On an unseasonably warm-but-wet February afternoon in Minnesota, James Boyce, professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, sat comfortably at his desk as he described his classes and the students in them. Two thousand miles away in an unseasonably cold and soggy Renton, Washington, Jack Anderson, an M.Div. student in Luther’s pilot distance-learning project, “The Western Mission Learning Network,” and a participant in Boyce’s online Greek class, was busy working at his dental practice before heading home to complete his next homework assignment.

Technology is working changes in the educational environment as profound—and probably more enduring—than the sea change in the weather sired by El Nino, and Boyce and Anderson are apt examples of distance learning, one key arena of this new world. Distance learning uses technology to take the classroom from the campus to where the potential students already are. The original distance-learning schemes were, of course, correspondence courses, but the development of interactive multimedia software and the rise of the Internet have vastly multiplied the possibilities for disseminating and acquiring knowledge for both teachers and students.

As computer, video, telecommunications, and other technologies continue to influence every field from architecture to zymurgy, the theological community is working hard to assess the goals of theological education, determine whether technology threatens or helps fulfill them, and examine the costs of using or not using available technologies. “The use of technology in schools, particularly in distance learning, is an emotional topic,” said Katherine (Kitty) Amos, director of accreditation and educational technology for the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. “It is ironic—schools of different denominations are more split over whether and how to use technology in training their students than they are over the differences between their respective faith traditions.”

Gaining an understanding of the grounds for debate and discussion can be a daunting task. The numerous technologies are complex, constantly changing, and riddled with jargon. The educational theories of how and in what settings teachers and students work best together are continually evolving. And the mission of theological schools to train the mind, build the character, and nurture the faith of each student in the context of a caring community is often well served by traditional educational methods that are now under challenge by from the modern world.

Technology’s impact on theological education will be a major focus of the forthcoming biennial meeting of the ATS, to be held in Baltimore June 13 through 15. “This is an exciting time in theological education because of the promise of technology,” Amos said. “But it is important to look at technology carefully and holistically in order to understand its positive potential inside and outside of the classroom.” The overview that this article offers of theological school efforts to embrace the new potential, while far from comprehensive, is intended to help readers to understand the lay of the land better, and to prompt further discussion.

Technology and Formation
Few dispute that technology, particularly the Internet and World Wide Web, has changed the face of education but, for many, distance education continues to raise questions. Most seminaries see the school community as one of the forces contributing to the spiritual formation of students. It helps them become effective pastors, ministers, spiritual directors, and lay leaders called to spread the Word and build the Kingdom. For them the question is: “Can such community be built among nonresidential students?”

“We have made the very conscious decision to remain a residential campus and not become a ‘virtual campus’ in any way,” said Richard Whitaker, lecturer in Old Testament and library information/computer specialist at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. “A crucial component of education is the live, physical exchange between students with each other and with faculty. We do not want to get away from that. Therefore, any technology we implement here is for in-class, on-campus use. None of our regular classes will be offered as distance-learning classes.”

With these principles in mind, Princeton has made great technological advances in the past five years. Offices and dorms have been networked together, and the classrooms will soon be included, so that students and faculty have access to the school’s own academic “intranet,” the library holdings, the Internet, e-mail, and the World Wide Web. The school sponsors numerous computer labs throughout campus and operates a media lab that can broadcast live or prerecorded programs on any of the school’s twelve internal television stations. Princeton Seminary is currently designing two “smart” classrooms. Each will be equipped with a large-screen monitor that can project images from the media lab and be seen from anywhere in the classroom. Princeton is also proud of its Web page (www.ptsem.edu), which will soon allow Web access to its library holdings.

“What I am most excited about is that new technologies engage a variety of learning styles, opening up fresh ways of learning and sharing learning that our traditional system could not support,” Whitaker said. “For example, our on-campus academic Web provides a great way for students to interact with each other and with their professor. The professor might post the course syllabus, selected readings, study guides, and even drills online, which students can then access from their dorms or in the computer labs across campus. Or students who are reluctant to raise their hands in class because they prefer to think about something longer find it helpful to post a question, raise an issue, or offer an insight in the weekly exchanges by e-mail in the electronic discussion group folder.

“While we prefer to use our technology only on-campus,” he added, “I am not bothered by other schools’ approaches to reaching students. No two seminaries offer the same education, and students must find the program that best fits their needs. The ATS should and does do a good job of ensuring that each school’s program does what it says it will do.”

