Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Online Theological Higher Education: Reflections on Past Practices for Future Endeavors

Author: Melinda (Mindi) Thompson
Published: Summer–Fall 2021
In:

MD 12.2

Article Type: Conference Article

Advances in online learning make it possible to connect seminaries with church leaders around the world, fulfilling the mission of theological education in new and exciting ways. Part retrospective, part hopeful forecast, this article highlights current developments in digital education with an eye toward future missional possibilities.

I started teaching in theological higher education almost twenty years ago. I taught my first online class soon after. And while part of me still feels like that fresh-faced doctoral student, the rest of me knows full well that a lot of things have changed in the last two decades. There are many ways I could talk about the past and future of online theological education. But perhaps starting with a personal approach is most interesting.

I decided to pursue a career in theological education as a missionary endeavor. A college internship with Pioneer Bible Translators confirmed my gifts for language, exegesis, and teaching while simultaneously confirming that a life on the mission field wasn’t the best choice for my health. So I got a PhD, committed to equip others for the mission work I could not do myself. By God’s providence, one of the professors on my dissertation committee was an “early adopter” in the field of online learning. The few conversations we had about his discoveries teaching online classes were enough to get me appointed to the distance education committee in my first job after graduation.

The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary had begun offering online classes a few years before as a way to serve the growing lay pastor population in the Presbyterian Church (USA). To my colleagues, online education was a useful choice for those poor souls who weren’t ready—or willing—to move to Dubuque for a “real” seminary degree. Sadly, that perspective was mirrored in many schools at the time. Online learning was a second-class citizen compared to traditional, brick-and-mortar schools. That “better than nothing” approach persists in some places even today. But for me—a missionary wanna-be disguised as an assistant professor—online learning was a revelation. Here was a way to spread the gospel, to equip men and women for lives of service and leadership around the world. After all, that was the mission statement of the seminary. Why would we not use this tool to expand our reach at every level? When the distance education committee proposed our first online master’s degree, we pointed to the seminary’s mission statement as justification for our crazy idea. I volunteered to lead this new initiative with all the enthusiasm (and naivete!) of a new missionary. When the Association of Theological Schools gave us permission to launch the first accredited Master of Divinity degree online, I had no idea how that move would change the trajectory of my missional-academic career.

Needless to say, I learned a lot during my time in Dubuque. I learned about learning management systems. I learned about accreditation and institutional assessment. Unfortunately, I learned that not every faculty member was as enthusiastic about teaching online as I was. But most of what I learned was about learning itself. It’s astonishing how little I actually knew about teaching when I started teaching. Aside from a voluntary lunchtime workshop, my alma mater did not offer any formalized training in educational theory to their doctoral students.

I may be wrong—I would like to be wrong about this—but I do not think that is unique to my experience in theological education. We send newly-minted graduates into classrooms of their own, assuming the transition from the student’s desk to the teacher’s desk will happen automatically. Most faculty members simply repeat the examples—both positive and negative—that they experienced in their own education. Perhaps that explains the continued use of long, boring lectures. Oftentimes, we do not realize there is any other way to teach. And once we become teachers ourselves our personal insecurities cause many of us to become defensive when someone asks us about the way we teach. You stay out of my classroom—special emphasis on the “my”—and I will stay out of yours. But when I started teaching online, I did not have any past experience as a student in an online class. I was a blank slate, staring at a blank course site. I had to swallow my pride and ask for help: from colleagues who had been teaching in the lay training program before me, from books and articles in the growing field of online pedagogy, and from workshops and conferences offered by groups like the Wabash Center and the Association of Christian Distance Educators.

We joked about our first cohort of MDiv students at Dubuque being guinea pigs. I felt like a guinea pig, myself. But as I started to gain experience in online teaching, the missionary in me came to life. I had finally discovered better ways to connect with students, ways that moved me out of the spotlight as the “sage on the stage” and put students at the center of the teaching and learning enterprise. On top of that, the things I was learning about student engagement and community building in online classes worked nicely in traditional classroom settings. I could not contain my enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm for online learning led me to my current position at Abilene Christian University. I met future colleague Tim Sensing at a Wabash Center workshop on spiritual formation in distance education. My missionary zeal for online learning spilled over into a dinner conversation and the (joking!) offer that when ACU decided to get serious about online programs he should give me a call. Be careful what you say out loud: two years later I found myself interviewing for a newly created position as Director of Distance Education for the Graduate School of Theology. This missionary found herself in a new place, a seemingly foreign country, speaking a foreign language about learning management systems and online pedagogy to a group of colleagues who were trying to wrap their minds around hiring a woman to join the faculty. Talk about culture shock! I made mistakes in those first years that still haunt me today. But thanks to the grace of God and lots of grace from my co-workers, we have managed to launch four online master’s degrees for students pursuing various types of theological education.

One of my favorite aspects of our distance programs is the partnerships we have developed with ministry programs in Africa. There is that missionary again, bringing the good news of education to evangelize the next generation of leaders for the church in Ghana and southern Africa. While the Graduate School of Theology had connections with Heritage Christian College and Africa Christian College long before I joined the faculty, their graduates faced huge financial challenges to qualify for a student visa to come to Abilene for their master’s degree. In addition to the financial hurdles, those few students who did manage to qualify had to leave their ministry behind along with family and friends for years of study. I have so much respect for our international graduates who manage to pursue their dreams in Abilene. But we can equip many more ministers, to serve many more churches, by offering high-quality theological education right where they live. God has seen fit to extend the technology needed to participate in online classes into many more places around the world. It is our responsibility to steward those resources wisely for the good of Christ’s Kingdom.

