Online theological education

Even when teaching academic subjects at the Catholic Theological Union, Father Donald Senior (above) stays focused on spiritual formation.
(Catholic Theological Union )

More and more North American theological seminaries are offering online options to their students. According to Christopher A. Olsztyn, director of information technology at the Association of Theological Schools, the number of ATS member schools reporting distance-learning programs (including both nondegree and degree programs) tripled between 2000 and 2006, from 22 to 66. At the same time, the number of students served in these programs increased from fewer than 2,000 to more than 10,000.

Of schools offering full programs, a few, like Asbury Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Bethel Seminary, have been involved for years. Others, like Tyndale University College & Seminary and Catholic Theological Union, are just getting going. And many are now weighing the pros and cons, deciding whether to put a toe in the online distance-education waters. Add the many schools offering one or more online courses -- often launched by tech-savvy professors -- and you have a significant shift in theological education.

Schools looking at going online with one or more programs typically face changes in five areas -- let's call them the five "C-changes":

  • Capacity 

  • Constituency 

  • Convenience 

  • Quality control 

  • Community

As with so many governance issues, these five areas of change are interwoven in ways that make it nearly impossible to separate them. Rather than treat them under separate headings, it may be more helpful to see how they figured in the stories of two schools: Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Financial pressures, underserved constituents

Bethel Seminary's story shows how new online education programs tend to start with twin awarenesses. The first awareness is the sense that a currently unreached constituency exists for whom online-assisted distance modes can make theological education not only easier, but indeed possible. The second is an acute form of the financial pressure that always hovers over an industry in which revenue from sale of the product (tuition) rarely covers costs (salaries and other expenses). 

Leland Eliason, executive director and provost of Bethel Seminary, recalls that in the 1990s, Bethel began its cutting-edge online seminary program after identifying a problem -- declining FTE enrollment -- and nurturing a compelling vision to provide theological education to underserved groups.

(BETHEL UNIVERSITY)

Bethel started its online InMinistry program on an experimental basis in 1993, receiving final approval about five years later. Bethel executive director and provost Leland Eliason, then a seminary board member, recalls how the process of developing that program began. "In the early 1990s, we asked the question, 'Are there unserved populations that would need and want Bethel Seminary?' It was truly a missional question, but it was born out of a crisis," Eliason says. He recalls some sage advice -- "you can bring about change from either a burning platform or a compelling vision" -- and recalls that Bethel had both.

"The compelling vision was clear -- to prepare more leaders for Kingdom impact," he says. "Our burning platform arose out of two converging trends: First, we had a slightly increasing head count, but a lowering full-time equivalency -- the same number of faculty, but fewer courses were taken per student per year." In other words, capacity (and its related costs) was outstripping demand. Faculty were teaching courses with as few as five or six students, which wasn't sustainable.

"The second trend," says Eliason, "was a change in the way our supporting denomination allocated funds. Church mission committees instead of denominational leaders made decisions about who and what to fund. Within five years denominational support dropped by three quarters of a million dollars." At this point the Bethel board began to look at the potential for reworking its educational models to meet the needs of underserved constituencies.

One example of these underserved constituencies is the group served by Bethel's online-assisted M.A. in children's and family ministry. Many of the program's students are former schoolteachers who have both practical experience and an understanding of educational theory, but not formal theological training. Now in second careers as children's pastors in churches, they don't fit the residential model of seminary education. If theological education requires them to move, they can't participate.

Another of the new Bethel constituencies is associate pastors of larger churches, some of whom do not aspire to be senior pastors, but who nevertheless want to improve their ministry skills and capacities. A new degree, the M.A. in transformational leadership, had originally been developed in partnership with Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, to enable the church's interns to earn a degree over three years. But once the new degree was in place, Bethel discovered that associate ministers were a natural market. Today, most students in the transformational leadership program are given release time by their churches, allowing them to be away for the twice-yearly two-week on-campus "intensives" designed to meet the ATS residency requirement. If the program required three years on campus, few of these pastors would be able to participate.

