The Future of Seminaries (Part 1)

Today I want to talk a little bit about educational models, ‘distance ed’, the 1/8th second barrier, etc., etc..

One of the mainstays of tertiary education for a good two hundred years has been the model of a single professor presenting information via a lecture to a group of students, for 1-3 hours at a time. It hasn’t always been the only component, nor the only model, but it is common, widespread, and dominant.

In the not-so-distant past, physical attendance at lectures was a requisite for obtaining this content. Recording, even into the age of the cassette tape, was not an option. So physical proximity was required. But now we live in an age where all that content can be captured – at first audio, but now also video, and copied freely.

For those who think of education merely as the transmission of content, this opens all doors. Well, not all, but a lot. For example, the wonderful site hosts high quality materials, including audio lecture series, from top-class evangelical scholars, which are free to download and use. The artist formerly known as Logos, aka FaithLife, is in the process of producing “Mobile Ed”, video content for all sorts of seminary-type courses. Many other institutes and programs have invested or investigated expanding their ‘reach’ through distributing this kind of material digitally.

It’s wonderful. It’s also deeply problematic.

We (those who have read any studies in pedagogy) know that lectures are pedagogically woeful. Information retention is very low. It is one of the worst ways for students to learn. Students are better off doing almost any other activity to obtain that content rather than passively listening to it.

Digitising it and seeing it freely distributed solves one problem (access), but it does nothing to improve it. I think institutions that want to enter the digital age by doing primarily this are self-deluded about pedagogy and learning and might as well close up shop. Especially, the problem of the expert alongside the problem of the free will render this model unworkable.

By the problem of the expert I mean that in the past when such distribution models weren’t available, then each physical ‘place’ needed to have an expert – a NT person, an OT person, so on, an expert to teach that content. But when physical space and time is not the issue, then one person can deliver that content not just to hundreds, but to hundreds of thousands of students through recorded content.

The problem of the free is that copying on the internet costs almost nothing, and depending on the funding side of the recording of content, there will always be other providers offering cheaper, and even free, content. To charge for lecture content can only be done if there is something ‘extra’, something premium, or something bundled, to make it so. Even still, the combination of these two factors means that simply selling the distribution of electronic forms of recorded lectures will not survive as a ‘business’ model for educational institutions.

Kevin Kelly in his New Rules for the New Economy talks about the change from ‘places’ to ‘spaces’, because the internet basically makes everywhere 1/8th of a second distant. He writes:

   And for many things in life, that is too far away.

   A kiss for instance. Or playing sports. Or getting to know flowers. Start-up companies selling futuristic multiplayer online games have discovered that the inherent delay in the speed of light circling the globe causes real-time experiences to fail. That noticeable gap makes no real difference in the transmission of a book order, or a weather signal, but enough of life thrives on subtle instantaneous responses that one-eighth of a second kills intimacy and spontaneity. Thus actual real-time face-to-face meetings will retain their irreplaceable value. Thus airline travel will increase as fast as online communication increases. Thus cities will endure as lag-free places where there are no one-eighth second delays. (

I have been thinking quite a bit about that 1/8th of a second. I think ‘the Elder’ in 2 and 3 John was thinking about the same kinds of issues, when he writes:


   I had many things to write to you, but I am not willing to write to you by means of ink and reed (3 Jn 13)

If seminaries, and other higher education institutions, want to survive they need to offer more than ‘content’ if ‘content simply means a body of knowledge transmitted from expert to learner’. This is outdated pedagogy and will soon be unviable business model.

Next week I will write about my thoughts on the way forward.

2 responses

  1. It may be too reductive to equate seminary with the formal lessons learned through the course.

    There’s still something to be said for the community aspect of seminary life: much of the usefulness of a theological degree is what you learn from others on the same journey with you: it was one of my regrets of studying part-time.

    • > It may be too reductive to equate seminary with the formal lessons learned through the course.

      Indubitably, but as you will see from part 2, this is not really my intention. Besides which, insofar as seminaries operate as formal programs, programming the formal curriculum is major part of ‘what goes on’.