That’s a sign, Amos said, that what she suspected is true: seminaries are realizing that distance learning and technological innovation, which have made a huge impact in higher education and the business world, have tremendous implications for theological education as well.
“This is already a huge field,” Amos told the Committee on Theological Education for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), meeting March 17-20 at Louisville Seminary. Many evangelical seminaries, some of which are not accredited by ATS, have embraced the new technology — some of them developing classes not just for theological students but for churches as well — and students are demanding more flexibility in how and where courses are presented. Amos acknowledged, however, that some from seminaries are skeptical — worried, for example, that courses taught through interactive technology or online won’t produce a sense of spiritual community among students. She encouraged seminary faculty and administration to “explore these possibilities with an open mind and an open heart.”
Until January, Amos was on staff at the Association for Theological Schools, with responsibilities that included oversight of distance education and extension campuses for seminaries. She’s now a consultant for ATS.
Amos acknowledged that some have criticized ATS for being “archaic” and backward — slow to respond to technological innovation — and the same has been said of some seminaries. At some schools, she said, people are begging for full degree programs to be offered through online courses or distance education. Some students with family and work commitments need that kind of flexibility in order to undertake advanced theological education. But at other seminaries, resistance to change runs deep. Amos described one school she visited where “the faculty was ready to tar and feather me” for even raising the idea of teaching with technology.
Among the trends Amos has noted:
• The field of distance education is changing so rapidly it’s impossible to comprehensively track it. The acceleration of such programs has been “phenomenal,” she said. Some surveys showed that more than 90 percent of public higher education institutions planned to have some distance education opportunities available by now, and Amos estimates that more than half of ATS-accredited schools have extension sites or distance learning courses or both. In parts of the world such as Africa, which lack a well-developed higher education infrastructure, networking opportunities and distance education can make a huge difference. “This is big business around the world, because it is the only hope for educated populations in many countries,” Amos said.
• Technology is changing the way courses are taught on-campus as well as off-site. Often, teachers who begin using new techniques — everything from conference calls to posting discussion questions online and having students respond to using interactive video — get excited about what’s happened, and start making changes even for the students who could sit and listen to a lecture face-to-face, Amos said. Some of the same products, such as the popular Blackboard software, are being used both on-campus and in distance learning. And the technology is constantly in flux. A few years ago, the push was on wiring schools to use computers and other equipment; today, the talk is all about wireless.
• Many schools and teachers are experimenting with “combination” approaches — offering, for example, degree programs that include both intensive on-campus segments and courses taught at extension sites or online. Some, in order to provide the flexibility many students long for, are restructuring the schedule; offering weekend courses or Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday components, rather than spreading the coursework out all through the week. Some are developing online or distance education curriculum through consortiums of schools, such as the “Fishers Net” program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Amos encouraged seminaries to try different combinations and to listen to what students say they want. One committee member said, for example, that she already knows people from her presbytery who would take seminary courses if they didn’t have to travel so far to do so.
Cynthia Campbell, president of McCormick Seminary in Chicago, said one of the big challenges for most schools is finding a way to pay for technology that’s constantly changing — what she called “an absolutely never-ending issue” of buying new equipment that quickly becomes outdated. “I just don’t see that we can keep up,” Campbell said. “It is a black hole.”
Amos responded seminaries don’t just use technology in classrooms — it’s needed across the board. At many schools, for example, students can apply for financial aid or register for classes over the Internet; supporters can donate money with a click of the mouse. And some seminaries now build expenses for technology — buying hardware and software, maintaining those systems and training people to use them — into their regular budgets.
Barbara Wheeler, president of Auburn Seminary in New York, said the costs and challenges are great enough that some seminaries might become “niche” markets for extension education, but it’s not clear that “every school will get into the distance education business in a big way, because it’s so expensive.”
The costs can be cut somewhat by sharing resources, even across denominational lines, Amos said. For example, online curriculum for teaching Greek and Hebrew probably could be used by seminaries from different traditions, while other courses could be modified to reflect particular denominational teachings. “I’m not here to persuade you to do distance education,” Amos said, but she cautioned seminaries to realize that if they don’t do it, someone else will, such as an evangelical school she did not name that is not accredited by ATS and has about 5,000 students enrolled in distance education programs.
Some also question the quality of interaction that can be achieved when students don’t see each other face-to-face.
“Education is being perceived as the transmission of information,” said Thomas Gillespie, president of Princeton Seminary. “Isn’t education more than that? How do you make up for the interpersonal part” when the interaction takes place through computers or phone calls.
Amos responded by saying that some schools that have the most extensive use of technology in theological education — for example, Bethel Seminary in St. Paul or New Orleans Theological Seminary, both Baptist-affiliated schools — have both found ways to create community in distance education that “rivaled anything on campus.” Some students, for example, are unwilling to raise their hands in class but jump eagerly into online discussions — in some cases, providing so much online interaction that professors have a hard time responding to it all.
Gillespie said there already are signs that theological students rate influences from outside the classroom as crucial. When graduating Princeton students were asked about the greatest influences in their seminary educations, “to our utter amazement No. 1 was field education and No. 2 was friendships formed,” he said. “The faculty made it as No. 3.”
Louis Weeks, president of Union Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, which has just started an extension program in Charlotte, said he knows of “inverse, counter-intuitive” findings that a sense of community can sometimes be greater at an extension site than on a seminary’s main campus. “I wouldn’t discount that it can’t be done,” Amos said, “until you hear some of the stories.”