The ATS Role
“The ATS and its 230 member schools recently completed a four-year process (1992-1996) of examining and redeveloping accreditation standards by answering the question: What is a quality theological education?” Michael Gilligan, ATS director of accreditation and leadership education, explained. “By beginning from ground zero and opening up the discussion to include recent developments in technology both inside and outside the classroom, I think there is greater consensus among the schools as to what constitutes a quality program and what means are viable for delivering that education. The task of measuring quality and use of various technologies, then, is less daunting. We all adhere to the principle that each member institution is a community of faith and learning guided by theological vision.”

Technology for Distance Education
Among the schools that offer technology-mediated distance education for credit toward degrees are Bethel Theological Seminary, a school related to the Baptist General Conference, and Luther Seminary, the largest of the eight seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Both schools are in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Tom Johnson
Bethel Theological Seminary

The In-Ministry Master of Divinity Program at Bethel began in 1994 and has quickly become a premier distance-learning program among theological schools. Said Tom Johnson, Bethel Seminary’s executive vice president for new program and program development: “Our purpose has been to provide quality seminary education to pastors and others working professionally in ministry, often in remote settings, using friendly technology. We meet students where they are and take them to where they need to be. In a very real way, the world is our classroom.” The ATS agrees, having accredited the program in 1995.

Johnson noted that Bethel’s 121 In-Ministry students represent thirty-five states, three countries, and thirty denominations; are on average thirty-seven years old; and are mostly church employees living outside Minnesota.

The In-Ministry program itself combines completely at-distance courses with on-campus intensives. Each year comprises two terms, winter/spring and summer/fall. Students begin each term (in January and July) by attending two consecutive one-week intensive classes at either the St. Paul or San Diego campus. (Bethel’s San Diego, California, campus opened in 1977 in the facilities of College Avenue Baptist Church. The San Diego outpost soon grew, and Bethel decided to provide it a separate, permanent campus. A multifunctional building, including offices, classrooms, a chapel, and a growing library of more than 60,000 volumes, was completed and opened in 1990.)

In-Ministry assignments are mailed several weeks in advance and are due four weeks after the intensives. Students also complete one distance course in the fall and spring of each term. In total, students can complete up to seven courses each year and complete an M.Div. in five years.

In addition to the face-to-face on-campus intensives, students and faculty form a “virtual classroom” where each class discusses the course content, shares personal experience, offers practical application models, reacts to class members’ work, and even prays together through discussion folders, e-mail exchanges, and conference calls managed by Bethel’s state-of-the-art phone bridge that can link up to fourteen calls at one time.

Interactive Video
Another popular form of technology-driven distance learning is based on compressed interactive video (CIV). New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has become one of the leaders in the use of interactive video. The Southern Baptist school, based in New Orleans, Louisiana, has established extension sites in Birmingham, Alabama; Clinton, Mississippi; Graceville, Florida; Decatur, Georgia; Orlando, Florida; and Shreveport, Louisiana. By visiting the New Orleans Web site at www.nobts.edu, one can get a comprehensive understanding of the extension programs, class schedules, and degree requirements. 

Who’s Who in This Article

Katherine Amos: ATS director of accreditation and educational technology

Jack Anderson: M.Div. student in Luther Seminary’s distance-learning project

James Boyce: Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary (St. Paul)

Jimmy Dukes: Dean of the undergraduate faculty and of the extension center system at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

Michael Gilligan: ATS director of accreditation and leadership education

Tom Johnson: Executive vice president for new program and program development at Bethel Theological Seminary

Ben Scott: Director of external studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

Tom Walker: Director of academic technology at Luther Seminary.

Richard Whitaker: Lecturer in Old Testament and library information/computer specialist at Princeton University

According to Jimmy Dukes, dean of the undergraduate faculty and dean of the extension center system at New Orleans Seminary, the school decided four years ago to develop the necessary infrastructure to support interactive video technology. Starting with the center in Decatur, the school’s largest extension site, two classes each Monday were taught from the New Orleans campus via interactive-video technology. Soon thereafter New Orleans Seminary expanded the Decatur schedule; it now includes evening classes on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday and daytime classes on Tuesday through Friday. This year the Monday evening classes are taught simultaneously in Decatur and in Orlando; next year they will be taught simultaneously at four remote sites.

