Editor’s note: October is Cooperative Program Emphasis Month in the Southern Baptist Convention.
ONTARIO, Calif. (BP) — You likely wouldn’t call Kristen Ferguson a “techie.”
Though she directs Gateway Seminary’s innovative online programs in Southern California and completed her doctoral research on faculty perceptions of online education by evangelical faculty, Ferguson will be the first to admit she isn’t “super excited” about technology.
Instead, what fires her up is the impact of online theological education on the work of God in the world.
“The reason I love online education is the mission of God,” said Ferguson, director of online education at Gateway Seminary in Ontario, Calif. “There are people in this country and around the globe who would not be learning Systematic Theology, exegesis skills, church history and so much more if it were not for the online courses through our SBC seminaries. These students are already deeply rooted in their ministry context, making relationships with non-believers, strengthening their churches and teaching the Bible. When they take online seminary courses, we get to play a small part in the work of God in those various locations by shaping those leaders to be even more effective and faithful in expanding God’s kingdom. It’s such an honor to be part of it.”
Southern Baptist seminaries have offered online seminary education for more than a quarter of a century, stretching back to when most Americans’ online engagement began with the screeching of dial-up modems and three unforgettable words – “You’ve got mail.” For example, Gateway (then called Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary) began its online educational offerings in 1995.
Jamie Dew, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, notes that online seminary education was already in the middle of a 10- to 15-year growth trend when COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020. The pandemic accelerated that growth.
“The rate of increase during the COVID period has not continued,” Dew said. “But it certainly did tip the scales more in the direction of online education, for everyone, not just those of us in the SBC.”
Dew estimates that at least 40 percent of seminary hours taken throughout Southern Baptist Convention seminaries are for online classes.
Why online seminary options matter
Online programs allow Southern Baptists to provide seminary education for students who would not be able to attend in person at one of its six Cooperative Program funded seminaries and their campuses.
“I think it’s important today, one, because there’s way more people that need training than can move. So, this allows us to provide it,” Dew said. “It’s also important because it gives us the ability to develop pedagogically in ways that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. And so, anytime you get a new approach or new technology that opens doors for us. It allows you to be innovative with your technology. I think that’s important.”
Paul Akin, provost of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., recognizes several advantages of online seminary education, including the ability for prospective ministry leaders to stay in their ministry context. That means, he adds, online education opens opportunities to train leaders globally. For example, more than 800 SBTS students are currently studying in Spanish. Akin estimates that 80 to 90 percent of those students are based in Latin or South American contexts. SBTS also has students in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
More than 100 current International Mission Board missionaries are also studying online through SBTS.
Akin describes online education as a way for SBC seminaries to serve the changing needs of Southern Baptists.
“Our mandate is essentially to train, educate, and prepare ministers of the Gospel, so God-called men and women who come out of Southern Baptist churches who want to be prepared for a life of ministry, either vocational ministry or lay ministry,” Akin said. “We exist to help train, equip and to serve them. Whether it’s on campus or online, we see ourselves as a servant of the churches, making sure we’re training and preparing ministers for the Southern Baptist Convention.”
How online education is done
Online theological education has changed greatly over the past couple of decades. Dew describes the most prominent change as coming in the timing of content delivery. Originally, almost all educational content came in an asynchronous format, which means the teacher records it at a different time than when it is delivered to the student. But 15 to 20 years of practice with online theological education has led to new innovations in teaching methods that SBC seminaries now employ.
“We’ve really worked hard on trying to figure out what are the best possible ways to educate in this format,” Drew said. “The faculty has now gotten 15 to 20 years under their belts, thinking strategically about the way they go about educating in this format. That’s been very good. What that means is online is now this very broad set of tools. It’s no longer just one static thing that we all do.”
For example, Dew says, NOBTS has traditional online classes, some of which record direct to the students. Others are “fly on the wall” classes, where they’ve just recorded the lecture. While most are still asynchronous, they are more synchronous than in the past.
Seminary education, particularly within Southern Baptist contexts, emphasizes practical ministerial skills such as preaching, counseling, and leadership – all skills that require training both inside and outside the classroom. Online instruction in SBC seminaries doesn’t dismiss these needs. For example, in the last year and a half, Akin says, SBTS has brought their preaching and counseling practicums fully online.
