Can Christian formation take place on the Internet? In early October, faculty members and directors of online education programs gathered in Indianapolis to learn how preparation and formation for ministry are already happening in colleges and theological schools.

Called “Reflecting on the Pedagogy of Online Theological Education,” the October conference was convened by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. It included more than 30 participants from colleges and theological schools across the United States, from George Fox Evangelical Seminary on the West Coast to Regis College in New England.

The gathering’s purpose was to develop a community of reflective practitioners of online education. Naturally, laptops were everywhere in evidence. But participants used old-fashioned tools too, including piles of construction paper and stickers with words like “vocation,” “prayer,” “Scripture,” “context,” “interfaith,” “assessing,” and “ecclesial mission.” With these, they began to create visual representations of the way that Christian formation takes place in theological schools, and to explore the place of online education within the overall process of formation.

Many attendees had previously participated in the Wabash Center’s online workshops for online faculty. Some, from schools with extensive and long-standing online programs like Asbury Theological Seminary and Luther Seminary, came for further reflection on best practices (especially around the vexing question of spiritual formation). Others were wondering how to design their first online class for the following semester and benefitted from meeting in small groups with more experienced colleagues. For two days, the group wrestled with pressing questions: What does online education do better than traditional education? What does it do worse? Are there things that online education cannot accomplish?

At the Wabash Center’s conference on online theological formation, participants like facilitator Mary Elizabeth Hess (center) used both high-tech and old-fashioned tools.

Careful design

While many of these questions elude easy answers, participants agreed that online education on the whole provides more opportunity to engage students individually. On the other hand, individual encounters don’t happen accidentally — both students and teachers have to be committed to making the interactions work.

Online education has sometimes been proposed as a financial solution for institutions pressured by declining resources and enrollments. But even in the world of undergraduate education, online education is hardly a cash cow. A recent survey from the Campus Computing Project (which focused on undergraduate institutions) noted that around 45 percent of the surveyed institutions make a substantial profit on their online programs, mainly through charging online students higher tuition and more fees. On the other hand, 48 percent of surveyed institutions had no idea if their online programs were profitable — largely because they did not separate out online costs from on-campus costs. Theological schools, with a less developed technology infrastructure than most undergraduate colleges — and fewer technology personnel — must be wary of assumptions that online courses will help the school’s bottom line.

Successful distance education programs require careful planning and significant commitments of time and institutional resources. They also require serious faculty participation in the entire process of program approval, curriculum design, and individual course development. (A disturbing trend: some schools are disconnecting the creation of an online course from teaching that course, assuming that “anyone” can teach a course once a content expert has designed it.) In this process, faculty members need time for extensive pedagogical reflection, because a traditional course cannot simply be transferred to the Internet without significant changes to methods of presentation and course learning activities. The ideal is one course release for each newly developed online course, although this almost never occurs in practice.

While such issues are common to all schools exploring the online environment, they are particularly acute for theological educators, whose goal is not just educating students but also preparing them for Christian ministry. At its best, the online environment can help students engage with theology in life-changing ways; at its worst, students can feel they are enrolled in a correspondence course with little relevance to the ministries for which they are preparing.

In October, more than 30 participants gathered in Indianapolis to develop a community of reflective practitioners of online education.

Schools in the Campus Computing survey identified resistance from faculty and lack of resources as the two biggest impediments to expanding online programs. So how can theological schools approach online education in the face of such challenges? One way is to recognize that significant resources must be committed if faculty in these programs are going to do what they do best — teach. It is not enough to hand existing faculty and IT departments the charge to “do” a new program, or to expect existing library resources to be adequate, or to expect existing pedagogical problems to be solved by going online.

Successful online programs require funding for hardware and software — and even free open-source course-management systems like Moodle require staff time to learn and use. They also require additional library budgeting, faculty training in both technology and pedagogy, technical support beyond a 9-to-5 model, and release time for course development — the Concord Consortium (www.concord.org) estimates that it takes twice as long to develop an online course as it does to teach it. If a school is not prepared to commit its resources, it should rethink whether it is ready to take on a distance-education program.

