Online courses are the future of theological education. Recently, I received a phone call from an Assistant Professor of Sociology, who works in a reputed college in Bangalore, India, asking for details of THEOn’s online courses and expressing his desire to enroll. The reason behind his enquiry was, his college management had made it a requirement for all faculty to take up a number of online courses outside of their subject disciplines. There is a growing interest among Christian professionals to equip themselves in theology.
Interest in Theological Education
Theological education has been largely focused on training people for Christian ministry in residential campuses. This model was successful when denominational churches defined Christian presence. But the phenomenal outbreak of Pentecostal churches globally made anyone who had a sense of God’s call, become the pastor of a church, without having to spend three to four years in a seminary. Due to a growing distance between churches and seminaries, many churches in the USA, have taken to recruiting pastoral candidates for apprenticeship training, instead of sending them to seminaries for pastoral training.
Professionals playing the role of a pastor is another growing trend globally. In Beyond Christendom, Jehu J. Hanciles observes that many entrepreneurial immigrant pastors are trained, often in the United States, in some other profession and then go on to lead a local, ethnically based Christian congregation.
Professionals playing the role of a pastor is a growing trend globally.
‘Lay people’ who are serious in their missional calling seek to equip themselves in theology to make sense of their calling. Demand from Christian professionals for theological education, untrained pastors’ interest in theological training without having to leave the ministry, pastors who are interested in updating their knowledge, and the enormous cost involved in running a seminary campus, are the disruptors of the present models of theological education. Above all, internet is the major disruptive innovator with emerging new technologies in the field of online education. In this context, a rethinking on the present models of theological education is required.
Trends in Theological Education
New forms of theological education cannot ignore the new trends in education. A study done by KPMG and Google, claims that the number of online course takers in India will grow from 1.6 million in 2017 to 9.6 million by 2021 and that the online education market will grow from USD 247 million in 2017 to 1.96 billion in 2021. Doug Lederman reports that in the USA, online enrollment for at least one course grew to 33.1% in 2017. Another study found that more adult students are showing interest in online courses. Employability, affordability, accessibility, use of any device, and internet penetration are some of the driving factors for online courses. Hybrid courses with online and face-to-face components are a popular pick among online course takers.
Josh Sweeden observes, “many theological schools are already reflecting new postures by developing programs and other opportunities to support the theological and ministerial formation of non-clergy persons without betraying their commitment to professional clergy education.” Online Distance Education in Theological Schools, a study by Auburn Seminary in the USA, reports that enrollment in regular stream has dropped by 11%, while enrollment for online courses has increased to 200%, at the same time. In India, Paul Cornelius points out that while there is a decline of enrollment for residential theological schools, an interest among laity for theological training is on the rise. He observes that the online mode of delivery “increases the reach of theological education in a way that was not possible before.” Many theological and other training institutions are exploring new ways of equipping the people of God through online courses. THEOn is a pioneer in India for online theological education.
“ODE [Online Distance Education] student outcomes are equal to or better than those of traditional residential classes.”
Learning Outcome and Ministry Formation in Online Environment
A general perception is that, the learning outcome of online students are lesser than that of traditional students; but the Auburn study claims, reality is contrary: “ODE [Online Distance Education] student outcomes are equal to or better than those of traditional residential classes.” Other studies have also pointed out a similar reality among online students of other disciplines, that they are either on par with or better in comparison to on site students. Some challenge that, ministry formation is impaired in an online environment; unlike residential schools, online courses do not uproot students from their real-life ministry contexts; actually, it helps them relate their learning to real life-ministry context better.
The future has arrived; theological education must step into the future to equip millennials to make sense of their faith in the real as well as virtual world. “The internet is a new delivery system for theological education, but much more than that, it has created and reinforced a new vernacular language emphasizing new modes of multi-sensory engagement and learning” (Sharon L. Miller and Christian Scharen). Delivering traditional classroom contents through online mode of delivery will not achieve learning outcomes. I plan to write on online pedagogy and online course design in my future blogs.
“The internet is a new delivery system for theological education, but much more than that, it has created and reinforced a new vernacular language emphasizing new modes of multi-sensory engagement and learning”
Are you ready for the future of theological education in online environment? If you are already offering online theological education or interested in moving to an online environment, we would love to hear your experience or plans in the comments below. We, at THEOn, will be happy to assist you in your endeavor to offer online theological training; please Get in Touch with us.
Look out for more blogs on Theological Education in this space.