The digital revolution is disrupting the structures and rhythms of every industry and institution—and education is no exception. Today, the internet can help anyone with a laptop and a wi-fi connection learn to tune an F-150 engine, speak French, or prepare for a career in cosmetology. But can the internet teach someone how to care for a human soul?
Typically, the more conservative a Christian institution is, the less inclined it’s been to adopt teaching methodologies it perceives as too closely resembling those surrounding secular culture. Whenever new methods have demonstrated potential to help more students better fulfill the Great Commission, though, Christian schools have been more willing to incorporate them thoughtfully.
Seminaries and Bible colleges have long leveraged distance learning, albeit to different extents and in varying formats, to further the spread of the gospel. Moody Bible Institute, for example, was one of the first American institutions to embrace nontraditional methods of education to equip people to learn and teach the Bible. In 1901, Moody Correspondence School inaugurated their correspondence courses, a precursor to modern online learning systems. Students would receive study materials and assignments in the mail, independently complete the work, then send them back for grading. Two years later, Moody’s Evening School was launched, offering classes after work hours for laypeople wanting to be more effective ministers in their local congregations. Moody grew into one of the largest and most respected institutions of theological instruction in America thanks in no small part to these enterprising distance learning programs.
When we stop and consider the character of God and how he has revealed himself to us—namely through words—it’s not hard to see why programs in these formats might be effective. We are made in the image of a God who spoke the universe into existence and who sustains all things by his powerful word. He wrote his law to the Israelites with his own finger on tablets of stone. By the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, he revealed himself and his plan for his people through the words of the prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament (much of which took the form of handwritten letters). And when we read God’s words in the pages of our Bibles, through the help of the Holy Spirit, we actively hear him speak. We are, in short, people of the Book—so it stands to reason that any method of communication that mirrors the way God reveals himself to us through words will have particular, transformative power.
If the internet has taught us anything, though, it’s that we require far more than mere strings of letters on a page or screen for the meaning of words to be fully conveyed: we need to hear them, with all the variances of tone and inflection our voices offer, and we need to see them being spoken as the body that speaks them also illuminates them with a language of its own.
Research is beginning to validate these needs. A recent scientific study, “The Humanizing Voice: Speech Reveals, and Text Conceals, a More Thoughtful Mind in the Midst of Disagreement,” describes the different responses of subjects to a speech on a controversial topic when it is read versus when it is listened to or watched. When people simply read the speech or argument, they tend to filter their perception of its content—and the person giving it—through their own personal biases. When they hear it or watch it being delivered, though, those biases lessen in impact. The study concludes that communications that are confined only to text can be dehumanizing.
The Road to Distance Learning
Our need to bring our embodied humanity to bear on our communication with one another has driven many of the cycles of technological transformation over the last several decades. From the invention of electronic mail to streaming audio and now the rise of recorded and real-time video, each advancement points to an essential human truth: words wield their greatest power when they are offered and received in as incarnational a form as possible.
The courses of yesteryear have rapidly evolved into a myriad of digital and online methods of distance learning, broadly divided into two categories. The first, asynchronous learning, is the electronic equivalent of the correspondence course: students read assigned texts or watch recorded lectures at their own pace and submit written or video-recorded assignments and tests online. They may interact with the lecturer and other students through messaging or email, but the learning path the student takes is one he or she mostly walks alone.
Synchronous learning, meanwhile, more closely mimics a traditional classroom environment. Through videoconferencing or real-time video streaming on social media, a professor instructs a group of students collectively. Videoconferencing and messaging apps also permit live questions and interaction with the professor and other students. Students can complete assignments synchronously as well, with groups of students “gathering” on Google Hangouts to work collaboratively on projects or “meeting” with an instructor over a videoconferencing channel like Zoom or GoToMeeting for help—or, in the case of Christian institutions, for prayer.
