The Christian Century on Seminary Education

The latest issue of Christian Century was a fun read about how some mainline seminaries are finally beginning to address the changing realities of education in general. It is interesting to watch some of the more traditional seminaries enter into the online playing field–better late than never.  The articles have a feel of “Gordon Conwell is cutting edge” because its students can now do a third of their MDIV in their pajamas at home without moving to Boston.

That tone is very amusing because over ten years ago Asbury students could already do two-thirds of their MDIV online. As you know, students here at Wesley can also do two-thirds of their program online and have been able to do so since we were founded over three years ago. You have to remember that the Christian Century is a periodical that aims at one of the parts of the theological world that has been most resistant to these sorts of developments.

It was almost surreal to read some of the things in the cover story, as if they were something new. We’ve been doing them for years. For example, the government has tested and documented that the learning in online education is at the very least equal to that onsite and in many instances is probably better. After all, you can usually hide in the back of an onsite class (especially when it is in lecture format), but in an online class you either participate or you’re absent.

The article also addresses some of the continuing skepticism about developing close community online.  In our program, because you start together onsite, because you move through the program in a cohort, and because you return onsite once a year throughout your program, online classes are not disembodied or random.  They’re like calling someone on the phone that you already know (even that illustration is outdated, but I’m trying to meet the skeptics where they usually are on the technology spectrum). Again, I guarantee you there is as much community going on there as in most traditional seminary classrooms.

Some of the examples in this article are actually about the new MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and the use of increasing bandwidth to put longer lectures online. This is actually a step back pedagogically the way it is currently being done, although IWU will almost certainly enter this playing field because of the demand.  Currently, it is simply transplanting the “90% loss of learning” in lecture format into the online world.  Those like Asbury, Fuller, and Wesley who have been doing this for years know that lecture is the least effective learning method there is.

Those who say you cannot effectively teach preaching or do spiritual formation online simply have no idea what they’re talking about. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.  I don’t think any of us have any real idea what is coming.

  • Mfipps

    I agree with Ken. I felt (and still feel) connected to those in my cohort and another cohort that joined us. I do think that the time on campus solidified those relationships. I also enjoyed the interactive online class sessions we had in Greek/Hebrew for Ministry. I am a person who needs to process information before discussing it. So, the online discussions gave me that time to process. I also believe there was often much more discussion than there would have been in the classroom. In the classroom 2-5 people dominate the discussion and some voices are not heard at all. Online, everyone is heard and allowed to give input. I think there are positives to both types of learning, but I definitely enjoyed the online version!

  • David Drury

    Interesting post Ken. Yes, even back when I was in seminary at Gordon Conwell 16 years ago they already had the program you mention. I took two classes that way in fact–it was horrible (basically just listening to tapes and writing papers, an “innovation” that could have been introduced with the invention of the grammophone by Edison in the 1870s.)

    Of course, other places I find myself people a chattering about Wesley Seminary… Outsiders to it all but very interested, they are hearing that seminary might just be reinventing itself for real over there.

    Yes indeed, I say. Stay tuned.