The articles on the use of the internet in theological education at St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton ("Limitless Horizons") and Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul and San Diego ("On Line or On Campus") give evidence to the growing influence of computer technologies on teaching and learning and prompted the following reflections on the possibilities. The experiences of these two schools illustrate some obvious advantages: Distance teaching makes a theological education accessible to students who cannot relocate to the site of a seminary. It has the potential to expand the geographic, racial/cultural, and theological range of the participants in an educational venture for schools that have historically served a relatively homogeneous constituency. It rewards highly motivated students who, if a course of study is sufficiently preplanned, can move at their own pace. Since it is not constrained either by shared space or time, it has the potential to enhance the individualization of student learning while increasing the options for student interaction.
Melinda Heppe explores one of my most persistent questions about the challenges of the internet to traditional notions of academic community. She observes that the question of internet education has to do with the extent it is possible for people to be in community who do not regularly meet with each other physically. Larger questions about the character of teaching and learning communities persist in my mind, however.
I believe that computer technologies, including the internet, will influence the future of theological education as much as did the book after the sixteenth century. Three examples: Just as the book diminished the necessity of memory in sustaining the communal context for education, I wonder if the easy accessibility to wide and diverse bodies of information through the use of computer technologies may not shift the locus of the authority of communal traditions, ecclesial institutions, and academic guilds in decisions about what should be taught. Just as the book contributed to changing the notion of community from shared space to shared interests, values, and commitments, I wonder if new technologies will not encourage multiple and basically unrelated “identities” as people move in and out of a variety of internet “communities.” Just as the book contributed to the development of disciplines and formal curricula, will not the internet intensify current trends that blur those boundaries?
These possibilities for the future of our academic and ecclesial communities both intrigue and repel me. It is one thing to create an internet course that looks much like a course in a classroom. It is quite a different thing to embrace the pedagogical possibilities of the internet without attending to the ways it alters our assumptions and practices regarding the relationship of teachers, students, and ideas. In a sense the internet makes us immigrants in time. We enter this “new world” with perspectives and practices that worked in a world of books. They now seem awkward, even irrelevant in the internet context. I appreciate the risk that Bethel and St. Stephen’s have taken to engage the challenges before us. Their experiences, however, only begin to illumine the struggles we will face in negotiating the values of old patterns of education with the possibilities of these new technologies.
Charles R. Foster
Charles R. Foster is interim dean and professor of religion and education at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia.
I very much appreciated the article on Bethel Seminary's In Ministry program ("On Line or On Campus"). As a member of the Commission on Accreditation, I was one of a team privileged to visit Bethel Seminary in the fall of 1998. In Trust’s article fairly represents the high calibre of this program. I would, however, like to draw attention and emphasize further a few of the details presented.
First, this type of program demands a mature, experienced and self-motivated student body. For five years I directed the Toronto School of Theology's D.Min. program and suggest that the kind of student required for Bethel's In Ministry program is similar to the type of student admitted to a D.Min. program. The best follow-up and on-line technical support is only as successful as the calibre of student. The intensity of the two-week long residentials also require a stringent admissions policy to ensure the program’s success.
Second, any institution seeking to develop such a program needs a realistic understanding of its costs. These include the cost to the student initially and the cost of the technological upgrading necessary during the program. It also concerns the necessity for ongoing and adequate technological support for faculty. When a faculty person has an idea, technical support must be available to turn it into reality. At Bethel one of the visiting team’s concerns was the intensity of the demand on the individual who provided primary technological support. The institution also has start-up costs. I believe Bethel received a grant not only to set up a computer lab, but also to hire someone to provide on-site training for faculty.
One aspect not mentioned is the place of the library in a program that emphasizes on-line learning. Any institution contemplating such a program needs to ask: How is the library integrated into the planning from the outset? How is distance circulation managed? How are on-line learners encouraged to access detailed written material? In the on-campus time, how is the library built into the intensive learning?
Finally, the article speaks of the ongoing concern for community formation. In light of the diversity of the student body in any M.Div. program, especially the part-time nature of learning, community formation is a continuing challenge to all who seek to provide quality M.Div. education—and, as the article indicates, in this the on-line nature of the Bethel program is no exception. We especially need to be careful that the weaknesses we bemoan in our on-campus programs do not become the comparison points for on-line programs. All of us need to commit to greater intentionality vis-a-vis community formation and M.Div. learning.
Knox College, Toronto
Dorcas Gordon is the principal of Knox College in Toronto, Ontario.
In my judgment, the most important article in your Autumn 1999 issue is the report on the public role of seminaries today ("Do today's seminaries have public roles?"). It’s a subject that governing boards should consider most seriously.
Barbara Wheeler, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary, wisely advises that, in general, seminaries should do less, rather than seek to “cover every possible programmatic base.”
For the common good, some schools at least should drop out of the competition to be the most up-to-date “distance doctor” and instead give more attention to the public debate on issues such as the creationists’ attempts to hamstring the public educational system.
C. Douglas Jay
C. Douglas Jay is the former director of the Toronto School of Theology and a former member of In Trust’s Advisory Council.