CHANGING TIMES AND CHANGING STANDARDS FOR THEOLOGICAL DISTANCE EDUCATION
Andrew J. Peterson, Ph.D., President
Reformed Theological Seminary, Virtual Campus
The times are changing dramatically for theological education in America, Canada and around the world. With the global advance of Christianity, financial stress in the USA, and stunning technological advances, critical thinking by seminaries and Christian educators is required about the road ahead. New instructional designs are developing for residential and distance education at all levels, including K12, college and graduate programs. Good content remains essential, but much development is needed to meet the opportunities and the challenges of our contemporary world.
Demographics for the growth of Christianity over the past generation are clear and reliable. Against some predictions in the West, the responses of the global South and East have been to embrace the gospel and begin churches throughout cultures where this is an old or new way of life. And looking forward with an “age-structural model,” the population changes should continue with a positive trend for the Christian church. Naturally, as the regional church grows, there is a need to develop capable biblical leaders and teaching for doctrinal orthodoxy and personal and community life. High-quality theological education, systematic and practical, is required by millions in the vast crowd of new fellowships of believers.
Whether a report from one of our students in Chile, who is working with a team to translate the legacy seminary materials into Spanish or a veteran missionary from Asia who is spreading the word about distance education for an accredited degree, individuals are talking about the case studies that source the statistical trends. Urban centers around the world are important places for theological education in the USA as well. For example, Reformed Theological Seminary is working with churches in the USA such as New York, Denver and Los Angeles and worldwide in such places as Brasil, Jakarta, Istanbul and London.
No doubt, there is need for humble, respectful teaching materials and services in collaboration with local ministries in different cultures with similar instructional needs. Of course, the benefit returns to the schools that are serving worldwide, in terms of thinking and acting in Christian behavior and belief.
Is there any doubt that there is an “education bubble” on the horizon? With students requesting governmental funding for much of their tuition at theological schools, a real crisis has arrived when they search for jobs with modest compensation and have huge sums of debt. The sustainability of the financial model for seminaries is under question. It is now much more difficult to pursue the traditional seminary program as a full-time student.
The US and world economies endured business cycles and busts in recent years that are disruptive for nearly every citizen. Establishment public policy was unable to control all the market factors that lead to the “financial bubbles” and prevent prompt recovery from downturns or, even, “meltdowns.” Whether it be the ‘tech bust’ of the late 90s, the housing crisis of 2008 or the upcoming challenge in college tuition, consumers must be more careful with their educational services and career choices.
Will tuition rates hold or will there be a collapse of prices that we would rather not think about? If income for schools is cut in half, how will the reduced revenue be managed in terms of faculty and student services? The effects of unemployment and lower investment income rumble throughout US society and worldwide. Fundraising has become increasingly difficult as churches face cut backs in tithe income, some large donors are affected dramatically in their businesses, and many smaller givers are unable to pull as much from regular budgets.
We have watched the progress of educational technology over the past couple decades. For instance, the contribution of Steve Jobs was a great one for all sectors of the economy, but especially for education. As we look at the iPhone, iPad, iCloud and even iTV, it is easy to understand why Apple is the most valuable company in our day. RTS Virtual has delivered millions of classroom lectures for the past several years to the worldwide audience for free. iTunes U has become the destination place for academic dissemination and discovery … a multimedia library on steroids … and at no cost!
Whether hybrid classes from our campuses or online instruction, the learning management system has become the center of instruction and feedback at many schools. Open source software makes advanced techniques very affordable and lends synergy to the more costly but excellent proprietary tools such as iBooks. With tablet computers and e-books, the educational enterprise has assumed a new posture that is both more user-friendly and efficient.
With use of these connections and gadgets, best educational practices have developed in K12, college and graduate schools. The K12 schools now have smart boards and tablets for an altered classroom structure and increased interaction. Alternative models of education such as homeschooling are increasing at 10% per year and making use of the new media on an ad hoc basis. As always, the prerequisite is a valid curriculum and instructional design.
COPING WITH LEARNING OUTCOMES
At the same time there are “winds of change” in the academy itself, the paradigm for accreditation is trending toward a focus on learning outcomes rather than the resources of a library and physical plant, faculty educational qualifications, or mission match to documentation of strategic planning and evaluation. What will a student know, feel and do upon receiving instruction? Can the school show quantitative and qualitative measures for discernment of the goodness of the education?
Taxpayer funding of education has led to a governmental hand in the participating schools. The campus resources, duration of program, location of teaching and student, and the learning outcomes are coming under increasing scrutiny from the educational bureaucracy. Rather than consultative, the accreditation process has become administrative and litigious. While objectives are good requirements to ensure a “floor” of results, they provide an incomplete education if not complemented by principles of instruction that facilitate the surprise and the creativity in academic excellence for advancement of the God’s kingdom.
Regardless of the bureaucratic issues, education everywhere is in the midst of great change on these fronts of global, fiscal and technological circumstances. If we do not impose a “ceiling” on our expectations, these can be the best of times for educational advancement. While the permanent standards of biblical principle remain, the shifting situational factors push theological educators and administrators toward real accountability and best practices into a new era of setting standards.
SCHOOL AND CHURCH
One of the important trends in seminary education and distance learning is the mixing of online assets and local mentoring. By having a church-based study center, the student can continue in local family, church and community life while learning advanced theological material from a seminary in a different location. For example, RTS Virtual Campus is working with several PCA churches in Los Angeles and Valley Christian Schools in Cerritos, California for masters degree program at a distance with local fellowship and guidance.
Actually the move toward more church involvement is also in line with broader intellectual developments in academic work as we move from the modernism and scientific consensus of the past couple hundred years. Part of this renewed attention to the church gives an emphasis on practical theology. And many scholars would agree that “all good theology is applied theology”, cf. Professor John Frame. In fact, Frame has made a profound point that ethics is the foundation for the epistemology of knowledge rather than the reverse.
Other reasons for the return to a local church focus are funding, governance and community service. Looking at the financial pressure on students, professors, administrators, board members, et al, and knowing the church is the main beneficiary of the quality of new pastors, it is natural to listen for the needs and look for more resources from the churches. A nice by-product of remember local roots is the effect on that particular community with the Christian’s positive civic engagement. As always, with the increased funding from the churches must come the increased communication and governance issues with the relevant ecclesiastical bodies.
We know that Jesus Christ has given his church the broad command to advance the Kingdom via the church and speaking truth to power (Matthew 28). The gospel message, complete with Lordship over lifestyle, is a robust religion that can revolutionize self and society. Still an important part of the academy, theological and biblical training will also be more grounded with the special home of local church and community. These many recent global changes are affecting the setting of standards for good theological education.