Sharon Miller: Should seminaries offer online education?

Computers with active video chatrooms

Computer screens display video conferencing for a Central Baptist Seminary synchronous class. Photo courtesy of Auburn Seminary

A recent study from Auburn Seminary takes a look at online distance education within theological schools and finds exciting experiments as well as challenges.

In the report (Not) Being There: Online Distance Theological Education, researchers Christian Scharen and Sharon Miller examine how various seminaries approach online education and how online programs are changing the way students learn.

Its authors say they hope to “offer resources for thinking in creative and hopeful ways in a time of change.” The report highlights three findings:

  • Online distance education is growing rapidly, pushing the boundaries of who typically attends theological school.
  • Online distance education outcomes are equal to or better than those of traditional residential classes.
  • The old divide between traditional, online and hybrid courses or programs is obsolete.

Sharon MillerMiller,  director of research and the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Seminary, talked to Faith & Leadership about how the digital revolution is affecting the traditional seminary model, offering fresh options to both schools and students. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What were the surprises you found as you investigated people’s experiences with online learning?

I thought I would find more people skeptical. I thought I’d hear more people talking about the limits of online education.

The people who have done it the least are the most hesitant and have the most questions, and those who have done it the most don’t have nearly as many concerns as to its usefulness.

Q: The study’s report seems to strike a pretty positive note about online education.

As I note in the section “Why Say Yes to ODE?” (Online Distance Education) schools have found that it expands their reach. Students love it because it provides flexibility in their schedules. They don’t have to commute a long distance.

An area of continued caution and need is the training of faculty. It’s surprising to me that in a pedagogy that shows such promise if done well, there is so little effort actually given to training people to do it well. I think for many schools it’s still a catch-as-catch-can, with faculty teaching each other.

Programs such as Wabash Center provide courses on how to do it well -- it surprises me that more people don’t take advantage of those.

Q: You address the issue of faculty skepticism. They cherish the seminary community and like their role as faculty, and they worry that this will erode that. Do you think seminaries should focus on persuading skeptical faculty or on training the ones who are not skeptical, who are enthusiastic about it?

It raises the question, Does everybody need to be able to teach online?

I don’t believe every school needs to go online. I think it does need to be a strategic decision. Will going online help their enrollment? Will it help them reach the students that they see as their mission to educate?

If they answer yes to both of those, then I think that they need to do what they need to do to move into the new pedagogies and technologies.

If the answer is no, that it’s not really going to change their bottom line and they are adequately reaching the students they hope to reach, then I would say, “What’s the push?”

Princeton Seminary is always going to do what it does well, and people are willing to move across the country to attend it. They have financial means to help support students so that they don’t get into as much debt. Does Princeton need to move online? I would question the efficacy of that.

But I think for a lot of other schools, it is a matter of survival if they want to continue to live out their mission of training religious leaders, faith leaders, for now and in the future.

I think there are ways to encourage faculty to move online that are short of the deans saying, “You have to do this.”

I think team teaching is a great way to do that, teaming up with someone who is more comfortable teaching and putting together a new [online] course and learning as you go.

The biggest factor that I’ve found with faculty is the fear of the unknown. Technology is somewhat intimidating. They’re afraid to jump in, because they don’t know how to do it.

Once they can work with someone who is experienced in it, they’ll find that it’s not as frightening, and perhaps they’ll find that it is really engaging and feeds back into their teaching in the classroom.

Another thing that we address is the time commitment of faculty. If schools are interested in moving online, they have to acknowledge that they have to provide either leave time or compensation or [an arrangement that] a class taught online is worth one and a half taught in the classroom.

They have to do that to really get faculty buy-in. I think you need to reward those who do move online.

Q: There may be an assumption that there’s cost and/or time savings with online education, but you didn’t find that to be the case, did you?

Initially, it’s a much higher time investment. Setting up a class for the first time is definitely much more time consuming.

Once you have a class up and running, teaching the same class again need not be as time consuming.

But one of the professors [in the study] that I loved, Jean-Francois Racine -- he’s always tinkering. He has an online class and then he sees something else cool online, and so he goes back and he changes something that he did online. So he’s always tinkering. If you do that, you’re never done -- but I think it need not be as time consuming the second time around or the third time around.

It’s a different way of teaching, though, because you’re having to communicate a lot with your students via email or in Zoom Rooms or one of the other IT methods or software. Some people don’t like it. They like seeing the person face-to-face.

This is where I would opt for a hybrid course over a purely online course, because [in a hybrid course] you get to see your classmates. You get to see your professor. You get to know each other. And in fact, reports from faculty are that they know those in their hybrid classes better than the students that come in and out of their classrooms in a normal class.

