- Theological Education
Online Master of Divinity are producing quality educational and spiritual experiences.
Many are skeptical that online master of divinity programs can provide the spiritually formative experiences needed for ministry.
But that assumption is being challenged by seminaries discovering that the online approach is not only keeping pace with its campus-based predecessors, but actually excelling in nurturing the spiritual depth congregations need from their leaders.
“Online is producing better results in almost every aspect of M.Div. education – including spiritual formation – than its predecessor face-to-face program did,” said Richard Weis, vice president for academic affairs, dean and professor of Hebrew Bible at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky.
The seminary offers a master of divinity degree through a hybrid online and in-person program, Weis said. Its students score at above average in assessment scores in topics ranging from pastoral care and church history to worship leadership.
Lexington graduates are usually placed at graduation, or within a year of graduation, in the jobs for which they prepared, Weis added.
“By all measures they are doing well,” he said.
PROVIDING COMMUNITIES OF FORMATION
The standards are high for institutions seeking the go-ahead from accreditors, said Stephen Graham, senior director of programs and services at the Association of Theological Schools, the primary accrediting agency for seminaries and other theological schools in the United States.
Those proposing or operating online programs must convince a board of commissioners they will or are achieving outcomes at least equivalent to on-campus programs, said Graham.
Many schools have embraced online education. According to ATS, more than 140 of its 275 member schools offer comprehensive distance learning programs that have been approved by the organization’s Board of Commissioners. ATS says 26 schools offer M.Div. or other professional masters degrees fully online.
Evangelical schools lead the pack in offering online theological education. “So far they have been the early, and more numerous, adopters,” Graham said.
Fewer mainline Protestant and Catholic schools offer a range of online programs, including the M.Div, although the number is growing.
But can those programs really help students develop spiritually, the way on-campus programs have done?
ATS is looking into that very question. Its Educational Models and Practices project, which is headed by Graham, has created “a peer group of theological educators to focus a critical eye on formation in online contexts,” ATS announced in an article.
The standards are already tough for schools wanting to go this route, Graham said. They must submit petitions demonstrating how they will address issues of formation, community building and interaction among students -- and between students and faculty, he said.
Many of the approaches are creative, noted Graham.
Some use a cohort system to foster formation and fellowship among online students as they progress through their studies.
Graham described others who commission lay and clergy in students’ local churches to oversee and guide their spiritual and professional maturity.
“That provides a community of formation and some may have spiritual directors or mentors they interact with,” he said.
One dominant demographic that seeks online theological education are ministers and other staff members already serving a church. Allowing them to stay in place while earning advanced degrees provides contexts in which professional, pastoral and personal growth may continue, Graham said.
That approach provides a powerful source of inspiration and spiritual direction for online students, said Dale Hale, director of distributed learning at Asbury Theological Seminary, which has campuses in Kentucky and Florida.
It’s important not to discount what students may already be doing in their communities and congregations, Hale said.
“Being able to stay in their churches gives them the ability to immediately apply what they are learning in class,” he said. “They can use what they are learning in their pulpit or whatever they are doing in ministry.”
To encourage relationships between students, Asbury’s hybrid online M.Div. program includes a cyber gathering place called Open Forum.
“It’s where they can talk about anything, just as they would in the hallway in between classes,” Hale said. “They can talk about the last lecture or the last movie they saw.”
Likewise, the Prayer Forum enables students and faculty to post more serious issues and questions around which the rest of the class will engage in discussion through by posting audio, video and text.
“It’s a great way of building community,” Hale said.
‘LEVELS THE PLAYING FIELD’
But online theological education may well be more effective when it abandons the model used by on-campus programs, said Weis.
“There is a hidden assumption that the way we have done theological education – before online – is the paradigm,” he said.
But that approach has drawbacks for students when then come to live and study on or around campus.
“You have to create an on-campus worshiping community, you have to create other forms of on-campus spiritual life and an on-campus social community,” Weis said. “You have to put them in structured field education because you pulled them out of a congregation where they could have practiced leadership.”
Online programs do not have to mimic traditional theological programs, he said.
At Lexington, the entire academic year was overhauled to accommodate both online and on-campus classes. Online classes last four to eight weeks and mandatory nine-week, face-to-face intensives are held on campus twice a year, he said.
The fully residential program was terminated in favor of the hybrid approach now offered, he added.
“We offer courses 12 months of the year, with breaks for holidays,” Weis said. “Students can start any time of the year and can pause for life circumstances with minimal consequences.”
Lexington Seminary has found its asynchronous approach -- with students attending online courses from around the nation coupled with in-person sessions to foster effective formation and bonding between students, he said.
“We find it to be effective across time zones and it makes for a richer learning community,” Weis said.
He added that every student in an online class must actively participate in discussion, which is not always the case in on-campus courses often dominated by extroverts.
“It actually levels the playing field in a way that everybody is heard from,” he said.
Faculty are able to monitor sermons, teaching and other work through required video presentations from students’ local congregational settings, Weis said.
Implementing academic knowledge in real time is accomplished without waiting for field education projects or graduation, he said.
“The majority of our students have reported that their congregations are the biggest source of spiritual formation,” Weis said.
Graham said ATS is taking note of the successes seminaries and their students are reporting from their online master of divinity programs. Even faculty testify that teaching online has inspired them to rethink how they teach in the classroom.
Online programs also, “are forging closer connections between schools and congregations,” he added.
While ATS’ examination of these programs continues, Graham said the evidence so far suggests online theological education has a lot going for it.
“I think it’s here to stay,” he said.
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