The seminary has converted one classroom in New Orleans and one in Decatur for interactive video by making the walls acoustically sound, installing microphones and cameras, and linking the sites electronically via telephone lines. In each classroom two cameras are mounted on either end of the room. These cameras can be preset to focus on a particular area or manually controlled to focus on specific people or things as needed. Also at each end of the room is a pair of thirty-five-inch monitors placed side-by-side; one pair faces the professor and the other faces the students. One of the monitors shows what is happening at the local site where the professor is teaching and the other monitor shows the class at the remote site. Each class sees exactly the same things on the screens and can interact with each other.

“The CIV technology is quite remarkable,” Dukes said. “The person operating the control panel in each site, typically a student, can zoom in on a student and activate the microphone when that student has a question or comment.” Each classroom is also equipped with a high-powered document camera that can focus in on and project such things as slides, photographs, and typewritten pages. Computer presentations can also be projected through the CIV technology.

In sites like those in Florida, where there are no permanent “smart classrooms,” New Orleans seminary has purchased mobile cameras, monitors, and table microphones that make it possible to turn an ordinary classroom into an interactive one and link it to the others. While it has been expensive for the school to create permanent studios in New Orleans and Decatur as well as purchase the mobile equipment, Dukes noted that the seminary is supported by the Southern Baptist Convention, which is deeply committed to quality theological education. While some have argued it would be better not to buy all the hardware because of the rapidly changing technology, Dukes pointed out that the school’s large classes—often more than thirty—exceeded the capacity of most rental facilities that offer interactive video conferencing. “We know that the technology is going to change, but we believe that it is to our advantage to jump in and then grow with the technology,” he said.

Experts in the field estimate the cost of outfitting a studio classroom at $80,000 to $100,000.

Dukes looks forward to building another studio classroom at New Orleans, and is also interested in developing Internet courses that might stand alone or be combined with interactive video technology. “Necessity, accessibility, and affordability are key words that drive changes in higher education. We have to bring education to where people are and we can do that through technology,” he said.

The Rental Route
A school interested in teaching extension courses via compressed interactive video doesn’t have to buy equipment. Dallas Theological Seminary, for example, has chosen to rent the needed space and technology from Kinko’s Copy Center, which has locations throughout the United States.

In addition to its main Dallas campus, the seminary <http://www.dts.edu> has extension sites in San Antonio, Texas; Houston, Texas; Tampa, Florida; and Chattanooga (soon to be moving to nearby Dayton), Tennessee. According to Ben Scott, Dallas director of external studies, “By renting from Kinko’s at their weekend rate of $105 per hour, as opposed to the week-day rate of $210 per hour, we are able to teach one interactive video course in the fall of each year at each extension site. Right now we have a course each fall through 2002. By teaching a course from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with down time for lunch, our costs average $735 per day per site. Courses run for six Saturdays, so operating four sites for the duration of the course costs us a total of $17,640. We still charge the exact same tuition for these classes as we do for our on-campus and audio cassette courses—$220 per semester hour. I would say that the video courses are not money-makers, but they do break even. After we collect tuition and fees we pay our professors time-and-a-half plus miscellaneous fees. If there is extra money, it gets reinvested in enhancing the program.”

The Kinko’s rooms hold about fifteen students each and are user-friendly. Any student near the control pad in the individual rooms can control the direction of the camera and activate or deactivate the microphone as needed. There are two thirty-two-inch screens used, one to see the professor and the other to see the local site. Also, if a professor chooses to use a PowerPoint presentation or graphics of any kind, the screen can be divided so that supplemental visual aids can be seen as a picture inside a picture.

“Operating the video conference classes requires a lot of work and patience,” Scott said. “The professors who have taught this way have had to completely retool their courses to fit the video format. Students also say that it takes a little while to get used to learning this way. But any time the ATS has interviewed people about their experience, they say that after the first class they felt comfortable with the technology.”

Though Dallas has found a way to stay involved with video technology while maintaining its budget, Scott always keeps his eyes open for new developments and better rates. He believes the Internet will revolutionize video conferencing, and he plans to be ready when it comes.

The Case for Distance
In the autumn of 1996, Luther Seminary in St. Paul joined with Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, to launch a pilot distance education program called “The Western Mission Learning Network.” Its offerings are essentially independent study versions of both required and elective courses at the Evangelical Lutheran seminaries—carried out through a combination of computer technology, the telephone, and the postal service—that enable students to interact with faculty and fellow students, use the library, order books from the bookstore, and draw on student support services.

