TRAINING for ministry by distance learning is nothing new, the
director of e-learning at the London School of Theology, Dr Marvin
Oxenham, says. "The New Testament is basically distance education,
isn't it? It's letters.
"In our age, Paul may have put them on a blog, or written emails
to Corinth. In some of the churches in Thessalonians, where he
tells them, 'Imitate me', he may have only been there two or three
As a concept, distance learning may not be new, but Bible and
theological colleges in the UK now have to handle it in a digital
One website lists the following colleges as having a
distance-learning option: International Christian College;
Redcliffe; Spurgeon's; King's Evangelical Divinity School; LST; St
John's College, Nottingham; All Nations; Springdale; Spurgeon's;
and Belfast Bible College. It is also offered at Mattersey Hall;
Trinity College, Bristol; Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and
But distance learning does not always mean e-learning. Some
institutions still operate a correspondence-course model, posting
out booklets or DVDs to students; others have made the transition
to using a virtual learning environment (VLE): online learning
sites through which students can,among other things, submit
assignments, download files, discuss topics in forums, or chat
AT ST JOHN'S COLLEGE, Nottingham, distance learning has been part
of the college ethos since it was founded as St John's Hall,
Kilburn, in 1863. Its first cohort of students included some which
were non-residential. Today, St John's has 180 off-campus students
studying university validated programmes at certificate level,
foundation-degree and BA level, and 5-600 on non-validated
self-accredited programmes. Some students study fully online;
others opt for materials by post.
St John's VLE provides online access to teaching materials,
module workbooks, and pre-reading. Forums add interactivity, and
students are also able to chat to tutors in real time. But a
lecturer in theology and philosophy, the Revd Dr Tim Hull, has also
developed an interactive "Timeline Project" which is accessible
through the college's website.
Dr Hull found that studentsoften struggled to understand how
periods such as the Reformation or the Enlightenment fitted
together chronologically. In the past, he used to bring paper
timelines into classas a visual aid; the digital timeline solves
the problem more comprehensively. Students can scroll the timeline
with a mouse or an iPad, click on key dates, and view related
There are three timelines currently: one on "Faith and
Modernity", looking at the development of Western and Christian
thought from 1600 to the present day; another on the New Testament,
supported by the Bible Society; and one dealing with the chronology
of the Old Testament.
In Faith and Modernity's 1920-30 section, for example, videos
include philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Heidegger, as well as
theologians including Barth and Bultmann - putting church history
into its historical, cultural, and philosophical context.
Currently, there are about 60 to 70 videos online, and more are
being added all the time. An invaluable resource for students, it
has also provided a new revenue stream for the college: free
tasters are available on YouTube, but full access costs £15 per
year per timeline, or £75 for an educational institution. This has
generated a £15,000 income in the last three years.
The Revd Jenny Bate, an assistant curate in a semi-rural parish
in Cumbria, is enrolled in a distance-learning course at St John's.
She has found Timeline videos from experts such as Bishop Tom
Wright to be highly stimulating. "It's like having them in the room
with you," she says. As a distance learner, she appreciates the
access to scholars that she is "not going to get the chance to hear
usually . . . being up in Cumbria".
SPURGEON'S COLLEGE distance-learning programme has also evolved
from print to online. In 2008, it launched a separate
online-learning website that offered options to study single-unit
courses, or build course-units towards a certificate, diploma, or
degree validated by the University of Manchester. There are also
non-accredited courses, such as the Church Training Initiative,
with modules that include prison ministry and children's
Currently, there are about 500 registered online students from a
diversity of backgrounds, includ-ing lay ministers and school RE
teachers;prisoners have also used the online courses.
"Our oldest student is in his 90s, and our youngest is a
disabled man in his late teens," the director of online learning,
Dr Debra Reid, says. The college has also been experimenting with
streaming college events live over the internet to a worldwide
Dr Laurence Naismith, a consultant forensic psychiatrist basedin
North Yorkshire, enrolled on an online BA in Theology with
Spurgeon's shortly before retirement. For Dr Naismith, the
flexibility of studying while working was a draw, but Spurgeon's
range of distance-learning courses also suited Dr Naismith's
preferred learning style.
"Even if there had been a college locally," he says, "I think I
would have probably chosen to do it by distance learning. I'm a
pretty independent sort of guy."
THE London School of Theology (LST) has run an online MA in
Theological Education since 2012. It provides professional
development for lecturers and teachers working in Bible collegesin
South America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Australia. Its 25 students
would otherwise never beable to afford to study residentially in
the UK: almost 70 per cent are currently on full scholarships. On
weekends, they blog together on topics they have covered in the
week. "We get up to 60 to 70 comments on the blog," Dr Oxenham
says. "Someone's in Malawi, someone else is in Argentina, someone's
in Hungary, and they're discussing how they can shape their
curriculum, or how they can adopt learning styles or their
Mária Gusztinné-Tulipán, who leads a European Nazarene College
learning-centre in Budapest, has found the lack of face-to-face
contact a challenge. A week at LST last year was "a great plus",
but "when you are there, your heart aches, because it's wonderful
to stay there; use the library. The shaping presence of the
teachers was really very meaningful." Nevertheless,she has found
the "online chapel", where she could post prayer requests, an
In September, the LST will launch its first online course open
to general students: a new MA in Integrated Theology, supported by
a new, customised VLE, which will be fully functional for desktop,
tablet, and smartphone.