Preparation for nonordained service

At most schools, tech-savvy faculty (like Catholic Theological Union professor Eileen Crowley, shown here) are on the leading edge of bringing new technologies to the classroom. (CATHOLIC THEOLOGICAL UNION)

Bethel is not alone in this experience of discovering new constituencies ideally suited to online-assisted modes of theological training. This fall, Catholic Theological Union (CTU) will launch an online-assisted track for its master of arts in pastoral studies degree. This move to a new mode arose out of a new awareness of underserved constituencies. CTU was founded to serve a variety of religious orders in the Hyde Park area of Chicago, and the number of these communities has now reached 25. Historically, most students have lived close to the school in communal residences -- usually houses owned by religious communities. Today, however, only about 150 of the school's roughly 500 students are religious sisters and brothers. Another 280 are lay men and women.

CTU's president, Passionist Father Donald Senior, talks about this trend as part of the larger "C-change" in American Catholicism. He says that while numbers of ordination candidates are flat, the number of lay ministers is growing. Not surprisingly, this increase has been translating into more lay students in CTU classes. And that trend leads directly to the new degree -- the master of arts in pastoral studies (M.A.P.S.), which was started two decades ago to serve this constituency.

At Bethel Seminary, InMinistry programs appeal to children's ministers, associate pastors, and other working people who do most of their course work online but gather on campus twice a year. At left, InMinistry participants during the 2007 summer session.
(BETHEL UNIVERSITY)

Some lay students are using the M.A.P.S. program to prepare themselves for ministries like religious education and hospital visitation. But many M.A.P.S. students are also seeking to be equipped for jobs outside of parishes, including chaplaincy, campus ministry, education, hospital ministry, and various service organizations. None of these employment opportunities require ordination, and they are not always full-time positions. But they are positions that nevertheless require professional preparation.

The new online delivery system for this degree was prompted by the awareness that most people who want to train for lay ministry have other work obligations during the day, and they need to take classes at night and on weekends. And though most CTU students live within the Chicago metropolitan area, getting to campus through the city's legendary traffic was making the program difficult or even impossible for some commuters. An online or blended program seemed to be the way to go.

Constituency and quality control

As important as deciding who your constituency is, especially for a young program such as CTU's, is deciding who it isn't. Thirty-five to 40 percent of CTU's students are international students, and many graduates live overseas. During the discernment phase leading up to the decision to go online, some leaders in the process pushed to allow students to take courses from far-off places like Nigeria. But the team decided to limit international students because of the extra complications that an international student body might pose, like fulfilling the residency requirement. CTU is contemplating a halfway solution, allowing a foreign student to come to campus for a year and then to complete the degree in their homeland, says Father Senior, the school's president.

This raises the question of quality control. It's all very well to serve new constituencies. But a level of concern still exists about whether this can be done adequately within the partially online, partially on-campus format allowable under the current ATS standards.

Some theological school administrators hope that online or distance educations might incur lower costs than traditional residential programs. But administrators with experience say that while online programs may help bring up enrollment, if those programs are well conceived and carefully implemented, they will probably cost about the same as traditional programs. Quality doesn't come cheap.

"If schools are going into online education imagining it will be an easy way of increasing revenue without increasing costs, I think they are going to be 4 disappointed," says Daniel Aleshire, the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools. Bethel Seminary's provost Leland Eliason concurs. "While I'm sure our model of distance education is not more expensive than traditional programs, I think it is relatively the same," he says. "While a number of on-site services are not needed in the same way, there is a dedicated support staff who are experts in the technology and its use in the classroom, and other kinds of advising by staff takes place as well."

ATS is thinking about quality issues as it works through a five-year process of rewriting the accreditation standards for theological schools. Aleshire reports that the group working on the standards is asking questions like, "What does quality seminary education look like?" and "What variations on the traditional model produce effective education?" Indications are that online modes can be included among those variations.

Indeed, when the CTU board began looking at going this direction, some board members worried about quality. "Our board has a lot of professional people on it," says Father Senior, "and they were skeptical, inquisitive: Is this a matter of putting up existing courses and adapting them? The school's director of continuing education and distance learning, Dr. Keiren O'Kelly, was assuring them: 'No, this really calls for retooling; you can't just throw up a course and put it in electronic format -- it's a whole different way of education.'" Getting things right involves retraining professors and administration alike -- a process already well underway at CTU in preparation for fall's rollout of the new online master's degree. Following the existing ATS standards, it also means retaining an on-site component in every program.

