Although many theological schools are now thoroughly used to online learning, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) approved the first two mostlyonline master’s degrees only 20 years ago. Today 70 percent of ATS schools are approved to offer comprehensive distance education programs, and almost half of all students in ATS schools take at least one online course.
In response to this dramatic growth, in June 2020, ATS approved a new set of accreditation standards that are “modality neutral,” focusing less on specific practices and more on principles of quality. (For an outline of the new Standards for Accreditation, go to bit.ly/YamadaStandards.)
Over the years, as schools gradually began to offer more and more of their programs online, the question was naturally asked: Can an online education adequately educate and form students?
In 2018, two peer groups that were part of the ATS-convened Educational Models and Practices Project began looking closely at online theological education. They concluded that online education has its own integrity and can provide opportunities to reevaluate pedagogy, increase the use of technology, and reach more diverse populations. (For more information, see bit.ly/EMP-reports.)
By using its Graduating Student Questionnaire, ATS has been tracking the educational context of students since 2013. The survey asks students where they completed the majority of their degree: on a main campus, at an extension site, in a hybrid setting, or completely online. Students who study on campus are also asked if their classes took place during the day, in the evening, or during intensive cohorts.
Next, students are asked to rate how effective they believe their theological education was in developing various skills (including preaching, conducting worship, and providing spiritual direction) and in facilitating their personal and spiritual growth.
The cumulative results of the questionnaires are illuminating. Students who studied on a main campus in the evening rated their schools most effective in developing the skills listed and in facilitating personal and spiritual growth, while those who studied on a main campus during the day, and students who studied in intensive cohorts, rated their schools lowest in these areas. Students who studied at extension sites, took only online classes, and were enrolled in hybrid classes rated their schools in the middle.
When students were asked to rate the quality of preparation they received in certain skill areas, such as the ability to use and interpret scripture, give spiritual direction, and think theologically, online students believed their institutions prepared them as well as or more effectively than the students who studied on campus or took hybrid classes. In other areas, such as the ability to preach well; conduct worship; interact effectively with those of other religions, cultures, and genders; and relate social issues to faith, online students rated their institutions as less effective than the on-campus or hybrid students.
The ATS peer groups that studied online theological education concluded that online programs are more effective than in-person programs in reaching a more diverse group of students. However, that diversity is not represented in the data from our questionnaire. Of the 2019–20 graduates who completed their whole degree online, 75 percent are non-Hispanic white, while just 60 percent of on-campus students are non-Hispanic white. (There may be language barriers that keep some online students from completing the questionnaires.) In addition, the data from the questionnaires suggest that the diversity achieved with online learning does not translate into the development of cross-cultural skills such as interacting across religious traditions, cultures, or racial and ethnic contexts.
When we drill down into the specific areas of spiritual and personal growth, we find that extension-site and main-campus-evening graduates consistently rank their schools as more effective than do their all-online and main-campus-daytime peers. But in several specific areas, including trust in God, the ability to pray, self-discipline, the ability to live out their faith, and the strength of their spiritual life, online students rate themselves higher than on-campus-daytime students.
Traditional daytime students ranked their institutions higher in more interpersonal areas, including empathy for the poor and oppressed, concern about social justice, insight into the troubles of others, and respect for other religious traditions.
Schools that emphasize these inter-personal skills and areas of personal growth in their learning outcomes may need to think more creatively and strategically about how to facilitate learning in these areas. Online programs may be able to reach more diverse students, but that diversity does not always translate into the formation of cross-cultural skills among graduates.
Schools that emphasize residential education often argue that, for students, the very act of relocating and moving into a new community is a formative experience that deepens their interpersonal skills. Is there a way to offer online students this same kind of experience by finding a way to make use of the educational contexts in which students are already located? Or do online programs need to consider some sort of immersive face-to-face educational requirements that can deepen such interpersonal skill development?
While online programs may be struggling with how to foster interpersonal skill development in their students, it is the programs that are held on the main campus of a school, especially traditional daytime programs, that students feel are less effective in developing their individual personal and spiritual growth.
It may be that the schools offering traditional residential daytime programs are assuming that such growth takes place simply by virtue of being in regular in-person community with others. That graduates do not agree with this assessment suggests that those with traditional residential programs may want to think about how to meet learning goals in these areas of individual formation more creatively and strategically.
The shift toward new educational models is challenging everyone to think more intentionally about how to craft learning experiences that draw upon new technologies, expand the matrix of learning, and think more strategically about teaching methods designed to achieve desired learning goals.