NOT so long ago, studying theology by distance learning meant sending essays off in the post, and waiting for them to come back, covered in a tutor’s scrawled comments. Today, for those unable to study on site, distance learning is as interactive as students want to make it, transformed and revitalised by the internet.
The challenge now for theological colleges that offer the option of distance learning — which can be online, or blended (a combination of remote learning and residential periods) — is to try to make students feel a part of the student community as possible, regardless of how far away they live.
At Nazarene Theological College, in Manchester, for example, that means that students can join classes by video conferencing in real time from wherever they are in the world. St John’s College, Nottingham, also uses Skype and live streaming to connect students to lectures and to tutors; and Spurgeons College, in South Norwood, near Croydon, is setting up a new virtual-learning environment to encourage more interaction and support for students. Redcliffe College, in Gloucester, has an MA café online, where a lecturer picks a relevant subject and holds a video conference on it.
The director of online learning at Spurgeons, Dr Debra Reid, says: “We want the new site to better enable a community to develop among students. We help students partner up with a study partner if they want one, but we do find that online students are very independent. They often have very different personal circumstances.”
At Redcliffe College, the Facebook community for courses is lively and supportive. One of the students, Stephen Richards, from the United States, says that he has ended up talking to more people online, in different courses, than he does when he attends the residential sections of the course — although nothing beats meeting up face to face, he admits.
The reasons that students choose distance learning are as varied as the students themselves. Often, it is because of work or family commitments, or because they live in a remote location, or they may have disabilities that make it difficult to attend college full-time. Colleges have students who are in prison, in hospital, or studying while working on a submarine. Some students are taking courses to deepen their theological understanding for personal fulfilment; others as part of their work development, as well as those studying a BA or postgraduate degrees.
Joanna Miller, from Mattersey Hall, in Doncaster, gives the example of one student: a woman with a disabled child who lives locally, but cannot commit to studying on-site because of the needs of her child. “She needs flexibility, but she actually comes in for most of her lectures in college anyway, even though she’s on the distant-learning track.
“But if she was fully residential, she’d be expected to attend chapel, mission trips, etc., and that would not be practical for her. This way, there is no pressure on her, but she comes in as often as she can, and is very much part of the student community.”
WHILE distance learning was traditionally the cheapest option — and that is still true in some colleges, such as Spurgeons — in others, the investment in technology to support distance learners, and the amount of one-on-one support offered with tutors, means that fees are nearly the same, or the same, as those for residential courses.
The programme leader for the BA in Theology at the London School of Theology (LST), Dr Matt Knell, says: “The cost savings for distance learning are less as distance learning is developed. There are more demands on tutors, they have to be able to respond at any time, and the demands are more spread out. You need different, extra skills to tutor online.”
The academic dean at Nazarene, Dr Peter Rae, agrees. “Distance learning makes more demands on the tutor. Fees are the same, as the contact hours offered for students are the same. We don’t see distance learning as any different from full-time or part-time students.”
All colleges offer an individual tutor if you are a distance learner, and access to that tutor via email, Skype, or phone calls, as well as designated contact time.
Fees vary, depending on the course. “Internal” courses — those not validated by a university — can be a few hundred pounds; graduate certificates are about £1800, up to £6000-7000 per year for a BA, about £5000 in total for an MA, and between £2000 and £6000 a year for Ph.Ds.
COURSES validated by a university, such as a BA or MA or Ph.D., are just as rigorous for distance learners as for those on site, and have the same expectations. In some colleges, the distance learners follow the course, stage by stage, with on-site learners, deadline for deadline.
Mattersey Hall interviews all prospective applicants to ensure that they understand the demands of the course. “You can’t take courses slower just because its distance learning. We interview all students to make sure they are up for it, and, if they are young, the need to have A-level qualifications. With mature students, we set them an essay to find out if they are up for the study. It is intensive,” Ms Miller says. Thirty-five to 40 hours of study a week are generally recommended for full-time students, and 18-20 hours a week for part-time.
St John’s, Nottingham, an Anglican college with a long history in distance learning, offers courses validated by Durham University, as well as courses of their own.
The Principal, the Revd Dr David Hilborn, says: “We offer internal awards in a whole range of theological subjects, and students can study at their own pace, module by module. It is more leisurely, though they have to complete one module a year. These are for people who want to deepen their theological understanding without studying for a degree.”
Their graduate certificate in theology, mission, and ministry is more structured, and can be studied over 15 months, or two years. It is used by the Church of Ireland as part of its discernment process, and there are some suggestions that the Church of England may follow suit.
In terms of time commitment, LST advises that a full-time one-year course comprises 120 credits (made up of 12 modules at ten credits per module), and that each module demands 100 hours study, therefore requiring 1200 hours of study per annum (30 hours a week on a 40-week year). For a part-time course, that works out as 600 hours per annum, which makes it two years for a certificate, four years for a diploma, and six years for a degree.
COMBINING distance learning with some learning on site is becoming increasingly popular. From last autumn, the LST’s BA in Theology can be studied completely online, in residence, or in a combination of the two. However a student studies, the course has exactly the same structure, time scale, and calendar, and students can choose how they combine the different deliveries.
Dr Knell, a former distance-learning student himself, says that education has had to adapt to reflect the workplace. “As the workplace has become more flexible, education has become more flexible, too. We are doing more and more for distance learners, but the best way to study theology is in a community, where you can wrestle out ideas together.
“We have a forum for students to bounce ideas off each other: this appeals to the Facebook generation, who will dip in and out of discussion. We [also] offer blended learning, where people find a day a week to study on site.”
