re-re-thinking online theological education (part 2: What is education?)

In the previous post in this series, I began to reflect upon the nature of theological education, and online education in particular, through the lens of what for and who for. In this post I want to turn our attention to “what” education is. What exactly do we think we are doing when we are educating people. Let me offer a suggestive taxonomy:
  1. Content transfer
  2. Skill Development
  3. Character formation
If you open up most unit syllabi, really people think they are doing all three. They’ll talk about the content the unit is meant to impart, the skills students are meant to acquire, and the kinds of people they are also meant to become. But most course syllabi are 83.1235% educational jargon/fluff.

To wind back 70 years (again), most of what was happening in colleges was this: professor gets up and delivers lecture. Students furiously take notes. Repeat for the semester. Write a paper or two. Sit an exam. That model, by its praxis, is functioning primarily on the idea of content transfer – here is body of knowledge X which professor has, and you will acquire that body of knowledge by listening, reading, writing, and reproducing.

Education as a field has obviously shifted a great deal, and there is a considerable emphasis these days upon developing skills. Especially ‘transferable’ ones. In humanities education, this often looks like (theoretically), teaching students to think critically, evaluate arguments, research effectively, argue persuasively. It still involves content transfer, especially acquiring enough of a foundational basis in a discipline to do those other things effectively.

If we think about skill development though, I’d say that a lot of our education models have moved far away from fairly static “here is knowledge, now apply” models, even if that continues to persist in actual education. If we want future-ministers to develop a certain set of pastoral skills, isn’t that better done through a process of mentorship, practica, ongoing analysis and feedback, as they do they things they are meant to do, and then critical reflect and evaluate, and apply theory-informed knowledge back to those skills. It seems to me that most of that kind of work does not happen in a seminary context, even less so in an online context. Arguably you can train future-pastors in rhetoric as public speaking, but not in preaching as community-embedded pastoral application of Scripture unless they are in a relevant community (a question we’ll return to).

On the other hand, those who are accessing theological education precisely because they already are in extra-campus situations where they are involved in ministry or the application of theology, arguably are better situated to practice active models of skill development, precisely because they are practicing and applying relevant ministry skills in a ministry context. Then it becomes a question of how does an online course facilitate that process.

Let’s turn, though, to the third element of character formation, and specifically for seminaries this is spiritual formation. Character development is probably the most nebulous part of theological education. It’s so hard to quantify, so hard to program for, so hard to ‘guarantee’. Yet I would also say that colleges are staking their reputation on it. Congregations do want to know, “okay, so and so comes from seminary X, I can expect them to be this kind of person, with this set of beliefs, and this kind of character”. That happens in person when theological colleges are residential communities because in-person face-to-face time shapes who we are through the rhythms and practices of life together. It’s not perfect, it’s not fail-safe, but I think that’s how true character formation happens. Who we are is shaped by the people we are with and what we do together. It occurs in thick relationships and they really only flourish when we spend considerable time together. Quantity of time cannot be short-cut. Nor can it properly be replaced with quality time.

This is seminaries’ major concern with online – what happens to spiritual formation of students who only access theological education online and at distance? And this issue goes beyond the population of ‘future ministers’ to all students at theological educations – what sort of people are they, what sort of people will they become, and how does a college’s reputation play in to “this person is a graduate”?

It’s this kind of question that I think is most, most pressing, and it can’t be resolved until at least part 4, when we talk about what happens when we go online. But at this stage we need to be thinking about what education is, and to the extent that all three of the above things are distinct yet interconnected, we also need to be thinking about what best practice for in-person theological education ought to be.

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