When I first began teaching ministry students years ago, I wrote on a chalkboard. The overhead projector was revolutionary. Little did we think about teaching via something like the Internet, with seemingly little or no classroom interaction. I, along with many of my colleagues at the time, questioned the pedagogical value of online education when it arrived forcefully on the scene.
No longer do I have as many concerns. In fact, I see value in online education for ministry students.
- Online education introduces students to a global world. In my current online class, I have several students who are serving the Lord in various countries around the world. They bring a cross-cultural view to the virtual classroom, and their insights have been both informative and challenging. These students represent thousands of internationals and/or missionaries who have opportunity to study because Internet options are available. I am, I believe, a better professor, and my students are better educated because of these global conversations.
- Online education affirms the value of the gospel. As evangelicals, we stand on the position that the gospel is truth; we view it as the only hope for a dying world. If we truly believe what we claim, and if we accept our calling to make disciples of all peoples (Matt. 28:18-20), how can we not at least consider a delivery system that allows us to train more of the world? The delivery system may stretch those of us not raised on the Internet, but the product should be worth the effort: more global disciples of Jesus.
- Online education encourages student participation. We often assume otherwise, but my experience is that online interaction is often stronger than classroom interaction. In a residential classroom, some students will never speak unless required to do so. The situation is the same in a virtual classroom (that is, some will not post unless required), but students are often more willing to interact when studying online. I have seen online discussions and chats that far exceed the depth of in-person classroom conversations – and I am convinced the medium facilitates that process.
- Online education assists churches in carrying out their responsibility to train. Ideally, believers will learn first at the feet of local church-based leaders who invest in young lives. Educational institutions can provide the accredited training while the church provides the hands-on, mentoring-based training. Not all churches fulfill this responsibility, but more and more are accepting this calling. Online education makes these partnerships possible. Indeed, online training can assist churches in equipping leaders to minister in a technologically driven world.
- Online education allows students to remain in their ministry settings. A Christian university or seminary can easily become a place to hide from the world, a cocoon that insulates us from the people we are called to reach. Church-based training – when it emphasizes doing the Great Commission – helps keep students in the real world. To expect them to leave healthy ministry settings for a formal education makes little sense if legitimate accredited training is available via the Internet.
- Online education requires teachers to think missiologically. We cannot ignore how our students learn. Our calling as educators is to teach, which means we are obligated to help students learn. We have a responsibility to reach them. For a generation that does not know a world without the Internet, we have two options: use the medium to teach them, or ignore the medium and risk missing an opportunity to train them. The latter choice is missiologically illogical to me if we believe in what we teach. Even if we consider online education less than ideal, we must admit we lose our voice if we choose to ignore the prevalence of the Internet medium.
I know that critics will still object to my conclusions. Some argue that the Bible itself assumes that ministry training will occur only in face-to-face settings. I grant that the scriptures do not speak of contemporary technology, but that silence does not equal prohibition. My hunch is that the Apostle Paul, who sought to be all things to all people, who often corrected and taught from a distance via correspondence, and who longed for others to know and follow Jesus, would welcome a delivery system to train more believers.
Others may argue that online learning, by its very individualistic and private nature, encourages cheating. Even if that conclusion were rock solid defensible (and it’s not), in-person test proctors and online content checkers can lessen the possibility. More pointedly, the student who cheats is dealing more with a conflict in the soul than a problem with a delivery system. The same student would likely be tempted in a residential classroom as well. Repentance rather than educational reform is in order.
Still others contend that the best education is person-to-person, face-to-face. The results are mixed, but enough studies have shown online education to be as effective as classroom education that we cannot assume the validity of this conclusion. Moreover, online education does not prohibit a personal approach. Online options that provide face-to-face interaction exist, and they are continually improving. I have often had significant personal, challenging, instructive interaction with students sitting in their rooms in another part of the world. Global ministry increasingly demands those kinds of virtual conversations, and we must prepare for our students for that world.
Further, those who assume a residential classroom fixes all of the above concerns are misreading contemporary education. Busy students who rush to the classroom, attempt to focus for an hour, and then quickly return to their fast-paced lives see the classroom as only a means to an end. It is possible to be isolated and alone in a class with dozens of other students, whether online or on a campus – and we must work in either case to develop relationships. Cheating can occur in a classroom as well as online. All in all, on-campus education is significant, but it is not a cure-all.
Here’s the bottom line for me: a delivery system does not determine if the education is good; the teacher does. Good teachers who believe in their content will figure out how to connect with students and lead them to learn, regardless of delivery mode. They will also help us to improve both on-campus and online learning, simply because they are committed to educating. Strong teachers will learn to do online education well – and strive to lead students to learn. We who are preparing the next generation for ministry must not ignore this opportunity.