As computers and the Internet consume more and more of our waking hours—from writing sermons to managing membership to keeping up on Facebook—another digital dimension is confronting pastors and church leaders: online education.
Mention “training for ministry” and most people likely still think of a traditional seminary classroom with a professor standing in front of students. While that continues to be the mode in which most ministry education takes place for now, that may not be the case for long. As in so many other disciplines, theological education is moving online in a big way.
According to am Aug. 19, 2009, story on The New York Times Web site, online education is increasingly catching up with traditional classrooms in student performance outcomes. Steve Lohr writes: “Until fairly recently, online education amounted to little more than electronic versions of the old-line correspondence courses. That has really changed with arrival of Web-based video, instant messaging and collaboration tools.”
Lohr adds: “The real promise of online education, experts say, is providing learning experiences that are more tailored to individual students than is possible in classrooms. That enables more ‘learning by doing,’ which many students find more engaging and useful.”
Seminaries and divinity schools are shifting major attention to online courses, reflecting growing interest from students who want the training but not a move away from their current locations or ministry positions. If you are considering online education as an option, be sure to keep a few things in mind:
Make sure the program is fully accredited. Lots of “seminary degrees” are available online, but many are from unaccredited institutions. If you are going to invest time and money in education, be sure the school you attend is regionally accredited (recognized by one of the major regional accrediting agencies authorized by the federal government to offer such accreditation).
Why does accreditation matter? First, because such agencies verify that institutions actually provide what they promise in terms of curriculum, faculty, resources and quality. It’s a quality check to know you aren’t paying for a degree from a “school” that meets out of someone’s garage and that could close its doors at any time.
Second, if you decide you’d like to do additional study, such as pursuing a Doctorate of Ministry, only an accredited degree will be a adequate for admission to quality schools. As dean of a graduate program in ministry, I’ve already encountered a number of pastors who have realized they made terrible mistakes by
pursuing bachelor’s degrees from unaccredited schools and now can’t get accepted into accredited graduate programs.
Find out how much of the program can be done online. Some programs offer all of the degree online while others only offer a part of the program and require you to come to campus for a significant portion of the degree. Before you start, find out how much, if any, you will need to do “in residence” on campus; and decide if that will work for you. If it’s a problem, it’s better to know before you start the program.
Learn about how the courses are taught. Online courses are not one size fits all. Many require you to acquire the content for the course primarily through reading material posted online. Some hybrid courses provide a portion of the content online while requiring you to come to campus for a day or two each semester. Still others provide course content through video materials via DVD and/or streaming video.
So know what you are signing on for before you mail that tuition check!