The MA will integrate theology with specific strands such as
public leadership and social justice. Online resources will include
PDFs, video talks, and audio recordings, and the VLE will enable
students to create good-quality databases of online material.
Participation will be key, with students learning together via
wikis (collaborative web applications), forums, and chats.
KING's Evangelical Divinity School (KEDS) is an online college. It
has no physical campus, but it does organise occasional meetings
and conferences. Formerly Midlands Bible College, it was
established in 1990, and has been gradually building online
Most of KEDS's 300 students are on Chester University-accredited
courses, and numbers are growing. The current student breakdown is
roughly 30 per cent overseas/70 per cent UK, but the Principal, Dr
Calvin Smith, who is also a tutor in theology, estimates that it
will be nearer 55 per cent UK/45 per cent overseas within the next
couple of years.
Distance learning offers good value, Dr Smith says. "It costs
students less; it costs us less to deliver. People are taking huge
loans to go into ministry - some of them will never have a hope of
paying that off." KEDS's BA fees are, on average, a third of the
full-time equivalent for a UK university, he says.
David Williams has completed a Chester University-accredited
online BA and MA in Theology at KEDS. Because he works, and has a
young family, he would never have been able to study at a
residential college. Self-management was essential in staying the
course: "It's perfectly feasible to do it online, providing you're
disciplined, stick to task, you're patient with yourself, and
you're prepared to speed up and slow down.
"You will always lose that little bit of camaraderie, but it's
perfectly possible to come out at the end with a good degree."
Mr Williams regularly leads Bible studies at his Anglican
church. "Without the training, I wouldn'tbe doing what I'm doing.
It's been brilliant and life-changing."
ONLINE learning may well have an impact on ordination training,
too. From September 2014, institutions training ordinands in the
Church of England will be doing so through a common suite of
qualifications, known as the Common Awards,all of which will be
validated by Durham University.
As part of this, a customisable VLE has been developed, and will
be made available to all Theological Education Institutions (TEIs)
next month, allowing time for testing and feedback before the
launch in September.
Besides offering online-discussion forums, webinars, video
conferencing, and other features, it will provide access to more
than "200 modules across four academic levels, from which TEIs can
choose to construct their own pathways of training", a Ministry
Division spokesperson says.
A shared VLE will also make it "possible for all TEIs to offer
distance learning and blended learning [residential and home-based
study] to those who would otherwise be excluded by geographical
location or personal circumstances."
INVESTMENT is essential to developing the ongoing possibilities
that e-learning can offer theological education. At St John's, the
Principal, the Revd Dr David Hilborn, says that the college has"a
business-plan commitment to investing £60,000 over the next two to
three years", to improve its online platform, and to make more
as-pects of its distance learning interactive.
Dr Reid, at Spurgeon's, would like to offer more webinars,
butsays that the cost of programmes can be an issue: "The best are
very expensive". Spurgeon's has recently secured a Higher Education
Academy grant, which has allowed the college to appoint two
"digitalent" students, who are to suggest how technology can be
used and maximised in the college, sharing ideas and "digitips" for
e-learning with their fellow students and staff.
Other than the cost of moving courses online, some colleges may
find that the development of digital distance-learning capability
is hampered by the fact that they have no IT department, and that
teaching staff may know less about e-learning than students.
Putting the cost aside, can distance learning ever be as
effective as residential learning? Dr Oxenham believes that
comparing one with the other "is like comparing apples with
oranges", because each mode has its own unique qualities.
"I can have a warmer relationship with someone in a forum or
social network, and be totally cold and disenchanted in my church,
whereI don't know anyone or talk to anyone. Is it the fact that
face-to-face is warm, and distance education is cold? Is that a
"Do we need to find 'the best way' of delivering theological
education, or are there a variety of ways that are fit for
different purposes? The latter is probably the correct answer.
Cultural, social, and relational contexts are changing. As
theological educators, we need to have the courage and wisdom to
The future possibilities for theological and ministerial
training, using emerging technologies, are fascinating. Could
students learn how to plant a church, or even plan a funeral,
through online collaborative simulations?
"If that happens, we're going to have to sit back and think
theologically," Dr Oxenham says. "Just because it's new it doesn't
mean it's better. It could also be something we need to stand back
from, and say 'No, and here are the reasons why not.'
"We need to actually engagewith these educational trends as
theologians, and that's the real challenge."