Redcliffe, which offers postgraduate MAs and short courses, is designated a non-residential college — although it does have students studying onsite for periods up to six months a year. Its philosophy is: “Your residence is your mission field,” the communications director, James Clarke, says.
“We offer blended courses, where students can study on site for a short period: usually three weeks a year, or four long weekends. We believe your work complements your study, and your study helps you be more effective in your working life. Your context is king.”
At Nazarene, which also offers blended learning, there is a dwindling division between full-time, part-time, and blended modes of study, Dr Rae says.
Its courses are validated by Manchester University. Although about ten per cent of its undergraduates are studying off site, most of its distance learners are studying for postgraduate courses, although all these also have a residential component.
“More courses are going online, but it is a challenge to do spiritual formation online,” Dr Rae says. “But the change to blended learning is driven by consumers: everyone is trying to do more in less time. Whereas our distance learners on the MA course used to come in for two weeks twice a year, now it is just one week. We are trying to balance good pedagogy with the genuine demands of students.
“Ph.D. students are required to be present for a residential, which contributes to our success in nurturing them towards completion. There is usually quite a high fall out rate in Ph.D.s, but our three-week residential helps prevent that.”
Teaching hubs are another way of bringing together students who are studying remotely, if there are a cluster of students in one region, or country.
Nazarene is exploring delivering teaching off-site in hubs, as is Redcliffe College. “We have a lot of overseas students at the moment as the pound is very favourable to them,” Mr Clarke says. “We set up a hub in Sydney, Australia, and flew some of our lecturers out, and used local experts to teach a course there. For students in Oceania, getting to the UK was too far, but a flight to Sydney was much more feasible.”
All colleges report that the demand and interest in distance-learning options is growing. Dr Hilborn, of St John’s, believes that the pace of change will continue. “The internet has transformed distance learning. It may not be a replacement for face-to-face training, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Church of England explored ordination through blended learning very soon.”
Alison Rodger is an academic who has recently relocated back to Australia. While she was working as Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at Warwick University, she undertook a BA in theology as a distance learner with St John’s, Nottingham
AS AN academic in science, I was challenged by the fact that my theology was basic. I felt that it was more important than my profession [and that I] needed proper training.
By doing extension studies, I could work on my degree for half an hour per day for a very long time. St John’s was particularly flexible when I started; so I took ten years to finish. For me, that worked well.
The work routine was completely under my control, and I could do it as and when I wanted: in my case, small lots each day — which is usually not recommended, but it worked for me. The tutors were, in general, responsive by email. The St John’s admin staff were lovely, and tried to be helpful.
I enjoyed the course enormously, but I did miss being able to use a theological library to help with my studies, making up for it by buying my own books, or using Google books until the free pages ran out.
Apart from my desire to understand the Bible better, I have benefited from being challenged to think differently: I chose essays and a dissertation topic I knew I’d find difficult. I have benefited from being able to tell my Arts and Humanities colleagues that I have a degree in one of their disciplines, when it comes to developing postgraduate training. Overall, I believe I understand the breadth of academia better, as well as knowing God better.
I have no idea what God plans, but my current expectation is to be a Christian in academia playing a people-valuing leadership role. I see myself as an all-rounder who can fill pretty much any role that has a task. I am not very good at sitting still, and a degree led me to little reformation in that area.
Matt Knell knew that he wanted to study theology after a degree in history at Oxford University, but he was set to go overseas for two years as a missionary. Instead, he enrolled on a BA in Theology as a distance learner with the London School of Theology, where he now works
I WAS working in Belarus, setting up a Christian movement underground. Studying theology [as a distance-learning student] in that pressurised environment gave me a release, an escape from the situation I was in.
And it meant that, when I left Belarus, I didn’t have to begin again somewhere else. It saved me a lot of time. I then went to Austria, and worked in a Christian conference centre. I found somewhere that I could study in a community hub with others, where tutors came to us, and I studied for a postgraduate certificate in Christian Studies.
I had an Oxford degree, and was used to studying by myself; so distance learning worked for me. Distance learning now is far from the paper-based model that existed years ago. I am now on the faculty at LST, and part of my work is developing online courses. I managed without pastoral support, but I know how important that is, and I work here to ensure that distance learning students get what I didn’t.
Stephen Richards is studying for an MA in Contemporary Missiology at Redcliffe College — where he studied for a diploma some 23 years ago. Now based in the United States, he is studying remotely, but plans to attend summer schools
I STARTED the MA in 2004, but then got married, and moved to the United States. I put everything on hold for 11 years, largely because I was a stay-at-home dad. But, now that my kids are older, I felt the time was right to return to my studies.
The break has been good, as I am in a much better place spiritually and intellectually to appreciate all the college has to offer, and also to maximise what I am gaining from the course.
I quit my full-time job early last year, partly because of a desire to return to my MA studies, and worked part-time for the rest of the year. Then, at the end of December 2016, I quit my part-time job so that I could focus on my studies, and spend time thinking and praying about where this is all leading me.
I committed myself to a week of prayer at the start of February, where I specifically asked God for wisdom and guidance on this matter. It’s amazing how things began to clarify in my thinking as I did that. My hope is that soon I will have a good idea of where God can use me in the light of my studies. Already I sense God’s leading. It’s amazing how, when you lay your life open to God, a path is revealed.
I connect with people regularly through our college Facebook group, and I know that, if I need to reach out, people are there. My tutor is always available and very quick to reply, which I appreciate. In fact, if anything, I find that I talk to more people across the different courses online than I did when at the college last year.
I am looking forward to the summer school in a few months’ time. The online community is supportive, [but] you can’t beat tea and biscuits — and fish and chips — with real people.”