziness, just as scholarships don’t have to encourage entitlement. When done for the right purpose, online degrees can give people opportunities to lead their communities of faith in a much richer, more informed fashion than they could otherwise. Besides, don’t we want ministers who can learn outside of a classroom? Who know how to apply what they learn to every area of their life, not just to assignments and tests? Can’t ministers in training pray just as fervently with their peers and professors over the phone? Can’t they worship in separate communities of faith and still share those experiences with one another? Or are the halls of seminaries so hallowed that only true worship and good theological education can be found therein? Lord, we pray not.