The Internet Is Changing How Religious Leaders Are Trained – And That’s A Good Thing

By Dr. Sharon L. Miller

I remember the fish swimming in the front yard of Bangkok Bible College (now Seminary). They weren’t swimming in a pond or pool, they were swimming across the lawn as Bangkok was engulfed in monsoon floods. The students joked that they should catch fish for lunch, as there was little else to eat with their rice. The only other thing I clearly remember from that visit almost thirty five years ago, was scanning through the ‘textbooks’ used by the students. They were flimsy blurred photocopies of books, their pages torn, the edges tattered, fingerprints and smudges obliterating text in places.  As students are apt the world over, some had underlined passages or made notations in the margins, much to the annoyance of the librarian. This was all they had.

Today, rather than having to travel thousands of miles to visit BBS, I can simply go on the school’s website and see that they now have a full modern library, use Moodle software in some of their classes and offer theological education by extension via the internet.

The world has become a neighborhood and theological education is now accessible and available to anyone with internet service or a smartphone. The internet has become the great democratizer of theological education. Students in Bangkok can now pursue degrees at Fuller Seminary, students in Shawnee, Kansas can attend classes with seminary students in Myanmar, and classes at McCormick Seminary can include pastors in Korea.

The rapid growth in online theological education has not been without its critics and naysayers, as reported in our recently published report, (Not) Being There: Online Distance Theological Education. The evidence, however, is in: Online theological education, when done well, has equal or even superior outcomes to traditional classroom teaching. Theological students who took most of their classes online scored their skill level much higher than those who took the majority of their classes on campus in such key areas as, ability to give spiritual direction and ability to lead others. Many faculty have deep reservations about the effectiveness of spiritual formation for online students. Again, online students scored themselves higher in several key areas: strength of spiritual life, trust in God, and ability to live one’s faith in daily life. (All data is from the 2015-2016 Graduating Student Survey.

The opportunity to pursue theological training where you live, where you work and where you minister is now available to countless individuals the world over.  This access changes the very nature of the enterprise, not for the obvious reason that online theological education has moved outside the traditional classroom, but because it raises larger more fundamental questions. Can one form a community of believers who are absent in the body, but present online? What does it mean to be truly human if we relate to each other through tweets, hashtags and FaceBook? Who now decides what qualifies as theological education? Whose texts do we study? What education and training do faith leaders need to minister in their specific time and place? How do we treasure and teach the particularities of our faith in a shrinking world riven by conflict?

If we aren’t willing to ask these deeper questions, we miss the opportunity given us by this revolution in technology and communication. Such radical changes come rarely; let us not squander this opportunity to respond with imagination, courage and wisdom.

Dr. Sharon Miller is Director of Research at Auburn and the Center for the Study of Theological Education. Along with Dr. Christian Scharen, Dr. Miller was the principle author of the study (Not) Being There: Online Distance Education in Theological Schools.

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