These newer, richer online learning environments benefit students in numerous ways. For starters, they lower the economic barriers to higher education, thanks to the lower cost per unit and the elimination of expenses for room and board. Real-time voice, video, and content collaboration methods also offer an approximation of library study room sessions and dorm room hangouts, giving students who are limited by their geography the chance to engage with their fellow students and connect with their professors. Asynchronous learning, meanwhile, offers additional benefits by providing students constrained by work or family obligations with an opportunity to pursue higher education while still fulfilling those other commitments.
However, these distance learning expansions seem to come with residential (and staff) renovations. Some academic institutions are struggling to adjust to the digital demands while they experience significant ebbs and flows of hiring as they try to anticipate online enrollment. In addition, the buoyed interest in many colleges’ distance learning programs has come with waning interest in their residential campuses.
Last year, for instance, in a poignant but forthright announcement to its student body, Fuller Theological Seminary described how increasing demand for its online program had grown to such an extent that enrollment had surpassed all in-person programs. This trend was mirrored by diminishing enrollment in regional campus programs. As a result, Fuller announced it would shutter several of its regional campuses and scale back its offerings in the remaining ones.
These sorts of disruptions will be challenging, particularly for students whose proximity to the closing campuses is no longer beneficial. But for academic institutions and the donors who support them, the economic advantages of the scalability of online programs versus the cost of maintaining campus buildings and grounds are a factor that is difficult to resist.
Almost as Good
The digital disruption of Christian higher education is a trend I’ve followed for many years. Among my husband, our parents, our siblings, and myself, we have a combined 13 undergraduate and graduate degrees from Christian colleges and seminaries, most of them in theology. Our three digital-native daughters are nearing college admission age. Helping them navigate the path to the right school for this new digital age is increasingly important for me as a mother.
My interest is professional as well. For the last 20 years I’ve worked in the high-tech industry, designing and delivering executive sales and training programs for hardware, software, and “cloud” services companies. For a short time I worked in the telecommunications sector itself, creating programs to drive early adoption of videoconferencing as a groundbreaking collaboration platform for businesses, as well as for ordinary people like you and me.
Of all the industries that the internet revolution has overthrown, the telecommunications industry has fought the longest and most persistently to survive and thrive. Video-based communication was touted as the key to unlocking a host of business benefits: cost savings from reduced travel, the flexibility to hire remote workers, and improved morale and productivity by giving workers the ability to work from home.
The reality was far different.
During my first week at the first company I joined, the only new-hire training I received was exclusively done asynchronously or via video. The majority of my team was distributed across the country, and my manager was based overseas, so we interacted exclusively online by email, instant messaging, or video calls. We never ate together, never took coffee breaks together (eating or drinking over video was infamously off-putting). Even our office Christmas party happened over video: we all joined a video call from our home offices wearing our ugliest Christmas sweaters and sipping on champagne we’d bought ourselves.
In those early days, videoconferencing systems were large, unwieldy, and—as much as we were loath to admit it—not entirely reliable. The “digital friction” of having to fall back on text-based methods like email and instant messaging when a video call failed was constant. So was the relational friction, both between bosses and subordinates and between coworkers. The net effect of this video-only model was often more combative than collaborative. The business struggled, and so did employee morale.
I didn’t stay in that position long, and they didn’t last long—soon after I left the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Many of the technology companies with which we’d done business began rescinding their remote working policies and mandating that people work together in their office more regularly. My former company soon followed suit.
Today, market pressures are driving videoconferencing technologies to advance and improve. Their messaging is advancing, too, from the assertion that video collaboration is “the same as being there” to “being almost as good as being there.”
Power in the Incarnation
What the technology industry has been slow to come to terms with—and what science is beginning to explain—is readily observable when we look at God’s Word. We were not made simply for transactional, siloed communication; we were made for communion. We are made in the image of God, who is—in his triune self and with us—a communing God.
Jesus is not only the Word; he is the “Word made flesh” who dwelt among us, first in the dark and silent recesses of his mother’s body, then in a feeding trough for animals, then alongside his itinerant and ever-needy disciples.
