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All Online Theology Degrees are not the Same

Prior to the early 1990’s Schools of Religion and Seminaries efforts to deliver educational experiences off campus consisted of extension centers and correspondence classes. For those that do not remember the 1990’s if a person was enrolled in a correspondence class they would receive an envelope in the mail that included the class syllabus and notes. For some this information came in a box that included the textbooks. A student would work on one’s own and mail completed assignments back to the professor. The professor would grade the assignment and mail it back to the student. For some students it could take several weeks (or more) before they received their graded assignment. The courses were designed to provide on campus, extension centers, and correspondence students with the same knowledge.

Residential Campus and Online Degrees

With advancements in technology, platforms began to appear in the market place that provided a delivery system for online education. The early adopters, and for the most part later adopters, of online education focused on how to provide the same education (knowledge) online that was being provided on campus, at extension centers, and through correspondence courses. The driving force to deliver the same curriculum experience was the accrediting agencies. Most schools that ventured into online education found themselves needing to prove to the accrediting agencies that online education was of equal quality to a residential degree program. Care was taken to use the same texts, notes, syllabus, and assignments to avoid questioning from the accrediting agency regarding learner outcomes. The easiest path to take was show the courses and degrees are the same regardless of the delivery system. The goal was to prove students know the same things regardless of where they took the course.

Online Campus and Degrees

During my years of teaching at a residential seminary very seldom did I hear from churches that our students didn’t have enough knowledge of the Bible, church history, theology, or ministry areas. The feedback normally would include insights similar to they don’t know how to relate to others, they do not handle conflict well, they can’t build a volunteer team, or they are weak in organization and administration. Our degrees included courses that covered the “how to” of all of these and more. What was missing seemed to be the application of what was learned.

At least one online seminary has been strategic in developing degrees that include application of course content with supervision. A degree that is application focused and requires a mentor provides an enhanced educational experience for ministry. It is not a degree that says knowledge is not important rather it goes beyond just knowing. It is the type of degree that provides on the job training for the student. The degree helps the student determine if they are doing the right things the right way.

Being application focused means the student needs to be involved in ministry. I noticed during my time of teaching on campus that students that were involved in ministry, as opposed to those sitting in the pews, took seminary more seriously and valued what they were learning because they could make application in their current ministry. The classes in these application degrees have an assignment or project that requires the student to apply what they have learned so the professor can provide feedback for improvement.

Having the requirement that each student is to select a qualified mentor for each class strengthens the degree programs allowing the student to have a coach that has been through what the student is experiencing. The mentor can add value to the learning experience as they share from the lessons they have learned through years of service and ministry.

If you would like to know more about an application focused degree we would like to talk to you. To set up an appointment with an academic coach, call 866-931-4300 or email academics@rockbridge.edu.

About the Writer: Dr. Gary Waller has served as Dean of Distance Learning at a large denominational seminary, Vice President of an online seminary, served on staff of several churches in Texas providing leadership in the areas of staff supervision, financial and church administration, strategic planning, and lay mobilization. He current serves as an Administrative Pastor, administrative specialist to a large denominational state convention, and professor at Rockbridge Seminary, a fully online accredited seminary.