The deeper questions

Faculty and administrators alike need time for the sort of reflection and resource-sharing that occurred in Indianapolis, where questions went deeper than simply which software program to choose. To be sure, participants shared specific teaching strategies. For example, the group created a collection of ways to encourage spiritual formation online: online prayer forums and Scripture readings, live streaming of chapel services, and Twittering prayer requests. They also discussed ways to cultivate a less authoritarian faculty presence in the online classroom — more vulnerable to student questioning and less controlling of results.

But underlying these specific tips were deeper questions: In what ways is online education providing the spiritual formation that prepares students for their ministries? More than one participant suggested that this is the sort of question that online faculty might actually be hungry to discuss. And it is the kind of question that educators need to grapple with — not one that can be handed off to a team of software designers working in isolation from questions of pedagogy. Many current course management systems do not display the same kind of attention to how technology builds community seen in popular social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and some faculty at the conference have in fact abandoned their institutions’ course-management software for web pages, blogs, and Facebook and Ning sites.

Integrating adjuncts

Adjunct faculty are a growing presence in higher education, and their presence in online education is especially notable. The Wabash Center’s programs for faculty formation are normally limited to tenure-track faculty, though. While some other organizations make training and faculty development opportunities available to adjunct faculty, not all of these are focused specifically on theological education. (One recent notable exception: an online conference offered by the Association of Theological Schools on “Ministerial and Spiritual Formation in Cyberspace.”)

The large number of adjuncts in online education raises significant questions: What is the process of spiritual formation for adjunct faculty members themselves? How do they become part of institutional communities? Do they receive adequate theological formation and technical support to enable them to deliver thoughtful education in conjunction with the institutional mission? Where are they in discussions of course load and release time, of institutional policy and direction?

No panacea

Online education can bring theological education to underserved and untapped populations. It can contribute to an institution’s mission and expand its horizons. In some cases, it may even help the bottom line. But it is not an economic panacea, and it demands the kind of thoughtful reflection that took place at the Wabash Center’s conference in October. Online education does not solve the problems of residential theological education, but it does open new worlds of possibility. The boards, administrators, and faculty who are now wrestling with the challenges and opportunities of online learning have much to teach those institutions that have not yet ventured into this field.

 


Questions for boards to consider

Academic planning

  • Have we made contacts with experts from other schools? What can we learn from them as we move forward?

  • Are our goals for online education the same as our goals for traditional programs? How do these goals relate to our educational mission? How can we compare online and traditional classroom outcomes?

  • As plans are developed and pilot courses are tested, what reports does the board need?

Business planning

  • Have startup and maintenance costs been estimated with the help of our contacts in schools that have experience in online learning?

  • How will the cost effectiveness of online programs be measured? How will revenue goals be set? What is the timeline for achieving them? Are we committed to online education even if it has a negative impact on our finances?

  • Do we have the capacity to track differences in cost between online instruction and classroom instruction?

Faculty

  • How will our faculty members learn from the experiences of others as they begin teaching online? How will they have the opportunity to learn online education's distinctive pedagogies? How will they have time to explore all facets of online teaching, including Christian formation?

  • How will faculty members who are teaching online be prepared and supervised? Can adjunct faculty be given the same opportunities for preparation and oversight as full-time faculty?

  • How will teaching outcomes be measured - not just academic qualifications, but more ambiguous goals like spiritual formation and vocational readiness?

Marketing and church relations

  • How will we measure if online learning is strengthening our relationships with alumni and church bodies?

  • What marketing plans should the board review? What enrollment goals are reasonable for measuring the success of marketing strategies?

  • How can we create opportunities to hear feedback about online education from students, faculty, and our wider public constituency?

 


Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

Advertise With Us

Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

Learn More

magazine