Online Divinity Degrees: Two-Dimensional Preparation for a Three-Dimensional World

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TylerR's picture

I think Wallace is abrogating duties from the local church to the Seminary. I'm not moved. But, I'm biased! 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

First, on the light side, you want to take the young man's pulse as he's with four lovely young ladies, but his attention is on his phone.  Somehow it seems like a Mormon speed dating picture or something.

But to the point, I would agree that an entirely online education might suffer the same thing illustrated in the picture.  That conceded, I think that Bible colleges, seminaries, and churches alike seem to have some trouble in finding the je ne sais quoi that differentiates someone with an excellent theological education from a pastor.  No need to throw spitballs here, we all got trouble. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

Wallace is correct ... assuming the individual engaged in on-line seminary education remains in an on-line vacuum apart from any involvement in his local church. That is not at all the case for reputable on-line seminary programs.

Larry's picture

He is 65 years old.

So you are saying he has quite a bit of experience in education and what might be needed?

Steve Davis's picture

I recognize that not everyone can take classes with peers. There are some individuals who have had significant life experiences which allows them to forego the benefit of human interaction. And I think there are some degrees that don't require the same interaction as theological degrees.

Yet, I can't imagine doing an entire MDiv and preparing for pastoral or cross-cultural ministry from one's bedroom. I'm sure this dates me. I received my MDiv in 1982 after four years of study. During that time I was active in a solid church. I would not trade those times in class, friendships made, and coffee break for online studies. How well I remember the heated theological discussions, arm wrestling, and rancid coffee with donuts on the honor system. Frankly I can't imagine wanting to teach online classes unless it were a live class and others tuned in online. So I'm with Wallace on this one and think those who disagree don't know what they missed or are missing. Granted if someone is active in a solid church with significant interaction and mental challenge then online education can't be ruled out. But it is more education than training. I speak as one who has never done any online classes except to keep my therapist and criminal justice certifications. And there are research degrees where something is studied that can't be learned in a classroom or there are few specialists who know anything about what is being researched. I think of the European PhD model. It's almost pure research and although you will need courses on research methods (quantitative, qualitative, etc.), documentation, and proposal, most of the work will be done with books or internet resources with supervision from an advisor, input from readers, and a defense. 

 

 

ScottS's picture

As an online Christian educator, I can agree with a lot of what Wallace refers to. This in particular I have seen:

Increasingly, students want to have it all: work 40 hours a week, take a full load at school, and raise two preschoolers with their spouse who is also working full-time. It’s a recipe for disaster 

Somehow, by being "online," students seem to forget that they still need to devote hours of time into a course (and more if multiple courses). We run condensed sessions (which are 1/2 a term length, and thus twice the "pace" of a full term class), and if a student takes just one 3 credit hour class, they should expect to spend about 20 hours a week on the course (both "in course"; i.e. watching lectures, etc., and "out of course," doing research, studying, etc.). So if two courses are taken per session, that's about equal to 40 hours. If on is trying to maintain a 40 hour a week job, then expect 60-80 hour weeks if the course is doing what it is supposed to educationally. That does not include family time or any ministry time (if that is not already part of the 40 hour a week job). So "going away" to concentrate on school can have an advantage (though there are those who worked through traditional forms as well).

But I think Wallace also errs at some points. For one, his parallel

In many respects, online education is like a letter from an apostle. John told the ‘elect lady’ in one letter and Gaius in another, “Though I have many other things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink, but I hope to come visit you and speak face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12; see also 3 John 13–14). Paul wrote to the Romans that he longed to visit them (Rom 1.10–11); meanwhile, his letter would have to do. Distance education—whether an epistle or a video course—is not to be cast off as so much refuse, but neither is it ideal.

Now I do find the parallel itself reasonably accurate, but his criticism of the written word not being "ideal" seems to be (an unintentional, I'm sure) slap in God's face, given that He chose to communicate/educate with most of His family (historically) through writing, that is, through the Bible. Now I grant the Holy Spirit is also at work in conjunction with the Bible, but that is true even of online education. So the type of "personal" interaction that Wallace is advocating for in Christian education between 3D people is not present when one is just studying God's word without a human teacher, yet I do not believe God sees this as a deficient means of education.