Eliason ruefully recalls the names Bethel was called when they first began their online InMinistry programs: "Seminary Lite." "McSeminary." It has taken a while for word to get around that the five degrees now offered in distance education modes are not watered-down versions, but substantial educational experiences.

Father Senior points to the traditional Catholic focus on spiritual formation as an area of particular concern in online programs: "I think the caution is proper. In our tradition, the formational aspect is very highly valued, and we've had our problems, as everyone knows -- so going totally online has not been a burning desire. We want to feel our way into this, and make sure that the intangible formative aspect of theological education is not lost in the process. Some of that might be online, but most of that's going to be part of their residential experience here."

Community of learning

High-quality distance programs are certainly possible, and student response can be animated. Eliason testifies, "The most enthusiastic thank-yous I receive are from people in the InMinistry delivery system." Interestingly, part of the quality equation in Bethel's InMinistry program is the student population itself. Students have typically been vetted by search committees in local congregations who offer them full-time ministry positions. "These are people already doing ministry but asking, 'How can I do it more effectively?'" says Eliason. They have entered seminary "to think more clearly about what ministry is, to understand boundaries, to understand theology, to understand themselves, to understand leadership. It's all very helpful to them -- and they are very thankful at the end."

An energetic, dedicated student body is a boon in a teaching mode that can prove challenging for faculty. Eliason points out that in institutions where faculty have traditionally taught only in daytime hours to residential students, it can be a huge shock to old systems when faculty are informed that they will be expected to teach a third of their load in distance-education programs or at extension sites. However, Bethel faculty members have found teaching the motivated InMinistry students to be a positive experience. Eliason says that the process of reinventing courses for new formats has provided a kind of freshness for professors and students alike.

Faculty and boards who are new to online education worry about retaining a community of learning in courses largely taught over electronic media. But surprisingly, it's possible to build a strong sense of community in these programs. First, the face-to-face "intensive" portions of each course allow students and professors to work together fulltime for stretches of a week or more. Second, groups of students often enter as "cohorts" who will be together for their entire multiyear program. Bethel has seen a high degree of community develop within the groups, which often seek ways to meet outside of the framework of the program and communicate both face-to-face and online -- collaborating on assignments, trading study tips, and sharing stories about their spiritual journeys.

The board's move

What was it, then, that brought the CTU board to the point where they were willing to jump online? And what has the process been like to bring them to their imminent launch this year? First, some trustees pointed out that online modes of education are becoming mainstream in many settings and fields. Father Senior says, "Theology and pastoral training may, as liberal arts may, pose some particular educational questions, but there's no doubt that there is a whole generation of students coming out of undergrad and wider professional experience who are at ease with this type of learning." He thinks they will expect online options.

The cautious, conservative nature of the process helped overcome some trustees' initial resistance. At Catholic Theological Union, the planning and training period has stretched across two years, only one degree program is involved initially, all participants will be trained and prepared at a summer institute in June, and after the launch there will be a further gearing-up period of two to three years, involving careful monitoring and measuring. Throughout, one eye will always be on the goal of a financially sustainable program marked by educational integrity and quality.

Is this a possible dream? Bethel's experience says it is. And as more and more schools go online, a growing "bench" watches with interest, knowing the question is not if, but when, they will be getting in the game.

Questions for boards about the "C-changes"

  • Capacity

Are your institution's courses running at a sustainable capacity? Is there a downward trend in full-time equivalent students that may spell trouble in the future?

  • Constituency

Is there one or more underserved constituency that might gain a theological education if an online mode is made available? Is it a truly viable constituency for which a program can be constructed that maintains quality and community?

  • Convenience

In what ways might online program delivery create the most convenience for the students? What support systems need to be in place to make it happen?

  • Quality control

How have other schools ensured that their online programs deliver an education that compares favorably to their residential programs?

  • Community

What modes of community can be developed within an online program? What support systems need to be in place to enhance interactions between students and faculty and among the students themselves?

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Article from: Spring 2008

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