Κeith Anderson laughs at the irony as he remembers last spring, when he felt nervous about becoming a student again. “Most of the time, I’m the one teaching or giving the workshop or preaching,” he says. “And so here I was the student once again, wanting to make sure I got my assignments in on time.”
The irony runs still deeper. Although he is an experienced online educator, Anderson was enrolled in a course that teaches educators how to teach online. And while Anderson is a Lutheran pastor, the course was being offered by an Episcopal school, Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), which collaborated with experts at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to develop it. The course development was made possible through an innovation grant from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).
For the record, Anderson passed, earning a certificate in Fundamentals of Online Teaching for Theological Educators from UW–Madison.
Cutting-edge courses, now customized
Stacy Williams-Duncan, interim director of digital learning at VTS, was the driving force behind customizing the University of Wisconsin’s Fundamentals of Online Teaching course for theological educators. Upon being hired at VTS, she was asked to develop faculty training that would introduce digital learning and tools into traditional classrooms, hybrid classes, and online courses. At the same time, the ATS grant application announcement came out.
“So, I went to my academic dean and said, ‘What if we tried to get a grant for a collaboration with the University of Wisconsin–Madison to take one of their certificate programs and customize it for theological educators?’”
Williams-Duncan was already familiar with the university’s online teaching certificate programs and believed them to be of such high quality that customizing them would be the most effective and sustainable way of bringing online pedagogy guidance to seminary faculty. So she worked with UW-Madison to develop two programs: the fundamentals course (35 hours, six weeks) and a more advanced course called Designing Digital Teaching and Learning for Theological Educators (65 hours, 12 weeks).
The central content for each weekly module is the same as in the “secular” versions of both courses. But in the customized courses, each module is facilitated by a theological educator, has an introduction specifically designed for theological educators, and tailors follow-up resources and discussion topics to their specific needs.
“There are a lot of us in online education who have had little training,” says Tim Westbrook, director of the Center for Distance Education in Bible and Ministry at Harding University, a Church of Christ–affiliated school in Searcy, Arkansas. “But we have undergone a baptism by fire.”
Westbrook completed the pilot version of the advanced course and says it offered a good combination of the most recent learning theory, new technological tools and resources, and opportunities to network with theological educators from other institutions. As a result, he gained both new insights into how technologies can be used and ideas that he was able to implement immediately in his own teaching and course design.
How do the specific needs of online theological educators differ from those of their secular counterparts? Williams-Duncan says a key difference is the emphasis given to community building and student formation.
In traditional online teacher training, the issue comes up late, long after other subjects. But for theological educators, the idea of student formation — such things as spiritual development, the practice of ministry, and leadership development — is every bit as important as academic content. “One of the things we discovered is that you have to flip that [emphasis] on its head,” says Williams-Duncan. “You have to be talking about community building and the creation of a learning community from day one.”
Keith Anderson is a Lutheran pastor and co-author of Click2Save Reboot: The Digital Ministry Bible. He earned a certificate in online teaching through Virginia Theological Seminary's collaborative program with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“That is probably the single most important reason I felt there needed to be specialized online training for theological educators.”
Evolving pedagogy, alongside evolving tech
New courses in teaching and learning offer educators the latest thinking on these topics — regardless of whether the course is specifically geared to online education.
When Keith Anderson participated in the fundamentals course, he picked up helpful tools that were previously missing from his personal teaching toolkit. “I was never trained as a teacher,” Anderson explains. And he is not alone. A typical religious studies or theology Ph.D. program doesn’t educate students in the philosophy or practices of teaching and learning. As a result, most teachers employ the same methods by which they were once taught. And today’s theological educators were largely taught according to the “sage on a stage” lecture model, says Williams-Duncan. She’s currently completing a doctorate in curriculum and instruction and has been researching faculty development and educational development in theological education settings.
Williams-Duncan says that much has been learned about learning in the last 15 to 20 years. And that has led not only to shifts in delivery (from traditional classroom to hybrid models, and then to online delivery, for example) but also in emphasis. “Is the emphasis on teaching and putting information out there?” she asks. “Or is the emphasis on learning and how students receive information? That’s a completely different ecology.”
Not using digital tools today would be like "not using the printed Bible, post-Gutenberg," says Stacy Williams-Duncan, shown here at a meeting of the Virginia Theological Seminary digital learning team.
Credit: Elizabeth Panox-Leach
For example, focusing on learning means understanding how long listeners can absorb information from a lecture before they stop taking anything in. “It’s only about 20 minutes,” she says, “depending on how good a lecturer you are. So you need to have breaks. You need to have people do something with the information.”
Digital all over
Williams-Duncan is quick to emphasize that digital learning is not always distance learning. “Digital learning is about all 21st-century learning,” she explains. “So even if you have a completely residential course, in which students come into your classroom every day for a lecture, you should still be utilizing digital tools and resources. To not utilize them would be like not using the printed Bible, post-Gutenberg.”
She adds: “There’s something about accessing the gospel in one’s own language. And I would say that the digital environment is the language of the 21st century.”
A community of ministers using digital tools
For the past eight years, Lutheran minister Keith Anderson, who also serves as associate for digital content in the lifelong learning program at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), has been part of a network of ministers in an effort called “eFormation.” Participants learn from each other about the use of digital resources in their ministries, particularly in faith formation.
Sarah Stonesifer, manager of operations and digital missioner at the seminary’s Center for the Ministry of Teaching, leads the eFormation program. Her colleague Stacy Williams-Duncan describes eFormation as “a vibrant learning community” composed of hundreds of VTS alumni, friends, and ministry practitioners across denominations. “Some of the push at VTS to start using more digital resources in our seminary classes came because we had so many alums involved in this community,” she says. Seeing the value of digital tools in their own ministry, they suggested that digital literacy could also benefit professors.
The new certificate programs at a glance
Both certificate programs, Fundamentals of Online Teaching for Theological Educators and Designing Digital Teaching and Learning for Theological Educators, are administered by and provided through the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies.
When a seminary contracts for one of the certificate programs, the seminary becomes the host school. A minimum of eight (and maximum of 20) participants are required to run the program, but schools can invite faculty from other institutions to achieve the minimum threshold.
The 35-hour, 6-week fundamentals course is an introductory certificate program that emphasizes the use of technology to deepen learning in online, hybrid, and traditional course environments within theological education. Topics covered include online course models and principles, the role of the online instructor, planning learning activities, the online learner, course content, and course management strategies. The current price is $595 per participant.
The 65-hour, 12-week advanced course is a comprehensive certificate program that provides the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to design and teach quality online courses. Topics covered include the current status of online learning, teaching in the online environment, supporting online learners, course format and design, curating content, and more. The current price is $1,195 per participant.