Instead, I think there are distinct things that are more effective in-person, and some more effective online. He hints at this some, yet clearly favors the in-person. But I think that favor is because he is viewing education as purely or perhaps fully as discipleship, whereas education is only one part of discipleship.

Here is what I mean. Discipleship, by definition, involves following the master. This does require a very personal interaction. And here, I tend to agree more along the lines of Tyler, full discipleship is in the province of the church (or I would say more specifically, individual Christians within the church). But part of "making disciples" does include "teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Mt 28:20), and that means two things: teaching (knowledge acquisition) and observing (not "watching," but "keeping" or "obeying," so doing what one knows), with the latter best learned through that following. But the former, "teaching" as the gaining of knowledge, is primarily what the seminary is for.

There is much to be learned, and generally IMO best learned (in our sinful world where we [i.e. any one of us teachers] are not the perfect teacher that Christ is) in the context of a diverse set of people in the body of Christ that a seminary employs (rather than learning it all from one person, the pastor; though the pastor should still be a key educator, but here we are also talking about MDiv students, so those already or intending to be pastors). This knowledge acquisition is very suitable for online format. It is like the various Rabbi's who would teach in the time of the apostles (Wallace forgets that part of the knowledge gained by the apostles was before they ever met Jesus, but was by attending readings and discussions of God's word, not necessarily "following" fully those so educating). Making sure the knowledge is integrated into obedience is the challenge, but that should be a challenge primarily of the local church/local believers, more than the seminary.

Still, it is challenging in the online format to monitor the spiritual life of the individual. While I agree that is primarily the responsibility of the church (and specifically the pastor), there is still a responsibility of Christian teacher to Christian student in their relationship with respect to the spiritual life of that student. In this, I agree that 2D will never fully compensate for the relationship that 3D (to use Wallace's terms for online vs. in-person) can obtain between two people.

I wish seminaries would have more interaction with the pastors of students for the whole educational scenario; and then in the case of pastors taking courses, interaction with godly men in the church to help keep the pastor accountable to integrating what is learned into some form of obedience (part of exhorting one another, Heb 3:13, 10:25). But this would also require more effort on pastors and/or elders/deacons as well as school officials to make that interaction happen.

But my main point is that seminary is primarily for education, not full-fledge discipleship. Mixing the goals of one and the other mixes the roles that the seminary and the church should be doing. If a teacher is in a position, in-person, such that they can also act in a discipling role, great (the command is for Christian individuals to make disciples, not the church corporately), but if not, don't force it—just educate—and that can be done online  effectively.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

dgszweda's picture

Larry wrote:

He is 65 years old.

So you are saying he has quite a bit of experience in education and what might be needed?

Sure, that is it.  You nailed it.

TylerR's picture

Thanks for your perspective. It help!

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Jim's picture

The answer is simple:

  • There are advantages and disadvantages to online education
  • There are advantages and disadvantages to resident education
  • The local church should have primacy. Sadly sometimes has abdicated its role.
  • Online education is a new  phenomenon birthed (alongside many many other things good and bad) by the Internet
  • Some students adapt to online education better than others - they match this profile (click to enlarge)
  • Some educational institutions have been able to adopt online education ... others have faltered. 
  • Ultimately it may be a productivity issue: An instructor teaching many students online is a better productivity model than one teaching few (I know a story about a faculty member at a now closed Christian college who taught two students)
  • In 1978 I only had the residency option: I left my job, my wife left her job. We sold our house here and moved here. It worked out fine for us but it was a very expensive transition. 
Dave White's picture

The seminaries who don't offer on-line education options are the ones who trash on-line educational options. 

When they 'convert' and offer on-line education options, these same schools tout the advantages of on-line education options.

 

TylerR's picture

Dave wrote:

The seminaries who don't offer on-line education options are the ones who trash on-line educational options. 

