NB This article is concerned with undergraduate and postgraduate theological education, but many of the principles and issues raised here apply to other forms and levels of Christian education.
The world of Higher Education is changing - rapidly. Indeed it is not an exaggeration to say that somewhat of a revolution is underway, much like a snowball rolling down the hill and growing exponentially.
Educators in the fields of business and IT (Information Technology) have engaged this phenomenon for a number of years. But now other disciplines are also taking note, realising they are in danger of being left behind. Theological institutions - not noted for being the most innovative of organisations - especially stand to lose out unless they embrace the new reality.
The revolution in question is the growth of online education. Distance learning has been around for years, of course, but with the advent of the Internet distance education has moved firmly away from crude correspondence courses consisting of reams of photocopied reading assignments parcelled up and mailed to students, to something far more sophisticated and interactive.
Technology is advancing in leaps and bounds, transforming the online learning experience so that, for example, at KEDS (the online theological school where I work) there is an online community of students and faculty who communicate via forums and instant chat, with teaching delivered through audio and video, supported by knowledge databases, electronic handbooks and an online library, all integrated into a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) that have named our eCampus. Even assignments are submitted, marked, second-marked/moderated and returned to students electronically. Students frequently express their appreciation of the eCampus and the flexibility such online studies offer, while the advantages, both in terms of logistics and costs, are significant.
Online distance learning is here to stay, and it seems not a week goes by without a story in the media or Higher Education press reporting how it continues to wrestle away business from traditional institutions. Indeed, according to some commentators, academics and government ministers, online learning threatens to render largely insignificantthose schools and universities which fail to advance with the times.
In the United States, where distance education was greeted with suspicion for years (in the UK there is no such stigma attached to online learning), regional bodies are beginning to pass laws forcing schools and colleges to accept online course credits, while major institutions like Yale and Harvard have invested heavily in online learning.
So why is online learning growing so rapidly? There are various reasons for this paradigm shift in Higher Education.
Critically, in the current economic situation where universities are struggling financially, online learning provides an opportunity to offer programmes for a fraction of the costs of traditional attendance courses.
Not only that, but cheaper online courses provide students with a more realistic means of securing a Higher Education without incurring the costs and debt associated with traditional taught courses. Consider how a typical undergraduate degree in the UK now costs at least £9,000 per year which, together with fairly modest maintenance costs of £6,000 or so per year, means a typical students will leave university with a degree and debts of £40,000-50,000.
Of course, if one studies law, engineering, medicine, or possibly studies to go into teaching, the enhanced salaries of careers in these fields allows a graduate, over time, to pay back the debt. But Theology is not exactly known for commanding a premium salary over the course of a working life. Thus, it is not surprising that at KEDS we are seeing a steady increase in the number of enquirers exploring taking an online degree for a fraction of the cost. Typically a degree at King’s will cost less than a quarter of the costs for a traditional taught course.
Who wouldn’t want to leave their college with a degree in Theology which cost them £10-12K, rather than £40-50K?
Another factor for online education’s explosive growth is the constant emergence of new technologies that allow possibilities in course delivery unheard of just a few years ago. Whether forums, real-time group chat, webinars, virtual classrooms, the cheapening of bandwidth to allow hours and hours of audio and video lectures, and a host of other features and new media, online education has become incredibly interactive, interesting and, importantly, highly relevant in an economy which is not only connected and does much of its business online, but increasingly one where many of those not integrated into the digital age face major challenges and, unfortunately, irrelevance.
Which leads to a third reason why online learning is booming. Quite simply, there is a real hunger for Higher Education globally, especially in the emerging economies. Prospective students are clamouring to take courses and increasingly they are looking to online provision for solutions. These people seek distance learning opportunities not only because they offer the opportunity to learn new skills and command a greater income, but also because it helps equip a new generation of students to become fully integrated into the new digital economy.
Some inventions and innovations have transformed society, for example the motorcar, television, or flight. The digital age is no less revolutionary, and like that snowball rolling down the hill it is growing exponentially, transforming everyday life in the process. For today’s prospective students who seek to be a part of that digital economy, benefiting from the flexibility and low costs which online education offers in the process, what better way of securing their education than through that very means?
Significantly, however, it is increasingly obvious that there is simply insufficient capacity for traditional taught universities to handle this demand, which is why commentators and government officials are increasingly warning that those institutions which do not get on the bandwagon now face being swept aside.
What does all this mean for Theology?
I began with a reference to Theology's paucity of innovativion. It is true that some theological colleges and seminaries which just a few years ago had no electronic provision of any kind have recognised the growing demand from students for a lower-priced, flexible online alternative and are now offering online courses. Some are of superb quality, but many simply replicate the old correspondence course model, providing their students with large amounts of reading material (though now electronically rather than in photocopied format), with very little interactive content or a variety of media.
Surprisingly many theological schools and university departments offer no online provision whatsoever. Arguably, other than niche providers it is these institutions which will, in the long run, suffer the most as the online revolution gathers pace. Reliance on a small constituency wanting to study Theology, ever growing prohibitive costs to deliver (or if you are a student fund) a theological degree, and growing demand for innovation from students will all impact, if they have not already, small, traditional theological institutions.
Only those who diversify will survive relatively unaffected, other than a tiny number of specialists reaching out to a niche market. And even those niche markets will quickly evaporate once an online provider reaches out to them at a fraction of the cost.
On the other hand, for those of us who teach in the theological sector, online Christian education arguably allows us to expand our “market”, providing low-cost, flexible theological education, as well as the IT skills so valued in the current digital age, to a far wider constituency. In short, the opportunities of online learning allow theological institutions to offer qualifications, early exit awards and training for more Christian men and women than we would normally expect to reach through traditional means.
Contrary to common perceptions, neither is it that difficult or costly to set up. An institution with existing programmes and an IT employee/webmaster with basic skills could expect, with the right consultancy from a specialist in delivering online theological education, to set up their own VLE relatively inexpensively. In my own consultancy work I have helped a school build and populate a bespoke VLE from scratch for under £10,000, including online infrastructure, plugins and third-party resources, as well as the provision of training for the new owners to continue to update and develop the site. Elsewhere, I have advised others that already had their own IT and education experts for just a few hundred pounds, sharing with them the key principles and issues of online educational provision to allow them to explore and develop their own programmes for themselves.
These are modest figures, bearing in mind the potential of much-needed income for a Bible school offering a new online Theology degree course that attracts new students who would not normally attend that school.