Online Education is Convenient, but Will It Destroy the Seminary Experience?

Here at Fuller Northwest, we’re grieving. Just last year the decision was made to close some of Fuller Theological Seminary’s regional campuses, including ours. While we still have another year before the doors officially shut, this decision has led to many questions about the future, as well as reflections on our past.

Fuller Northwest has been around since 1973. That’s a long time! In fact, the Northwest campus was the very first, pioneering Fuller’s regional campus concept.

While at first many were skeptical of the idea, the Seattle-based campus has now graduated over 600 students and become a hub for theological and spiritual development throughout Cascadia. Graduates of Fuller Northwest now pastor churches across the region, while others serve as professors, chaplains, and business leaders in our Cascadian community.

It’s hard to accept that after the summer of 2019, our campus will be gone.

One reason for the closure is that many students are choosing to take the majority of their classes online, making the physical campus space superfluous.

Let’s face it—it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to attend class in your pajamas.

Still, many are struggling with the shift to online seminary education. Students and faculty, alike, wonder if it’s possible to recreate the same sense of community online that has become a hallmark of Fuller classes. This raises the question, will online education negatively impact the spiritual formation of our seminary students?

The move online is particularly worrisome in Cascadia because we Cascadians already have a reputation for being loners, cut off from community. Our overly individualistic culture extends to the realm of faith, making church community and other forms of spiritual solidarity challenging.

To explore this topic, I conversed with Dr. Richard Erickson of Fuller Northwest and Dr. Javier Garcia of George Fox University. Both scholars have thoughtful, informed, yet contrary perspectives on the move to online seminary education.

Seeing the Good in Online Education

Dr. Richard Erickson, who taught at Fuller Northwest for more than thirty years, loves the virtual classroom.

Rich began teaching online in 2003 and literally wrote the book on it for Fuller. His 20-page how-to manual, developed from his experiences in the online classroom, became the basis for a Fuller-wide faculty-training program.

Rich describes the online format as an equalizer.

“In a physical classroom there’s always someone sitting in the back and not contributing; and there’s always someone sitting in the front, monopolizing,” he says.

“In a physical classroom there’s always someone sitting in the back and not contributing; and there’s always someone sitting in the front, monopolizing.”

Online, every student must participate in discussions via forums, video recordings, and other media. The silent students find their voice, while the more talkative ones learn to listen.

Rich has seen students learn more from one another through online group discussions than they would in the lecture-based classrooom setting. In fact, teaching online helped him to structure his in-person classes more effectively. While Rich used to adhere to a traditional lecture-based teaching style, the high engagement level of his online discussion-based classes encouraged him to try the same method in the physical classroom, too. It was, for him, a huge success.

Of course, running an effective online course takes work—more work than in-person classes, Rich believes. There’s a large onus on the professor to put in the time necessary to develop a healthy community in the virtual classroom. Professors must constantly be participating in discussions and answering student questions. After all, if not even the professor is engaged, what encouragement is that for the students?

When creating forum posts, Rich has found that broader topics allow students to take the question in a direction that interests them. Such open-ended questions also lead to more diverse and provocative posts. They reinforce the educational goal of fostering in students (and professors) the habit of asking their own questions, of probing and exploring.

The best conversations are facilitated by clear and strict guidelines. Rich enforces word counts that are manageable, but still provide enough space for deep thought. He also requires all posts to make substantive contributions to the discussion. This can mean asking another student a new question about the topic, adding to their argument, or questioning their results—with grace, of course.

Rich strongly believes that the online format can provide good theological education, but the question remains whether an inherently disembodied classroom can facilitate the development of actual, lasting relationships—relationships that enable spiritual formation.

Questioning Online Education

This greatly concerns Dr. Javier Garcia with whom I also spoke. When Javier moved to Cascadia to teach at George Fox University, he was shocked by the individualism permeating Cascadian culture.

The majority of his students come to George Fox believing that they don’t need a church community—that their faith is just between Jesus and them. Javier worries that this tendency will only increase as online theological education grows in prominence. Javier’s research on Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes him a large proponent of communal spiritual development. In dialogue with Bonhoeffer’s work, Javier hears a clear call to embodied spiritual community.