Against the backdrop of an office library studded with books on the New Testament, Luther’s writings, and Greek grammars and classics, Dr. James Boyce explained how he teaches online. 

James Boyce
Luther Seminary

“First and foremost,” he said, “I have the same goals and proceed the same way for both the online and the on-campus students. I work to develop not only knowledge of the Greek language but also the skills and familiarity with available resources that are going to be commensurate with their leadership positions in ministry. I do not expect students to be able to parse any verb at a moment’s notice. I’m interested in challenging them: ‘With all the resources available, can you make use of the language for the sake of working in this field?

Boyce has found that a one-on-one style that incorporates phone conversations and e-mail with him works best. He himself designed the easy-to-use Web page that students connect to via the Internet. By opening Luther’s Web page (http://luthersem.edu) and choosing to look at the courses in the Learning Network, anyone can see firsthand what Boyce’s Greek course looks like.

When it comes to the philosophical questions raised by technology-mediated distance education, Boyce commented: “If people ask me, ‘Do students lose something by not being in class?’ I say, ‘Yeah, sure.’ The interaction between the students with each other and with me is an important part of on-campus classes. And I think I have something to offer in person, even if it is my own personal excitement about the subject. But many students don’t have an option, so online learning is a lot better than not taking courses.

“Online education does force us to rethink how it is that people learn and to ask ourselves, Who has the power and control over learning, teachers or students?” In online education the person sitting at the computer has a lot of control over his or her learning. And because I’m training people who are going to be pastors and leaders, I want them to be self-learners and self-starters.”

Boyce also argued that traditional notions of how communities form have changed. “Community is no longer dictated by geography. People can get together through interactive video and the Internet. Consequently, we have to start being creative about ways to build community by not necessarily bringing people together physically.”

Under the supervision of Tom Walker, director of academic technology, Luther Seminary has built into its overall budget the basic infrastructure needed to support future developments in software and applications of new technology. Any money the school receives in grants will go to training faculty and implementing innovative uses of technology. Soon the school will lease its hardware on a three-year cycle so it can continuously upgrade without spending excessive amounts of money. It’s also planning a fully equipped studio classroom for interactive video teleconferencing.

A Student Perspective
Are students in the new program learning? Dr. Jack Anderson, a student in Luther’s Learning Network program, provides some answers and a chance to journey with a student into the world of cyberspace education in an interview conducted entirely by e-mail.

Jack Anderson
Luther Seminary

“I am forty-five years old and am currently practicing general dentistry in Renton, Washington,” Anderson began. “I have been in practice in the same location for the past nineteen years. My wife and I were raised as Lutherans; we are life-long residents of western Washington and we are both graduates of Pacific Lutheran University.”

Anderson explained that he had felt the renewal of a call to the pastoral ministry and had joined the Learning Network after seeing a brochure at his home congregation. Because he was still wrestling with discernment issues, he decided to seek enrollment at Luther Seminary as a “special student” to see if the subject matter of theological courses was right for him.

To date, Anderson’s entire didactic contact with Luther Seminary has been through the Internet, and every course that he has taken has been for credit with a view toward completing the requirements for Luther’s M.Div. degree. He had to overcome “the twin difficulties of coping with unfamiliar technology and reacquiring basic writing/thinking skills after years of being outside the classroom.” Nevertheless Anderson feels the online teaching paradigm, which includes a lively dialogue on an “e-bulletin board” at a linked site where students respond not only to leading statements provided (online) by the instructors but to each other’s comments, “stresses not only traditional teacher-student (i.e., vertical) interactions but also peer evaluation (i.e., horizontal) interactions as means to developing skills of critical judgment and self-expression and to enhance the assimilation of didactic material.”

“The balance of the courses I have taken,” Anderson added, “have been fleshed-out with more traditional student fare, such as background reading assignments, individual research papers and quizzes/exams, all of which are customarily sent and received online.

“My sense of the professor and his role in each of these classes was quite different. One professor seemed very distant: I recollect that we received very little feedback from him online during the course and had very little idea about how we were doing. Professor Boyce, who teaches the Greek courses, was very accessible online, and also set up optional weekly phone sessions with Greek tutors (real people!) at Luther for help. Also of great help with technology issues was Dr. Tom Walker, who graciously spent time with me both online and on the telephone talking me through the rough spots in the early going of my first online course.

