After initial skepticism, online theological education growing
As seminaries and divinity schools expand online education, some educators think the move is reviving the tradition of the pastor-scholar by allowing students to remain in their ministry settings while learning their craft.
By Jeff Brumley
Chris Wondree is a full-time seminary student and a student ministry intern at a Virginia church, all of which means he’s busy.
Fortunately, Wondree said, the internet helps alleviate the stress of running back and forth between Second Baptist Church and Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond.
“Online courses make it possible to learn from a distance as well as free up time during the day to continue my ministry work where normally daily classes would inhibit,” said Wondree, 26.
There are other benefits, he said, including being forced to stay tech savvy and more thoughtful about the comments he submits during online discussions in classes like New Testament, Christian Tradition and Introduction to Spirituality.
Wondree has plenty of company. According to accreditation agencies and a number of seminary officials, offerings of and enrollment in distance-learning courses is up at divinity schools across the country.
Recently, a Harvard University professor offered a non-credit course on the letters of Paul that drew 22,000 students from around the world, proving to some that the future of education — including theological — is on the web.
“They’re setting the pace and we can learn from them,” Gene Wilkes, president of Texas-based B.H. Carroll Theological Institute, said of the Harvard experiment.
The popularity of that course has also revived questions about online theological education and whether it’s appropriate to offer vital courses such as Old and New testaments, Hebrew, ancient Greek and preaching outside traditional classroom settings.
Perhaps, but some educators noted that the Letters of Paul course offered by Harvard University Professor Laura Nasrallah on edX online should not be the measuring stick because students were not being graded.
“You can do that in a church setting, but in a classroom it’s different because you’re hopefully measuring what a student is learning,” BTSR President Ronald Crawford said.
But that doesn’t mean Crawford and others aren’t calculating how their institutions can add or expand online offerings.
And some say the rise of online theological training is inevitable, though likely to occur less slowly in some institutions than in others.
‘A bit of a skeptic’
Crawford understands the thinking that resists web-based theological training.
“I came to the whole conversation of online learning as a bit of a skeptic,” he said.
His concerns: that students can slack off in poorly designed courses or that watching videos could become the main function of the online component.
But after seven years at BTSR, where online courses have been offered for a decade and are constantly expanding in variety, Crawford said he has become convinced internet-based learning can be just as good as face-to-face classroom instruction.
Even preaching classes can be done properly online if they require students to deliver sermons before congregations, and recorded on video.
“That is actually making a preaching class better” than if the sermons were delivered “in the artificial environment of a class.”
Gradable discussion board formats that require student to participate in online conversations achieve something that face-to-face classes often cannot: pushing introverts to speak up.
“In many ways it pushes the discussion to a deeper level,” he said of online coursework.
But Crawford said he sees a limit to online education as well. “Some pieces need to be done in a more face-to-face, intimate context.”
That includes biblical languages courses where learning the nuances of Greek and Hebrew, and learning to read and speak them properly, requires face-to-face contact.
“Whether we old people like it or not,” online theological education is “going to happen,” he added. “This information age is going to change everything.”
‘Becoming more widespread’
Recent developments show a lot has changed in the past decade, and quite a bit recently.
Currently, 103 members of the Association of Theological Schools offer at least six online courses, according to the organization’s web site. That represents 38 percent of its membership.
In August, the ATS Commission on Accrediting approved the first six schools who will be permitted to offer 100 percent online master’s degrees and master of divinity degrees.
Before 2000, ATS standards permitted no distance learning of any kind, the organization said. From then until 2012, standards dictated that online classes make up no more than a third of a student’s course work.
Half of the institutions recently approved for 100 percent distance learning programs are Baptist theological seminaries: Golden Gate, which will offer an online master of divinity degree; Southeastern, with its master’s in church planting available online; and Southwestern, offering a master of divinity and an M.A. in Christian education.
The other schools were Anderson University School of Theology, Chicago Theological Seminary and Pentecostal Theological Seminary.
Given that 74,000 students at ATS member schools completed at least one course by distance learning, it’s likely more schools will seek to follow suit.
“Distance-learning models are becoming more widespread,” ATS Executive Director Dan Aleshire told The Christian Century.
‘A major option for some’
Baptist studies professor and church historian Bill Leonard sounded a more cautious note when predicting how quickly any sweeping changes may happen with online learning — especially among moderate Baptist schools.
The conservative seminaries are feeling some pressure to move on this front because of the expansive web-based offerings at Liberty University, he said.
The school has “a huge online constituency in general and in theological education in particular,” which is “putting a lot of pressure on the six Southern Baptist seminaries and other evangelical seminaries to compete in that market,” said Leonard, who teaches at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
The moderate Baptist movement has been more deliberate in its movement into distance learning, he said. He cited BTSR and Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology as examples of schools moving forward in bigger steps, while other schools, including Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, offer no courses online at the moment.
And there are others in between.
“Wake Forest [School of Divinity] has offered Hebrew online during the summer as an experiment,” he said.
Each seminary is trying to balance its movement into online learning with the financial benefits and the comfort level of its student and faculty.
“I think at this point a lot of schools are testing the methodology and feasibility for offering these courses,” he said.
“I think it’s going to be a major option for some schools and ... some schools will use it minimally.”
Restoring church-based training
B.H. Carroll is one of those schools where online learning is a major option. In fact, Wilkes said, it’s not really an option at all because all students are required to participate in web-based courses.
“We are not a seminary with online classes, we started with this model from the very beginning,” he said.
The seminary’s campus consists of partners churches across the nation and around the world, which enables B.H. Carroll students both the online and face-to-face experience in theological education.
And ironically, Wilkes said information technology is reviving the tradition of the pastor-scholar and pastor-teacher by allowing students to remain in their ministry settings while learning their craft.
“This is returning theological education to the local church,” Wilkes said.
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