So, if you’ve read through parts one, two, three, four, you’ll have gathered that I have a lot of criticism of online theological education as a model. In this post I want to push back against myself, and really suggest that there are two key things that are worth thinking through and applying.
Firstly, I think we do need to circle back to the question of who theological education is for. And in this regards, I think the two different populations : (1) those heading into full-time vocational ministry, and (2) a broader group interested in theological education, set up different demands on theological educators. I would posit that generally speaking, the best approach for group 1 remains full-time residential community living and in-person instruction. I don’t think you can do formation of character and spiritual-formation in particular, very well, except through intentional community life. The shift of that type of education to online is a mistake.
I will add certain provisos. I do think that there’s a strong reverse case to be made, where people either involved in or aiming for vocational ministry in their current contexts should not be pulled out of those contexts. In that case there becomes an even stronger onus on the community, ecclesial or otherwise, to be the locus of spiritual formation. Let’s say, for instance, a ministry candidate from a minoritised ethnic group who is deeply embedded in their local ethnic-ecclesial community, and lives pretty far from seminary. It would be better, I propose, for that person to stay put, and be mentored in their context, and access theological education in terms of knowledge and skills, by distance. Preferably through online delivery + residential intensives. This should then become a kind of dialogic process between student, community, and seminary.
Insofar as online actually makes it possible to serve a broader theological education remit, increasing access to students who could not or would not otherwise take theological education, especially in terms of distance or part-time study, I think that’s a different kettle-of-fish. So, I think seminaries probably ought to make a conscious and clear distinction between “here’s our program for those training for congregational ministry, you come live here for 3-4 years, and you do X”, and “here’s our program for anyone else – you do a diploma/degree structure program, over an extended period of time, but this isn’t an equivalent to the other program”.
That said, my second main point is this: do (online) education better. I realise that in ’20 and ’21 it was a scramble for most professors. Everyone had to move online at a moment’s notice, and those who weren’t used to that found themselves balancing (= crushed) by not only the stress of the pandemic, but also the demands of online teaching. But, recorded lectures, static content, etc., will not do the job. If we want online education to be good, it needs investment. That means (a) that institutions and their teachers invest in making it good, and (b) that institutions spend money to make it good. Teachers can’t make it good if their institutions don’t enable and empower them to. Or, they shouldn’t. I know this won’t dissuade some from doing so anyway, but professors shouldn’t be up to 2am creating amazing online resources and investing untold unpaid hours for an institution that doesn’t value them and invest in them.
In my view, doing it better means we need active investment in (i) delivering quality content, (ii) with an active pedagogy that is prepared to do the hard and difficult work of moving beyond presentational and lecture type models, (iii) does not divorce content production from instructor-interaction, (iv) sustains and practices live synchronous interaction of instructor and students. Let me say it again, if online instruction is primarily content you consume, then how is it truly better than reading some books, listening to a free lecture series, or watching youtube tutorials?
I have yet to see an institution, seminary or secular, truly do online education well. I’ve seen plenty doing their best, but I’m waiting to see someone blow me away with an approach that is thought-through, pedagogically informed, and invested-in by the institution.
My third point is a bonus: neo-liberalism will gut seminaries. The massive on-going shift of neo-liberalism in tertiary education has the effect of turning faculty into employees, divesting the bulk of teaching to casualised adjuncts who are shut out of long-term academic careers because they are disposable waste-products of research programs, and treating the institution as a money-making endeavour in which administrators run the show. This is a mistake on every level, and it is bad for everyone except an elite. It shouldn’t be this way in seminaries, but the more that seminaries adopt college/university models, the more they trend in this direction as well. Seminaries need a renewed vision of what they are (a community of faith-scholars gathered around the common pursuit of knowledge seeking and knowledge sharing), and what they do (practice lives of scholarly virtue and inculcate others into the praxis and dogma of their communities). That ultimately means that faculty are the college, which means investing in long-term tenured faculty, as well as divesting themselves of a business model or a model in which administration is actually in charge.
Okay, I think I’m done. Hope you’ve enjoyed this series. If you ever find a college doing online well, let me know!