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(Not) Being There - Online Distance Theological Education

Journal Issue
Miller, Sharon L. and Scharen, Christian
Auburn Studies, No. 23 (Auburn Theological Seminary, New York, NY Fall 2017)
BV4070.A8A1 2017 no.23
Topics: Online Learning   |   Theological Education   |   Changes in Higher Education

Additional Info:
This Auburn Studies report highlights the changing features of online distance education (ODE) within theological schools. Distance education is not a new phenomenon, particularly within the broader field of higher education, and yet the “disruptive innovation” of the internet, as Clayton Christensen and others have argued, has only recently begun to change theological education.[i] While in some respects the impact of the internet is dramatic and new, many faith traditions have deep experience with the sort of mediated presence distinctive of ODE.

For many world religions, the embodied presence of their founders—Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, and others—was brief. For most of the histories of these great traditions, “not being there” has been normative. Take, for example, the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the disciples in the Gospel of John. All the disciples were there, save Thomas, who would not believe Jesus was truly alive without “being there” to see and touch Jesus. Lucky for him, a week later Jesus appeared to Thomas as well. But note what Jesus said: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have come to believe.” This is the case for millions of believers today, whose experience of the holy is through a mediating presence, holy objects, or rituals, and perhaps, most profoundly, through scriptures understood as God’s presence, voice, or word.

It is then not an unfamiliar world at all for people of faith to teach and learn at a distance, using mediated relationships to do so—even when the technology affording the connection is indeed new. While this report outlines our research findings, we also hope to offer resources for thinking in creative and hopeful ways in a time of change. The report takes stock of a generation of change in theological education driven by what is often called the “digital revolution.” We highlight three key findings:

First, ODE is growing rapidly, pushing the boundaries of who typically attends theological school. Over the past decade, enrollment at member schools of The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) dropped by 11%; in the same period, online enrollment rose almost 200%. Broader cultural patterns regarding spirituality are surely at play as we see the democratizing force of the internet opening theological exploration to a much wider—and, it turns out, quite interested—audience. Given the success of ODE, many schools suddenly find themselves with too large and expensive a physical plant for the educational needs.

Second, ODE student outcomes are equal to or better than those of traditional residential classes. Many critics—even now—harbor doubts that anything but students and a professor in a room together can achieve the desired educational outcomes. Yet the evidence shows this is not true. ODE provokes pedagogical innovation, shifting the focus from teacher to learner, and the power of the contexts in which the student learns. For both faculty and students, it is powerful to take seriously the “real world” context where student learning and daily work dynamically interrogate one another. Ironically, we found, while ODE takes more time and effort, remarkably few resources are currently dedicated to training and supporting faculty as they learn this new medium.

Third, the integrated reality of digital life is quickly making the old divide between “traditional” and “online” classes—and hybrid courses or programs, which toggle between the two—obsolete. ODE creates an identity crisis for many schools that value highly the formative power of “being there” in classroom, chapel, and community life. Yet the question the disruption of the internet raises is “where” does education actually happen? It is clearly wherever the student lives, works, and learns, including in virtual spaces and through digitally mediated access to human and material resources.

Table Of Content:
Executive Summary

I. Introduction
II. Overview of Literature
----Case Study: Bethel Seminary
III. Whats, Whys, and Hows of Online Distance Education
----Case Study: Luther Seminary
IV. Why Say Yes to ODE?
----Case Study: Central Baptist Theological Seminary
V. Challenges for ODE
----Case Study: Columbia Theological Seminary
VI. How to Jumpstart ODE
VII. Conclusions
Sage Advice: How to Do it Well
Data Sources

About the Authors, Funding and Support