One of the questions admissions officers are regularly asked by potential students is, “Do you have an online program?” And it’s not just the younger, presumably tech-savvy students who are asking either. Nor is it students who live far away or even on other continents. At the non-residential seminary where I work, most students live nearby, but if taking classes means having to fight traffic a couple of nights a week, after work — well, that is a hard sell. So most students ask: “Do you have an online program?”
Online classes (and hybrid classes) have been around for a while, and many students actually prefer them to classes taught in a traditional classroom setting. Online programs differ from school to school. More financially robust institutions livestream their classes, so teachers and students are visible to each other, and students can ask the teacher questions via chat during the class. This comes pretty close to replicating the experience of being in a classroom. Other schools with less technologically advanced online programs use recorded lectures, online discussions, and chat rooms. And then there are the hybrid courses that typically include a combination of both face-to-face and online learning.
The question of whether online education is feasible was answered a long time ago, but there are still people who question its effectiveness. Even when it’s conceded that theological educational content can be delivered digitally, there are questions about whether online learning is conducive to instilling spiritual formation in students — something that has traditionally come from face-to-face engagement.
Back in 2012, Jennifer Woodruff Tait asked and answered this very question in her In Trust article, “Can You Do Spiritual Formation Online? Why Yes — It's Being Done Already.” In it, she observed that, for some students at least, the ability to engage online creates even more of an opportunity for authentic engagement than traditional classes.
More recently, in 2017, the Auburn Center published a report on online education, (Not) Being There: Online Distance Education in Theological Schools. The Association of Theological School (ATS) blog summarized the report in their post, (Not) Being There: The Auburn Study of Online Distance Education: “This Auburn Studies report presents various perspectives but makes a strong case for the value and effectiveness of online learning in theological education.”
There are some who will continue to doubt the effectiveness of online education. Whether it represents the future or not, right now, it is a fully established method of delivery, and that doesn’t seem like a bad thing.