|Fitting faith formation into a digital world is new goal for Presbyterian seminaries|
|Written by Leslie Scanlon|
|Thursday, 20 September 2001 00:00|
With students less willing to pick up and move across the country in order to attend seminary, and with technology blasting innovation into everyday life, schools of theological education are learning some new digital tricks. And they are struggling with the question of how the human aspects of theological education
-- the process of faith formation, in part -- fits in with the idea of an electronic community, where students may spend much less time on campus now than they once might have.|
Exactly what's changing and where is not closely tracked; in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the seminaries enjoy considerable autonomy.
The Committee on Theological Education, which includes the presidents of the 10 PC(USA) seminaries, plus people elected at large by the General Assembly and representatives of the General Assembly Council, is beginning to do more systematic analysis of both technological issues and of the relationship between the denomination and the seminaries. Last fall, Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, led the committee in a discussion of "the need for a new contract" between the denomination and the schools, looking at everything from funding to decision-making powers, said Dottie Hedgepeth, the PC(USA)'s associate director for theological education.
And in April 2002, the committee's meeting will focus on distance learning, the idea that students do not necessarily have to travel to the seminary's main campus to take courses. Two PC(USA) seminaries have established satellite schools -- San Francisco Seminary in southern California, and Union Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education with a new campus in Charlotte -- both ventures which the seminaries say allow them to serve new markets, including more students of color.
In June of last year, the Association of Theological Schools, the primary accrediting agency for seminaries, approved revised standards for distance learning, following a three-year evaluation of such programs.
In exploring distance learning options, seminaries are to some extent responding to changes in the types of students they are getting. More students are older, more are starting their second or even third career, more have family or work commitments which mean they're tied to a specific geographical area, and more are willing to consider attending a seminary outside their own denomination.
In response, schools are using a variety of techniques -- the Internet, video conferencing and wireless technology, for starters -- to provide courses to students around the country. For example, New Orleans Baptist Seminary, a Southern Baptist Convention school, operates a satellite program in a church building in Decatur, Ga., just a stone's throw from Columbia Seminary of the PC(USA), Aleshire said, using high-speed T-1 lines and sophisticated interactive video. Students in the Decatur classroom and those back in New Orleans can see each other on screens during the classes and have conversations back and forth.
Among the continuing education courses that Princeton Seminary is offering this year are a Web-based course on New Testament ethics, and a video-conference on science and religion that's jointly sponsored with Pacific Lutheran University. It will include lectures given that day by professors in Princeton and in Tacoma, Wash.
The University of Dubuque Seminary offers online training for people interested in becoming commissioned lay pastors and for other lay leaders seeking theological education. It says on its Web site that with such an approach, "time commitments, scheduling difficulties and geography will no longer be a barrier."
For seminaries, the technological innovations are by no means limited to teaching students from far away. They are also making real changes on campus, beginning first with the way theological libraries provide information to students and researchers, and altering the way that at least some professors teach.
The libraries of many ATS-accredited schools, including all the Presbyterian seminaries, have digitized databases. "Indexes and major databases that used to be in print are now on CD-Rom or online," Aleshire said -- which means researchers can get information faster and with less digging.
Using the technology in the classroom
In the classrooms, at least some professors are taking advantage of the possibilities that technology provides -- some a little hesitantly, some with real excitement. Among those jumping in is Scott Cormode, a Presbyterian minister who teaches leadership, administration and finance at Claremont School of Theology in southern California. "I use technology to allow students to prepare outside of the classroom to have much deeper conversation in the classroom," Cormode said.
In one course, for example, he has set up an on-line case study from a mythical congregation called the "First Church of Almond Springs," with 22 episodes so far (Web site: www.christianleaders.org). For each class, students are required to view one episode (the episodes sometimes have links to articles on related subjects -- perhaps, if the pastor's having trouble, on conflict management) and also to read articles from both secular and religious sources. Before coming to class, each student writes a 500-word "reflection paper" connecting what they've read with the case study, and e-mails the paper to Cormode, who reads them before the class starts and passes them back to their authors as the students arrive.
That approach improves the work in several ways, Cormode said. The students have thought through the issues involved before the class starts, so they're prepared for deeper discussion. He knows what they've grasped already and what they need to investigate more. And he's better prepared to "bring out voices that often are not heard" -- by calling on a student whose primary language isn't English, for example, to share an insight from that student's paper. If the students are nervous about language skills, "they've got the paper right in front of them," Cormode said. "If they need to, they can simply read from it."
Some professors are weaving Internet links, digital photographs and video clips into their lectures. Cormode recalls a presentation by Mary Hess of Luther Seminary, for example, who cut into her PowerPoint presentation video clips taken from interviews with theologians from other cultural traditions, so Hispanic and other theologians were "talking about their approach to the very same questions we were discussing . . . . It was almost as if they were in the room."
There are "all kinds of possibilities," Aleshire said, but the professors have to be willing. "The key point is if they're interested, and interest seems to vary above [age] 50 and below 50. There's a real generational divide . . . . It's the middle-aged and younger faculty who are making the most dramatic transformations," although Cormode said he knows of professors nearing retirement age who are as excited about the creative possibilities of technology as any of their younger colleagues.
Learning to use the technology also takes time -- and often a deliberate investment in resources by the seminary.
The Lilly Endowment has given more than 60 grants totaling more than $23 million to theological schools around the country to help them explore ways to enhance teaching in on-campus courses in basic degree programs. "If theological schools are going to use the technologies to involve themselves in distance education, it would be good for them to learn how to use those technologies with their on-campus students" as well, said Raymond B. Williams, director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, an Indiana-based program that has put on workshops involving some of the grant recipients.
And that's not to say there's unanimity that everything technological is automatically good. There has been what Aleshire calls a "tense" debate around the question of whether theological education can be accomplished at a distance, or whether an essential aspect of it is the intense, interpersonal sharing that can come with being part of a seminary community. The question of formation, of "how is a person formed theologically" and prepared for ministry, as Williams put it, is interwoven with the ongoing discussion of whether e-mail and the Internet are changing our concepts of what it means to be connected.
The Association of Theological Schools now requires that at least one year in an accredited degree program be done in residence on a seminary's primary campus -- so students have a chance to meet face-to-face with their teachers and other students.
One example Aleshire holds up, as a program done well, is an M.Div. program offered by Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, where students are allowed to take two years' worth of courses through a sophisticated Web-based program using online courses. But they take the remaining coursework, equivalent to a year's work, in intensive on-campus stints, usually six weeks a year for five years.
And the Bethel program is specifically designed for students already in ministry -- meaning pastors who don't have a seminary degree but are already serving churches, which means they're not free to quit and move to St. Paul.
There are times when the group does "meet" when they're not on campus, usually through conference calls. And the seminary has invested, Aleshire said, in doing it right, by not just offering the courses, but also providing administrative support for students and professors in the program, and by giving the faculty the time and resources they need to develop the courses well.