Because in these hybrid classes, you’re together for a week. You eat your meals together; you spend your free time together. So you get to know people in a much more intimate way than a lot of commuter students ever know each other.

If I had to put my money someplace, that’s where I’d put it.

Q: And that also addresses in part that community aspect that’s of so much concern.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Q: One theme that crops up in your report in multiple places is the value of the students learning in their own context, and how that was not fully appreciated in the beginning of online education.

I’m also currently working on a research report looking at contextual education, or field education, in seminaries -- the traditional model, where your seminary is your primary context.

When you are taking a class at a distance, you’re remaining in your home community; you’re remaining in your home church. Everything that you’re studying becomes immediately applicable to what you’re doing at your church or what you’re doing in your community.

So it does create an immediacy and moves a lot of theological education from being purely theoretical or being mind exercises.

Take the study of the Reformation. OK, how do I translate that or teach that to my congregation? What does it mean to be reforming? If we’re Lutheran, what can we learn about the pluses and the minuses of Martin Luther and his stance against the Catholic Church?

You can immediately teach what you’re learning to another person or a Sunday school class or Bible study. You can immediately apply what you’re learning to a real-life situation.

I think that the learning will be much deeper than if you’re learning it purely in a classroom and then you wait three years to apply it to a real-life congregation. I think it will stick with people much longer as a result.

But the fact is that if you can leave students in their home locations, you’re going to really reduce student debt. Our other studies have consistently shown that the majority of money borrowed by seminary students is for living costs.

So if they do not have to move, if they can stay where they are, they might have a part-time job, they might even have a full-time job, and they’re likely to borrow less than if they have to move to a new location.

Q: You also point out a negative of that, which is that students may not be realistic in the amount of time they need to commit to the courses.

And I think that’s a huge issue. Everyone expects you to carry on as usual, and you’ve got this other huge commitment that you’ve taken on. Obviously, there has to be some negotiating and some education of the people in the church or whatever job you’re doing.

Q: In one of your case studies, Central Baptist Seminary, online education was part of a complete turnaround for this school. With so many seminaries under stress right now, do you think that they can look to online education for that kind of dramatic turnaround, or was Central Baptist more a unique case?

I don’t think it’s a panacea. I think that part of the success at Central was their financial situation and needing to sell their campus and move to one building from a whole campus.

Molly Marshall was coming on as president, and they had to look top to bottom at how they were going to make it go. They were willing to put their cards on the table with this. They didn’t go in with just one or two classes; they jumped in.

I think it’s the commitment of the whole institution to online education that helps make it a go. Some schools are just -- you know, they’re not going to do that.

The other thing that also I think is underreported and not as well understood -- and there wasn’t space for it in the report -- is they have a framework or an architecture for online classes. This is something that Central Baptist has done, and other schools who have gone online.

Every class that’s taught online follows the same structure. The content differs, but when questions are due, when discussion boards are due, when students have to turn in certain assignments, those are structured across the seminary.

What that enables students to do is move very easily from one course to another course. They know what to expect. They know what’s due when. They don’t have to learn the architecture. The form is given to them. It’s the content that changes.

That’s really hard for some faculty, because they want to have full control of their courses. It does mean giving up some of that. I think that that’s been one of the reasons for the success of Central -- they’ve made it as easy as possible for students to navigate between classes and from one course to another.

And for some faculty, it helps them, because it gives them the skeleton and then they build in the content.

Q: So we’ve talked about two extremes: Central Baptist Seminary, which was on the verge of closure and had to do something and has gone one direction, and your hypothetical holding up of Princeton Theological Seminary as a school that perhaps doesn’t need it. In between those two extremes, what kind of school could benefit most by moving in the direction of online education?

I do raise the question in the report. Does everybody need to go online? And is the market saturated?

Because the value of online education is you can be anywhere -- and the difficult thing about online education is you can be anywhere. So every school is in competition with every other school.

I think it’s particularly helpful with denominational institutions such as the Lutheran seminary in Saskatchewan, where people live all over the country. It’s a real boon to them.

The same thing with Luther Seminary in Minneapolis. You have students across the Dakotas. For denominations that require students to attend their schools, then I think that the reach can be very beneficial.

Other schools, I’m not as convinced that they all need to go online or that it’s going to solve their enrollment problems. Do they have something unique that their school can provide that other schools can’t? Is there a unique population that their school reaches that other schools don’t?

I think they have to ask those questions and do market research before they move online.