Indeed! My prophesy = if your conservative seminary doesn't offer online or virtual options, it will die within 20 years or less. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Jeff Howell's picture

was that of being what was then considered cutting edge in post graduate education. That is to say, my seminary education structure and schedule reflected an evolution that was not entirely traditional in following a 2 or 3 credit class format for an entire semester. The desire to accommodate and encourage busy pastors and missionaries to enroll for graduate school level seminary training led my alma mater to develop a module approach, where a student would take a 2 or 3 credit course in a 2 or 3 week module. It was compressed, and involved a ton of work in a crunched time period, usually including massive amounts of collateral reading as well as papers. The school also began 1x a week classes, where guys could travel in and take a full day's class on a Monday or Tuesday, thereby not having to resign and move to the town where the brick and mortar campus was located. This was a hybrid system, prior to online options available today. Positives: helped me be able to work, start a family, stay involved in a local baptist church and do ministry, pay down debt, go to school on a cash basis, mature in life skills, and get a high quality M.Div. Negatives: sometimes there was not enough time to really process all of the information received and interact at a deep level. Overall, it was a non-conventional approach that was intended to help guys learn and serve at the same time. With a few bumps in the road, it seemed to be an ok approach. All profs had to have been a pastor or missionary in the past, thus helping our educational experience be not only academic in nature, but pastoral, evangelistic, and discipleship oriented as well. It ended with a full year internship in a guided learning environment under seasoned pastors where learning met experience coupled with evaluation. I have embraced this model in my own pastoral ministry, and continue to see the ongoing fruits of integrated learning, discipleship, and supervised responsibility.

T Howard's picture

A few comments on on-line seminary based on my 6-year on-line M.Div. experience:

  • The quality of the on-line education you receive depends a lot on the professor teaching the class. The profs who were more engaged with students on-line and were organized in their teaching materials / methods made for better learning experiences for me.
  • I worked a 45-hour / week job, had 4 kids (two of which where teens), served as a deacon and ABF teacher in my church, and took between 4-8 credit hours a semester. It was a lot! I had to prioritize my time. The time spent on reading, writing, and studying for seminary did negatively affect my family relationships. I would not want to do this on an ongoing basis. However, my family and I knew this was only a temporary situation. We made it work.
  • There are ways to plan and prioritize your on-line seminary studies that will allow maximum flexibility. When I discovered how to do this, it made life much easier during the semester for me and my family.
  • Some people / schools are opposed to on-line seminary education because they fear it and/or view it as inferior. Others embrace it and see it as a tool to increase their reach and to provide educational opportunities to folks who could never uproot and relocate.
  • Some schools who offer on-line seminary education dumb down the curriculum and make the experience less rigorous. Stay away from those schools. Some pastors want a dumbed down education because they only care about getting the degree. Stay away from those pastors.
Jim's picture

http://www.dbts.edu/2019/01/02/online-education-a-few-comments-on-dan-wa...

