The iSeminary Cometh
Shawn Cossin completed his bachelor's degree in Christian education at Wheaton College in 1993. After that, he became a military police officer in the U.S. Army. Eventually returning to his native Pennsylvania, Cossin became a state trooper—and a youth pastor at Sandy Lake Wesleyan Church.
In time, the church promoted Cossin to assistant pastor, and he felt pulled to enter full-time ministry, though he had never attended seminary. He imagined it would be impractical to quit both jobs, uproot his wife and two young sons, and immerse himself in studies on a residential campus for up to three years to earn a coveted ministerial degree.
But Indiana Wesleyan University provided another option: stay home, keep working, and earn a master of arts in ministry online. Cossin enrolled in the Marion, Indiana-based school in 2004.
"I was a bit skeptical of the viability of the program when I started," says Cossin, 38. "I had no qualms about the school itself. But at Wheaton I had such spiritual growth because of significant interaction with professors."
Cossin quickly adjusted his learning paradigm. Indiana Wesleyan's cohort model, where 20 or so students go through the program together, required Cossin to share ministry experiences with others.
"The online program moved me beyond my comfort zone and almost forced me to engage not only professors in conversation but also classmates with my own thoughts." Cossin graduated in 2007 and became the lead pastor of Sandy Lake Wesleyan.
Cossin admits that obtaining a degree online requires great self-discipline for those working full-time. But as a church staff member already, he found that he could immediately apply the information he learned. It also helped that Cossin's wife, Beth, obtained her master's degree from Indiana Wesleyan's program simultaneously. Today she is formation and missions pastor at Sandy Lake Wesleyan, which has grown from 400 attendees to 650 since her husband became lead pastor.
Indiana Wesleyan's program has been so successful that in August 2009 it launched Wesley Seminary, whose 30 online divinity students joined the 170 onsite students in its existing ministry master's program. The online seminary hopes to bump up the number of Wesleyan pastors with seminary training. Right now, just 15 percent are seminary-trained. Online technology is making it easier and more affordable to train more ministry leaders more comprehensively. These leaders, in turn, are better on the job.
Hockey Stick Growth
Across the board, online technology is dramatically changing the landscape of undergraduate- and graduate-level education, including for many of the 234 American and Canadian members of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).
The Babson Survey Research Group, which assesses all post-secondary education, reported in its Learning on Demand survey that "online enrollments have continued to grow at rates far in excess of the total higher education student population, with the most recent data demonstrating no signs of slowing." The January report notes the following:
- 4.6 million students took at least one online course at a post-secondary institution in fall 2008. About 644,000 of those students took graduate-level courses.
- Online education has been growing at a compound annual rate of 19 percent.
- Online enrollment now represents 25 percent of the 18.2 million students enrolled in higher education.
- Student demand for online courses is now greater than demand for corresponding face-to-face courses.