What lessons can be learned from this missionary-cum-educator’s adventures in online learning? A handful come to mind:

  • Sometimes the doors that close lead you to even better opportunities you were not looking for.
  • There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. What started as many schools’ “better than nothing” to bolster declining enrollment is the delivery method of choice for a majority of student-ministers.
  • A little humility goes a long way. Even seasoned teachers can benefit from insights gained through online pedagogy.
  • For those to whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48). Theological schools have been blessed beyond measure. It is up to us to decide how we will pass along those blessings where they are needed most.

Our friends at the Association of Theological Schools have learned a few lessons themselves over their 85-year existence. The 2017 Educational Models and Practices in Theological Education Report1 provides a good summary of lessons learned by both the Association and its member schools. Of the 18 individual reports, two focused specifically on online education. Most of the others had at least some connection to online learning even if their assigned topic focused on a different aspect of theological education. While time will not permit a full review of the 200-page report, the “central themes” deserve our attention:

  • A focus on learning outcomes and the wide-ranging implications of that focus.
  • The key outcome of student formation, recognizing the different understandings and emphases among the schools.
  • Emerging forms of context-based education that utilize places of ministry and service as full educational partners.
  • Access to theological education that takes a variety of forms.
  • An emphasis on cultural competence across institutions.
  • Understanding the role of theological schools as one part of the full life span of Christian/theological education.2

It would appear that the past practices of the 110 member schools who participated in the Educational Models and Practices Project inform the present emphases of theological education. This report fed directly into the new Degree Program Standards, which were adopted by the Association in 2020. Those standards reflect a much more open attitude toward online learning, representing an almost 180-degree turn from the predominant thinking during my early days of navigating accreditation requirements based on residential delivery assumptions. We have come a long way.

So, what is next? I am not a fortune-teller or a prophet. I don’t have a crystal ball to foresee exactly what online theological education will look like twenty years from now. I hope I am around to see it, though. The past twenty years have taught me that God can use anything for his purposes, whether that is a failed mission internship or the morally neutral World Wide Web. Recent developments give me good hope for some of the following possibilities:

  • Growing leadership in the developing world. The church has shifted geographically; we should look for seminaries to follow.3 Wherever those schools physically reside, their faculty and student services staff will need cultural competence and humility to learn from past mistakes in educational assumptions. Perhaps our friends in missiology can help us with that.
  • Programs in languages other than English, taught from diverse perspectives by non-Western professors who are well-trained to teach online. The Association of Theological Schools is encouraging this possibility in Spanish through their partnership with the Association for Hispanic Theological Education. They are expanding options for schools to offer culturally-sensitive online theological education for students in and from Latin and South America.4
  • Open Educational Resources providing high-quality educational material directly in online courses, reducing or perhaps even eliminating the need for expensive textbooks.5 Increasing facility in digital literacy coupled with continuing technological advances will make online theological education more affordable and accessible, while simultaneously making it easier for authors from diverse backgrounds to share their work with the world.
  • Better (real, honest) partnerships with congregations and other constituencies. Educators must practice open communication and a willingness to listen instead of assuming that what we’ve always offered is what everyone needs.

Maybe that last one is more idealistic than research-based. But a girl can dream. I am not the only dreamer, either. Former Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools, Dan Aleshire, puts it this way: “The coming moment calls on theological schools to emphasize some things that have been present but in the shadows, for them to do some of the things the church used to do so there will be a future in which the church might be able to remember its task.”6 I would add that theological educators also need to remember their task, which should be focused more on our mission and less on the delivery method.7 We must break down the walls of the ivory tower just as Joshua led the Israelites to break down the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6:1–20). I can already hear the trumpets sounding.

Melinda (Mindi) Thompson serves as Associate Professor and Director of Distance Education for the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She is currently President of ACCESS, the Association of Christian Distance Educators.

1 The Association of Theological Schools: The Commission on Accrediting, Educational Models and Practices Peer Group Final Reports, The ATS Models and Practices Project, https://www.ats.edu/files/galleries/peer-group-final-report-book.pdf.

2 Ibid., 5.

3 “The future for American Christianity in this century will be defined by persons of color… [who] will constitute the majority of students in US theological schools within two decades” (Daniel O. Aleshire, Beyond Profession: The Next Future of Theological Education [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021], 69).

4 See the Asociación para la Educación Teológica Hispana (AETH), https://www.aeth.org.

5 The 2021 Educause Horizon Report includes Open Educational Resources as one of its key technologies and practices. See Kathe Pelletier, et al., 2021 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report, Teaching and Learning Edition (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2021), https://library.educause.edu/-/media/files/library/2021/4/2021hrteachinglearning.pdf?la=en&hash=C9DEC12398593F297CC634409DFF4B8C5A60B36E.

6 Aleshire, 104.

7 “Negotiating the shift to online learning in a beneficial way is as much an educator mind shift as it is a shift in delivery modality” (Debra Dell, “Resonance and Current Relevance of IRRODL Highly-Cited Articles: An Integrative Retrospective.” International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 22 [2021]: 1, 12).

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email