  1. Having taught online and in-class, I strongly prefer in-class. This is not only because of the points mentioned in Wallace’s article, but also because I think online education hurts the most vulnerable. Consider the following points to see why I think so.
  2. I believe online education works wonderfully for the self-motivated. Some online students I have had would not have further benefitted educationally by being in-class. These, however, are the exception. Many students look only to what they need to do to pass/graduate. They never look beyond to what they need to succeed in future ministry. Part of this is simply maturity. Older students tend to do much better in online, while younger students do not. This observation is anecdotal, but I am confident other online professors would say the same. In sum, I believe online education requires more investment of the student, and some students do well, but the less-motivated do not.
  3. Following the last point, students who need in-class education (the less-motivated) will naturally select online education. As Wallace notes, they do this even when they live on campus. Finding that they can take the easier path, they choose the one with less obstacles to their laziness. Online education feeds such problems. For their sake, let’s remove the temptation.
  4. Additionally, less motivated students are much more likely to (falsely) believe they can multi-task. Ask nearly any online student if they watched the class video without doing anything else during the “class.”[1] Focused attention is sometimes a challenge in the classroom; it is nearly always a challenge for non-motivated online students.
  5. While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting the inferiority of online theological education,[2] one more firm evidence is the recent change to the Air Force’s chaplaincy program. They now note that “a qualifying degree program requires no fewer than 72 semester hours or 108 quarter hours of graduate-level work with 2/3 of those course hours completed in residence.”[3] Recently, I was speaking with a chaplain for the Navy and he noted that they were talking about adding a similar requirement. Why? He said that it was because there is a notable difference between those who took their MDiv online and those who took it in residence.
  6. Wallace’s article is an application of John Frame’s vision of a seminary. Frame argued that seminary education must be personal. See the following articles: Learning at Jesus’ Feet and Proposal for a New Seminary.
  7. Interestingly, when Frame originally began speaking about this, there was no major push for online theological education. He was criticizing theological programs that did not engage the student personally. Similarly, while Wallace’s article argues against online education, it also argues against large, impersonal schools as well. Sometimes students will tell me they chose * Seminary because of Professor X. But in reality that student may never have a conversation with professor X, because that professor has 200 other students in the class. That professor will certainly never read his work (a GA will do that). In the end, one can become lost amidst the large schools. A smaller student to faculty ratio is important, for it provides the opportunity for the relationships Wallace speaks of in his article.[4]
  8. One weakness of Wallace’s article is his lack of attention to the local church. The purpose of a seminary is not the purpose of a local church, and some of the things Wallace mentions can and should happen in the local church setting. Indeed, the one major benefit of online education is that it allows people to remain in their local church. Let me say a few words about this:
    1. At DBTS we recognize the primacy of the local church, and we do not think discipleship is our primary obligation. Nevertheless, we take seriously the opportunity we have to aid in the formation of students, and we seek to work alongside the pastors who send their student here to be trained. Accordingly, I don’t think this is an either-or situation.
    2. If I could have stayed in my local church and taken online education, I think I would have missed valuable experience that prepared me for ministry. I was involved in three churches during my training. First when pursuing an MA, I was at a small country church, where I was able to teach Sunday School. I got to know the local pastor and to share in his burdens, sorrows, and joys. Later when I pursued the MDiv, I went to the church that hosted the seminary, and I learned quite a bit about ministry there. A big church is a different matter than a small country church! Halfway through my seminary experience, I helped in the ministry of revitalizing a struggling church in the city. This, likewise, was an entirely different experience of ministry. These together were a part of God’s education plan for me, and I truly believe I would have been less prepared for ministry by remaining in the local church I grew up in. Indeed, if God called me back to that church, I think I would be better prepared to serve them. I am not arguing that my experience should be normative, but I am suggesting that God may call people to move to another area in order to prepare them better for His service.
    3. In sum, I am not against online education. I think some good has come from it. Nevertheless, I think on-campus education is better for many, if not most students.
Craig Toliver's picture

Jim wrote:
Following the last point, students who need in-class education (the less-motivated) will naturally select online education. As Wallace notes, they do this even when they live on campus. Finding that they can take the easier path, they choose the one with less obstacles to their laziness. Online education feeds such problems. For their sake, let’s remove the temptation.

Online education feeds laziness?!!!

As a side note: DBTS does not offer online education. This seems to be universal - if a school doesn't offer it the school disses it. 

 

Larry's picture

Online education feeds laziness?!!!

I think you are not being fair with Tim's comments about that. His comments at that point are about students who are on campus and choose online because they are lazy and don't want to show up for class.

Why not argue with the substance of that?

As a side note: DBTS does not offer online education. This seems to be universal - if a school doesn't offer it the school disses it. 

First, DBTS and Tim didn't diss it. He said, "I am not against online education. I think some good has come from it." This idea that disagreeing with something is "dissing it" has to go away quickly. That seems more often a technique to avoid interaction with substance.

But isn't this more likely philosophical? They may not offer it because they don't think it is a good method that fits with their purpose. Saying that and interacting with alternatives isn't a bad thing.

Again, why not interact with the substance of his article?

Jim's picture

Larry wrote:

Online education feeds laziness?!!!

