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Online chapel and digitips . . .

14 March 2014

Distance learning used to be about correspondence courses. E-learning, however, is opening up new opportunities, Rachel Giles  discovers

london school of theology

Open all hours: distance learning by means of the internet is opening up access to theological education

Open all hours: distance learning by means of the internet is opening up access to theological education

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 weeks."

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 age.

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 elsewhere.

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 onlinewith tutors.

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 videos.

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 spirituality.

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 audience.

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 teaching."

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 encouraging resource.

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 provision.

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 false dichotomy?

"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 contextualise."

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."


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