Theological study online—how does that work?
By Thomas Power
Apr 25, 2019
In an online course I taught some years ago, I posted a message in the class discussion forum containing the text of a parishioner’s interpretation of something that had been spoken in tongues in his church the previous Sunday. The message elicited a number of student responses, one of which was written by a student who said they had been “cut to the heart” as a result of reading the interpretation. Apart from the substance of the message, the case illustrated the immediacy with which the online forum facilitated spiritual conviction and growth.
The traditional seminary education, which required students to live, train, and worship together as a community isn’t an option for many of today’s students who live off campus and are likely to have family obligations as well as part-time jobs. In fact, traditional models of delivering theological education have changed significantly in the last twenty years. There has been a move away from the model of a residential requirement with students engaged in full-time study, to one where students are largely part-time and non-residential. This development recognizes that there are constraints on people today who might be contemplating theological education, constraints that prevent them from committing to an on-campus, full-time program of study. These constraints might involve financial resources, family commitments, church involvement, and employment. Typically today’s student pursues theological education while juggling all of these things. For such students, learning online or at a distance has proven beneficial because of the convenience, and savings of time, travel, and cost.
Following are some further points to ponder about theological education online.
1. Online classes provide flexible learning for students.
Distance education learning options remove a significant barrier for those who would otherwise be excluded from theological education. The benefits of online learning for the student are its flexibility; the classroom is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; students can work from home, work, library, or even while travelling, all within their schedule. For students, the cost of travel and the time expended are reduced if not eliminated, while other commitments involving family, job, and church can be maintained.
2. Online education can be both challenging and rigorous.
In the early stages of its development, there was a perception that online education was inferior to its onsite equivalent. However, online learning may include components that induce student engagement to a greater degree. Collaborative learning, for example, is more intentional online than it is onsite. Discussion forums and group projects allow students to cooperate in learning projects in an intentional and accountable manner. (As an aside, such forums have the advantage of leaving a semi-permanent record of discussions and exchanges of points of view on different topics, whereas capturing the equivalent in in-class discussion could prove more elusive.) Online discussion groups are well organized and constructively integrated into the course. Learning outcomes are equally defined for online education as they are for onsite courses.
3. Online learning can present challenges for the individual learner.
The perception that online courses are easy should be discounted. A significant number of hours per week are required for reading, writing, and completion of exercises and assignments. Thus, online learning is not appropriate for everyone, for to a greater degree, perhaps, than its onsite equivalent, it requires self-discipline, focus and organization, an ability to work independently, and a high degree of motivation. For this reason, students should be aware in advance of the need to possess the necessary self-motivation required to undertake and complete courses online, otherwise, they are setting themselves up for failure. Online learning requires the student to be highly motivated since it involves the challenge of learning independently given the self-discipline and time management skills involved. Not least, a necessary prerequisite for success is a high comfort level with technology or a willingness to learn. (This skill cannot always be assumed!) In addition, the practice of etiquette whereby one can engage others in thoughtful and challenging dialogue is a necessary prerequisite for online engagement.
4. Formation in community occurs online in interesting and creative ways.
In the earliest days of online learning, some people assumed that formation worked better onsite because that was the way it had always been done. Traditional definitions associate spiritual formation (or readiness for ministry) with a residential component built around a formal experience of intellectual, spiritual, pastoral, and human elements; while the extra-curricular, informal dimension of living and learning together (e.g. meals, chapel attendance, sports) is also deemed formative.
While the online learning environment cannot replicate the intimacy and spontaneity of learning and living together residentially, it needs to be recognized that a course taken in any format is likely to have benefits in terms of spiritual formation and community building. Discussion forums, journaling, collaborative projects, critiques of recorded sermons, case studies, prayer forums, all have the potential to be formative. The connectedness created by these components is key to ensuring student engagement, involvement, and nurturing a community online.
In addition, the typically smaller size of online classes can promote a richer and more diverse learning community. Also, online learning tends to have a levelling effect in respect of extroverts and introverts. In the onsite learning context, extroverts tend to dominate in classroom dialogue, whereas, in the online environment such dominance is quelled and there is an equalization in participation. Together all these conditions have clear benefits for community and formation online.
5. The role of the instructor changes in online learning environments.
It is now a commonplace to say that in the online learning context, the instructor is no longer the “sage on the stage” but a “guide from the side.” Teaching online involves a paradigm shift for instructors from their status as dispensers of knowledge to one where they are facilitators among a group of learners. It involves a shift in methods of teaching and learning involving a move away from an instructor-led, classroom-bound traditional approach to one that is collaborative and extends beyond the face-to-face classroom. In this way, the instructor can influence the formative process positively and productively.
6. It is not an either/or choice between onsite and online.
Finally, it needs to be said that theological education for students today can be a “mixed economy” of choice. It is not an “either/or” choice between declaring that onsite residential education is superior to online education, or vice versa. There is a strong case for supporting the full-time, residential model of theological formation, particularly for those intending to pursue ordained ministry. However, if current trends continue, it seems that the latter option is going to apply increasingly to a minority of the student population. For the majority, having a choice between onsite, distance, and online is preferable as such choice integrates with the life situation of today’s students. In recognition of this reality, Wycliffe College offers an array of learning options to students.
Thomas Power is Graduate Studies Coordinator, Adjunct Professor of Church History, and Theological Librarian at Wycliffe College.