I think you are not being fair with Tim's comments about that. His comments at that point are about students who are on campus and choose online because they are lazy and don't want to show up for class.

For much of the later half of my career in IT, I worked from home half the time.

  • My employer had to approve of this arrangement
  • Only employees who were in the top two tiers of salary reviews (in my case a 5 or 4 on a scale of 5) were eligible to work from home
  • I found myself more productive at home than at the office. How:
    • I "saved" myself at least an hour and a half a day by NOT driving to the parking ramp, walking to the office 
    • I probably saved half an hour a day by eating a sandwich at home instead of options at work

Did I multi-task at home? You betcha! That's productivity!

[as a aside ... one can speed up audiobooks or youtube videos and really gain some time]

 

TylerR's picture

Tim's article is very good. I still remember when he was my apologetics professor at Maranatha ... online! I do wonder, however, why we are even having this conversation about virtual and online education in 2018. The formal "move and go to university" model for pastoral education isn't sacrosanct. It certainly isn't required by Scripture, or even the model Scripture presents. This doesn't mean it isn't good and useful. It just means it certainly isn't the only way. It's not necessarily even the best way. It's just the way we're used to.  

Whatever else will be said in this conversation, my bolded statement will remain true. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Jim's picture

TylerR wrote:

Tim's article is very good. I still remember when he was my apologetics professor at Maranatha ... online! I do wonder, however, why we are even having this conversation about virtual and online education in 2018. The formal "move and go to university" model for pastoral education isn't sacrosanct. It certainly isn't required by Scripture, or even the model Scripture presents. This doesn't mean it isn't good and useful. It just means it certainly isn't the only way. It's not necessarily even the best way. It's just the way we're used to.  

Whatever else will be said in this conversation, my bolded statement will remain true. 

"One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons'.” Titus 1:12

This picture comes to mind: 

Jim's picture

At the end of the day ... the market place of supply and demand rules!

Students:

  • Some students will choose online education
  • Others will choose resident education

Schools:

  • Some schools will grow in enrollment 
  • Some schools will decline in enrollment 

My own take is that:

I don't know the numbers, but I'm guessing that Liberty's Seminary has a greater enrollment than Central, Maranatha, Detroit, Faith, and BJU combined

TylerR's picture

In these discussions, it's important to distinguish between online and virtual; they're very different. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Jim's picture

TylerR wrote:

In these discussions, it's important to distinguish between online and virtual; they're very different. 

How so?

Are you talking about synchronous vs asynchronous?

TylerR's picture

Virtual education is where you attend real class via video, and can participate in real-time with the students and the professor. Online is more independent study, with online discussions with classmates about the material. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

dcbii's picture

Jim wrote:

"One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons'.” Titus 1:12

This picture comes to mind: 

Except, of course, that guy doesn't seem to be showing many physical signs of his "gluttony!"  Either he exercises (a lot!) or he's not eating all that much.

Dave Barnhart

dcbii's picture

Not sure why education has to be all online or all offline.  I majored in math and computer science, so being able to interact personally with the other students and in the labs was a big plus.  I wouldn't have wanted to do my major and minor classes online.

However, I was also in a lot of classes that were gigantic lecture halls, with little to no instructor interaction, and no labs or personal internships or anything like that.  I could have taken all of those classes online with little to no loss at all.  I estimate I could have taken almost 2 of my 4 years of undergrad at home.

Grad school was another matter entirely, since every course (except for some electives I wanted for personal enlightenment) was towards my major.  I wouldn't have wanted to do any of those classes only online.

Dave Barnhart

Aaron Blumer's picture

Yeah, I don't think the future is going to be all one or the other. On the other hand, as the technology improves for live interaction with multiple participants, the differences between "online" and "in person" will gradually shrink as well.

But a blend seems likely to be the ideal for a while.

I find it hard to imagine that telepresence will ever be quite as good as physical presence, but that could just be a lack of imagination on my part. It has already come a long way, and in a short time!

(Just to clarify terms, I'm using "online" to include "virtual"... which is also online, afterall.)