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Online Learning

Sansblogue carries an interesting piece on the feasibility of online theological education (applied to ministry formation in particular) under the general title Online Seminary: is virtual formation possible?.

Tim Bulkeley shares some relevant questions about the very nature of this kind of formation:

- How far can one really achieve formation without incarnate contact?
- Can "virtual" contact be real incarnate contact? (Which senses can be dispensed with? After all we would not shut out a blind candidate for ministry formation...)
- Distance learning can be great for the "head stuff", how do we insure that the extras we add to a distance or online package really provide the feeling, doing and being formation that is also vital?
I readily confess that I have no clear-cut answers to these questions. However, I'd like to try to address them in turn, if I may.

First of all, no matter what route you take, it seems to me that real formation can only take place within the context of a local church. I am convinced that we must take advantage of modern technology in our approach to studying/teaching theology (which, BTW, is something quite different to forming ministers, though it is an important part of it!), but the role of a congregation cannot be overlooked. Therefore, I would say that a good bit can be achieved without personal, face-to-face, contact, but a great deal depends also entirely on the everyday, ground work at church level.

Having said that, I have no doubt that "virtual" contact can be improved and become more "real." It is true that cyberspace is, by definition, impersonal. I concede that I could easily put on a fa├žade of integrity and academic excellence, and you could never tell the kind of person I really am. On the other hand, I have never personally met most of the people I work with/for or interact with through this blog, forums or whatever, and despite all that somehow we get to know each other over time. In fact, I often find myself talking to my wife about this guy or the other as if we were close friends living only two blocks apart! Given the available technical resources (email, chats, voice and video conferences, blogs, courseware, etc.) and a reasonable amount of time and true interaction, I believe we can overcome the "virtual" barrier. As I see it, virtual and real (though I don't like either of these labels) should complement one another. Ideally, no senses should be left out.

As for the last question, I would say that a program can be great for the "head stuff" only if it is a great program. I say this because it is still the case at many institutions that their online or distance education program is not considered as "good" as their residential degree. This, IMO, shows little confidence in the program itself, and should definitely change. So much for the "head stuff." Now, even if you attend a Seminary you can end up with a lot of "head stuff" and very little of the "extras." Mentoring is the concept that keeps coming to mind when I try to visualize how we can make sure that no one is missing out on any important area of ministry formation.

One final caveat: my comments will probably make sense only to "Westerners." Unfortunately, most of the world's population cannot take advantage of these trends in education. But they do have churches, you see...

Update (July 3): See Tim's response. I agree, and since he puts it so nicely, I don't think I have anything else to say on this for the time being.

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