“In contrast with the perceived differences with ‘connecting’ to the various instructors,” explained Anderson, “it was easier for me to relate consistently to both course material and fellow students. The didactic and interactive material was received primarily in ‘visual’ form—nothing unusual about that. What was extremely interesting to me was the sense of bonding with one’s other online classmates as the course progressed and the concomitant sense of each student’s identity that came across through the interactive portions of the course work, even though we neither saw nor spoke to one another online. It was fascinating to see that at the end of an interactive online course, student contributions could have been submitted unsigned and we all would have been able to identify each other’s work! . . .

“There have been and most likely will continue to be problems associated with online learning. Seminary server hard drives crash, e-mail gets lost, attached documents mysteriously ‘detach,’ Internet service providers become unreliable, and the ‘progress’ of computer-related technology may not always seem much like progress. . . . It also seems to me that there are significant phases of pastoral education (in contrast to other disciplines?) that require face-to-face human interaction, for example, courses that teach the oral skills of preaching and teaching. Despite these difficulties, it seems to me that the concept of online learning has a bright future in training future seminarians and in the area of continuing pastoral education as well.”

Anderson concluded: “The personal impact of my online theological studies has been profound. Largely as a result of them, I have made application for and been accepted to the M.Div. Degree Program at Luther Seminary at St. Paul. Both my dental practice and our home are being readied for sale, and my family and I are preparing to move this summer to St. Paul so that I can continue my theological studies on campus. It is difficult to imagine how I could now be pursuing the calling to pastoral ministry in the absence of the online study that I have done.


Preparing for Ministry When You Can’t Leave Home
by William R. MacKaye

This is how it began. It was 1992 and Laurie Line, 36, a San Diego wife and mother of two, had just completed her associate’s degree work at a local community college. She was leading a service at the Lutheran church where she had long been a member, was serving communion, and in one corner of her mind was wondering what she was going to do with the rest of her life.

Suddenly, to her surprise and discomfort, she began to cry. And as the tears grew stronger, she knew that God was calling her to the ordained ministry.

“In the days afterward God and I and my husband argued about this,” she recalled recently, “and finally I said, `God, if you want me, make it possible.’”

Over the next months and years, it indeed became possible.

Line enrolled in the PACE (Program in Adult College Education) program offered on the San Diego campus of Bethel College and Theological Seminary, a scheme initially developed at Bethel’s main campus in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1989 that enables adults to complete a bachelor’s degree while attending school only one night a week. In 1995 Line was awarded her B.A.

Although Bethel has a conservative evangelical orientation (it’s affiliated with the Baptist General Conference), Lutheran Line found herself comfortable on the campus. She was accepted into the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s candidacy process and, with her supervisors’ permission, began working at Bethel Seminary toward a master’s in divinity degree that eventually (in June 2000, if all goes well) will be awarded by Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley.

These days Line has taken Greek and all her Bible, church history, and pastoral care courses at Bethel. Once a week she drives ninety miles to Claremont, where she’s enrolled in three evening classes offered by Pacific Lutheran at its extension site on the campus of Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary. Line will take a summer course at Pacific Lutheran in Berkeley this summer, but her only full semester in residence there will be her final one, beginning in January 2000.

Line has not been touched personally by Bethel’s and Pacific Lutheran’s extensive distance learning offerings. But the responsibilities that have kept her firmly planted in San Diego—a spouse with a career of his own, a nineteen-year-old son, and fourteen-year-old daughter with medical problems whose health care arrangements are locked into San Diego—make her typical of the kind of middle-life students for whom theological schools must modify the classical residential school model if they wish to retain them.

What community shapes Line spiritually? Several, actually, by her testimony: her home congregation of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, San Diego; Lemon Grove Lutheran Church, San Diego, where she’ll serve as an intern during 1999; San Diego’s weekly Lutheran pastors’ text study group, which convenes to explore the appointed Sunday Bible readings; two of her professors at Bethel to whom she feels particularly close; and her ongoing work with the Lutheran chaplain at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

Her guides may be posted at scattered sites, but step by step Line is steadily moving toward her goal of becoming a parish pastor. What will her husband do when she’s ordained?

“He thinks he’s going to retire and play golf.” She laughed.

Have you talked to him about the role of the pastor’s spouse? the interviewer asked.

“Oh yes,” she said. Pause. “One thing I can assure you. He won’t be leading the choir. He has a tin ear.”

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