Jesus spoke with words that challenged, provoked, and confounded people. But it was viewing the embodiment of his words—the feeding with loaves and fish, with bread and wine, the washing of their feet, the hanging on a cross and then rising from the grave—that opened peoples’ eyes to who he really was and who he remains today.
In the two millennia since, followers of Jesus have gathered in local congregations to rehearse those realities together with one another—to worship with words of prayer and song, to receive the preached Word with their minds and again with their bodies as they receive the Lord’s Supper together. Every time we gather we profess with our words and our bodies that we are incarnational creatures who worship an incarnated and risen Lord.
The Christian life, in other words, can never be fully digitized.
This reality is instilling a renewed awareness of the value of incarnational living in every sphere of life and prompting some seminaries to adjust their programs accordingly—not by embracing the brave new world of digitally driven collaboration and education, but by resisting it.
Tim Tomlinson pioneered distance learning at University of Northwestern-St. Paul and for a season was the president of ACCESS, an organization dedicated to the research and advancement of Christian online education. Today, he is the president of Bethlehem College & Seminary, where pastoral training and mentorship happens exclusively on campus.
For Dr. Tomlinson, the development of the soul as well as the mind is what prepares someone for effective pastoral ministry: “There is something powerful about a hand on a shoulder, or an expression of joy or sorrow,” he says. “These interactions have deep, shaping effects on the human soul that you cannot get through a mediated means. They must be done in person and in proximity.” This philosophy is what drives Bethlehem to offer online classes only for personal benefit, not for certification or degree credit.
Hope for the Future
An incarnational model of education that mirrors what eventual life in ministry will be has particular benefit for those with the financial and circumstantial freedom to pursue it. For those who do not, meanwhile, the richness of modern online learning methods offers students increasingly multidimensional modes of learning that, when supplemented with local in-person support and mentors, still provides students with a strong foundation for their vocational goals.
Many seminaries are acknowledging this by offering a variety of “hybrid” programs that combine online courses with built-in personal mentoring. Some schools, such as Westminster Theological Seminary, offer online programs focused on particular disciplines such as counseling, with rich social media platforms for instruction and interaction supplemented by local mentorship for contextual application of coursework. Other seminaries establish distance learning campuses in affiliated churches, with resident pastors and teachers coming alongside the coursework with mentorship opportunities. Still others permit the majority of the coursework to be completed online but then mandate short-term, study-intensive in-person programs.
This hybrid approach to learning, with cycles of interpersonal interaction interspersed with cycles of digital training and videoconferencing, mimics the ones I successfully implement in my training projects with technology companies today. Some might perceive seminaries whose courses offer these models as inordinately marketplace-driven, but I believe the reverse is true: these models tacitly combine the common grace of human creativity with the tangible recognition that we are made communally in the imago Dei.
This common grace of innovation is bringing the opportunity for advanced theological training to remote populations that might otherwise never able to obtain it. Campbellsville University School of Theology’s 100 percent-online undergraduate and graduate offerings, for instance, are helping extend their reach well beyond their 80-acre campus in Kentucky into the rural areas of South Dakota and even overseas.
All aspects of Campbellsville’s program, including sermon preparation and delivery, can be completed through digital methods. Students record video of their teaching and upload it to a private website for peer review and professor critique. They also meet over the phone with other students for prayer and encouragement. For those who are financially limited or embedded in work or ministry contexts, online training enables them to receive ongoing ministerial education without uprooting their ministry work.
For students whose circumstances allow them to invest in an in-person program, the benefits of an incarnational approach to theological training are numerous. But for students who are constrained by local ministry commitment, work commitments, or finances, the digital educational revolution offers more and more ways to be immersed in the benefits of advanced theological training with other likeminded students. Regardless of the route someone decides to pursue, we can take comfort in the promise that his Word will never return void, and that is true if the lessons are learned in the classroom under the privilege of mentorship or in the blue light of a screen while a fussy newborn finally drifts off to sleep as dawn approaches.
Rachael Horner Starke is a business and sales strategy consultant who has lived and worked in Silicon Valley for over 20 years. She writes about the intersection of the Christian faith with technology, business, and gender.