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Laypeople tap the Internet for Southwestern courses

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–A pastor in Singapore is receiving an education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary without ever leaving his country.
He is joined by a man in New York, a woman in Tennessee, another man in Montana and six other students across the United States, all connected by a desire to further their education and the Fort Worth, Texas, seminary’s Lay Theological Studies venture on the information superhighway.
It’s education by e-mail, Southwestern-style. For these students in “Philosophy of Religion” and others in a course on Luke, it’s an opportunity to receive valuable training without leaving their current ministry positions.
The e-mail courses are the brainchild of Bill Vinson, Southwestern’s director of Lay Theological Studies. In just their first semester, the courses appear to be filling a need Vinson saw when he first became LTS director.
“It’s unreasonable to expect laypeople to uproot their family and come here,” he said. “Our true place is to get the education to them.”
With that guiding principle, Vinson’s original idea, in December 1996, was to work with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Radio and Television Commission to get Southwestern’s compressed video courses distributed through the Internet. When the SBC “Covenant for a New Century” restructuring, that idea became a “distant goal” for Vinson.
He heard about a course on a book of the Bible that had been distributed via e-mail by the West Virginia Baptist Convention. Working with a consortium of Southwestern, West Virginia Baptists and the new North American Mission Board’s media technology group, Vinson modified his idea and enlisted the help of the seminary’s Information Services. From this combined effort, the e-mail courses were born.
Vinson also credits one other group students in his Monday night “Philosophy of Religion” on-campus class with making his course’s inaugural semester a success. “The Monday night ‘live’ class has adopted the Tuesday night ‘virtual’ class,” he said. “Jackie Sanders volunteered to transcribe her notes almost verbatim, and Scott Loftin provides notes in an outline form. Combined with my information, the students online get information from three perspectives.”
Vinson, with the pride a teacher has when his students do well, boasts that the lowest grade among the e-mail students on the first test was a B.
Students are limited to posing one question per week, but Vinson’s answers are distributed to all the students in class.
There are really only two major differences between his live class and virtual class, Vinson said.
“We lose communication (in the virtual class) through inflection of voice or body language, which can say multitudes between words,” Vinson said. “Some students (online) also blurt out questions via e-mail but don’t say who they are.”
Off-line, there are a lot of questions still to be answered about the e-mail courses, including the future of the endeavor. Vinson, with the help of his volunteers, conducts the course without any additional funding. The courses can only be applied to a diploma of theology or a certificate in Christian studies, and it has yet to be decided if the courses count as Seminary Extension courses or in-class courses. In addition, Vinson would like to see master’s-level courses offered someday.
In the spring semester, Vinson will teach “New Testament Theology” via e-mail. His goal is to have 20 students — a full class in cyberspace.
Three other courses might be offered in the spring: “Biblical Backgrounds,” “Dynamics of Teaching” and “Survey of Baptist Missions.”
“We want students, faculty and staff to spread the word that people who cannot come to the campus can still receive an undergraduate education from the seminary via e-mail,” Vinson said.
More information about these courses is available on the Southwestern Seminary Internet web page (www.swbts.edu). Information can also be obtained by sending e-mail to Southwestern’s Lay Theological Studies office at [email protected] or by calling (817) 923-1921, ext. 2470.

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  • Matt Sanders