By Scott Hudgins
A recent column by Brett Younger, an associate professor at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, raises important questions about the changes in theological education, especially the emergence of exclusively online programs that are often described as “new and improved” versions of ministerial training and formation. Ron Crawford, president of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, has responded to Professor Younger’s column with his own convictions about the future of theological education. This is a conversation long needed in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship circles and I appreciate each of their contributions in this column.
Having read Professor Younger’s comments, I am almost certain that he is not arguing against technology, as President Crawford suggests in his response. The presence of technology in the classroom as a tool for research and learning is present in most graduate programs, including theological schools, and it has contributed to new kinds of research and innovative approaches to teaching. One of the strengths of a university-related school of theology is that technical and pedagogical resources that are part of the larger university and employed by other professional schools and college faculties can provide models for classroom teaching in the theological disciplines.
I think Professor Younger’s critique is aimed at the movement among some theology schools to create exclusively online programs without recognizing the losses inherent in that model for ministerial formation and learning. Evidence exists to suggest that financial demands and a declining student population may be more responsible for the emergence of exclusively online programs than any rationale as to what is actually best for congregations and students.
Dr. Crawford makes some important points. My own sense of the research on learning outcomes in online courses is that they are as effective as the more traditional classroom models, and in some studies more effective. (See Tuan Nguyen’s recent meta-analysis of the research in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 11, No. 2, June 2015, or the U.S. Department of Education’s 2010 report on Evidence Based Practices in Online Learning.)
The important point here is to recognize that “learning outcomes” are often limited to those quantifiable elements that are much more present in online models. Dr. Crawford touches on one of these in his contention that online learning is more engaging. “Engagement” can be clearly measured in comments, posts and electronic interaction. This is much more difficult to track in a classroom. Dr. Crawford is in my view correct that online learning requires “thoughtful” pedagogy. This is not to say that face-to-face instruction does not. However, this may be a clue as to why learning outcomes are successful in online formats — pedagogy is actually shaped by the medium it employs.
Where I disagree with Dr. Crawford is his use of the worst possible examples of classroom teaching as a means of bolstering online approaches. I am aware of excellent practices in the classroom that are responsive to a wide range of student backgrounds and learning styles. Much more intentionality pervades classroom teaching practices than he suggests. I am also aware of persistent complaints from graduate students about the inadequacy of some online courses. My own seminary education — now 25 years in the past and rooted in the traditional lecture and seminar modes of teaching — was neither boring nor disengaged. I cannot imagine what my own formation and education would have been like divorced from daily worship with classmates and faculty, late night arguments in the dorm lounge or extended lunch conversations in the refectory. Combined with special lectures on campus, artistic and music events, and engagement in a shared neighborhood and space — these intangibles are also important ingredients in learning (I would argue essential), and inescapably framed so much of what I learned in seminary.
Professor Younger’s argument, especially his emphasis on what is lost in the exchange, I find very compelling. We need to be honest about those losses as educators and congregations. Technology can provide us with whole new opportunities for learning and open the doors to some where access was not an option in the past. But it can also delude us into thinking that connectivity is the same as conversation, and the virtual is as good as the real.
Fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan argued that “the medium is the message.” His challenge should drive us to think deeply and seriously about the media we employ and implications and limits. This is all the more urgent as a prophetic task in a society where technology is a given and in which digital natives will soon outnumber the rest of us.