What Does Bonhoeffer Have to Say About Online Education?

Bonhoeffer formed his own seminary when the German church became poisoned by Nazi propaganda. In fact, it was the strength of this community that enabled Bonhoeffer and others to withstand Nazi influence.

“The embodied presence of other Christians is a grace,” says Javier, who believes there is something crucially important about the development of Christian relationships that can support and sustain us when times get tough.

“The embodied presence of other Christians is a grace,” says Javier, who believes there is something crucially important about the development of Christian relationships that can support and sustain us when times get tough.

Bonhoeffer’s theologians had one another to fall back on. They had the memories of that intense time together at Finkenwalde to keep them on the right path, even when that path became obscured by war, imprisonment, and the suffocating force of Nazism.

Though this support was not always face-to-face, also taking the form of letters and prayers, physical presence was imperative for the development of their relationships. It gave weight to those prayers and words of encouragement.

Three Potential Problems

Applying this lesson to today, Javier wonders if removing students from the classroom removes them from the community Cascadians desperately need.

Javier argues that community must be social, and that so much of this is lost online. Students are not sitting beside one another, taking time for small talk before and after class. Opportunities for fellowship are severely limited. While students can still exchange thoughts and arguments online, deep relational development is much harder to achieve via forum post—or any disembodied form of communication.

Javier also foresees another big problem. He says that for many students, professors now serve a pastoral role. He argues that educational institutions have taken the place of the church in some ways, particularly in Cascadia where many churches are missing the mark on communal development. Javier sees churches that have become more concerned with growth numbers and performance than the establishment of relationships. Particularly in churches that measure success by the number of people packed within their walls, it is difficult for those congregants to have direct access to pastors. They struggle to find spiritual mentors—or don’t even realize they need them.

Placing distance between students and professors makes it difficult for students to develop trust, and for professors to know how to best counsel any student who may still come to them for guidance.

Finally, the physical classroom experience is important for seminary education because pastors need to be trained to interact with people face to face. Ministry is still—for the time being—largely physical, not virtual.

Javier believes that theological education should be about “formation, not information,” which makes the online format a tough sell. Students may very well be able to download reading material, respond to discussions, and write papers online—but what about the exploration of contextual ministry?

“Christ is formed in us communally,” Javier notes. “Can that happen digitally?”

While Javier agrees that online education can be a tool, he foresees theological challenges if online education becomes our default.

If we rely too heavily on a disembodied platform for theological education, he asks, “What kind of picture of the church does that actually communicate? How does this form of education affect our exegesis?”

We need to wrestle with these questions.

Javier views Bonhoeffer’s seminary at Finkenwalde as the benchmark for theological education in community. In his words, seminary should “create a network of people who know, love, and bless each other.” This intense communal experience provides a firm foundation that can ground pastors and others serving in ministry positions when life becomes difficult.

The Importance of Community

Without going back on his belief in the potential of online education, Rich admits, “The benefits of in-person classes can be greater.”

However, he’s quick to qualify this, saying, “but only if the ability to develop those relationships is actually taken advantage of. Community has to be fostered if it’s going to be inclusive. And fostering fails to happen, both locally and online.”

“Community has to be fostered if it’s going to be inclusive. And fostering fails to happen, both locally and online.”

This is all too true. Even in seminaries that claim to emphasize relationship and communal spiritual development, students may still find themselves ostracized or ignored. Students can slip in and out of class without developing one meaningful connection, if they choose to do so—and sometimes even if they don’t.

So, Where Does This Leave Us?

Though they expressed different views, I came away from both of my conversations with Javier and Rich holding the same conviction: Christian community matters. We need each other to grow more fully into the people God wishes us to be.

Perhaps the skepticism surrounding online seminary education has its roots in the same fear of change that plagued the regional campus concept—or perhaps not. Only time will tell. And since online education isn’t going away, that time is fast approaching.

The challenge of the day is finding ways to make communal spiritual development a priority, both in the physical and virtual classrooms. If that communal development remains our focus, then there is hope for the future of seminary education.