“We essentially get students to record a counseling session, and then they’re able to upload those counseling sessions,” Akin said. “We’re able to provide critique, feedback and encouragement. It’s different, but we’re able to still work towards the same outcomes, because the professors are still able to see these students in the action of counseling or in the action of preaching. Because of the technology, we’re able to provide very clear feedback, direction on things. They can improve upon things they did well, and address things they need to work on.”
Ferguson notes that online education of all kinds introduces “transactional distance” into the learning experience. That means the professor and student are physically separated from one another, which can cause misinterpretation.
“Unlike some for-profit online courses or online courses that are unaccredited, our online courses must have a professor active, communicating, offering explanations on topics and content, and engaged in their students’ learning,” Ferguson said. “They must have a terminal degree in the field of study and are treated as subject matter experts. Gateway Online professors have a responsibility regarding the content of the course and the students in the course.”
Gateway students, she says, watch pre-recorded videos in the online courses, but the school expects all students are learning from online professors – whether faculty or adjunct – not just the video content.
“[Professors] either give the lectures or work with the lectures provided as a resource that they help students work through,” Ferguson said. “They introduce new articles or topics, they lead live classes, and they give critical analysis of the week’s content.”
Gateway also caps classes at 28 students, so professors have time to connect with students in meaningful ways.
Limits of online education
While online education has many benefits, SBC seminary educators recognize its drawbacks. Dew says online education is vastly better than it was two decades ago. Early on, many educators questioned whether online education was worthwhile at all. Today, he says, no one questions the value of online education.
But it doesn’t mean that is the way most people should approach theological education. Dew still recommends most students attend seminary in person. He points to the fact most online students are part-time.
“The reason that’s a problem is because a full-time student has a very high likelihood of finishing their degree program, somewhere around 75 percent,” Dew said. “A distance or part-time student has a very low likelihood of finishing their degree program, somewhere around 25 percent. You’re looking at roughly a 50 percent drop off when you go from full-time to part-time.”
Dew says when NOBTS recruits new students, the school recruits for on-campus programs first. The school only encourages students to consider its online program when it’s clear on-campus theological education isn’t a possibility.
Another way NOBTS balances online and on-campus education is by providing hybrid options where lectures, quizzes and exams are done online. Then students come to campus for two full days where they can engage faculty members in person.
“That’s a pretty cool option that gives students, even though they are at a distance, a very good and a very strong residential experience that balances that out,” Dew adds.
Akin echoes Dew’s thoughts on the priority of on-campus education. He also recommends students complete theological education on campus. Online-only students miss out on important relationships with other students, Akin adds. Many of those friendships could become lifelong ministry relationships. Second, on-campus students get more frequent interactions with professors, as they engage with them in hallways, chapel and even church settings.
Akin says they often see students start out online and then transition to the campus because they want those in-person interactions with the professors.
Ferguson believes some of the drawbacks of online theological education can be overcome with the right approaches by seminaries.
“Certainly, eating a meal together on campus or chatting in the hallway is an easy and spontaneous way to engage in community as a student, but community, I think, can also happen online when students are giving the opportunity to foster trust, share ideas, ask questions, and receive feedback from other students and the professor,” Ferguson said. “An online course that is merely push, play and you’re done won’t be attractive to students who are in real ministry scenarios and need that community of students and professors to work through topics and issues with them. At Gateway, we have worked hard to establish a healthy community in each class and among our online student body.”
Future of online education
Like many aspects of contemporary culture, the explosion of smartphone usage has revolutionized online seminary education over the past 15 years.
“The smartphone allows students and professors to create good videos at any time of day,” Ferguson said. “Instead of setting up a whole studio with lighting and professional microphones, many professors and students can just record a response or presentation on their phones. Professors can also grade and give feedback anytime they have their phones. I often answer a few student questions while waiting in the pick-up line for my son’s school!”
Ferguson also points to the development of even better software platforms to support online education as a key development in recent years.
Yet Ferguson remains hesitant to predict changes to online education too far into the future.
“The trend, however, is that higher education is becoming more personalized to student needs and individual levels of mastery and competency,” Ferguson said. “Institutions would do well to ensure that their curriculum is aligned with objectives and competencies, and that there are measurable ways to indicate if students are growing in those objectives and competencies.”
Benefits of the Cooperative Program to online seminary education
Currently, seminaries do not receive Cooperative Program funding for online students, but Akin notes that CP funds help to supplement student tuition for all students, which means online students benefit.
“We could not do what we do without the generosity and the sacrificial giving of Southern Baptist churches,” Akin said. “It’s just the reality. It’s critical to everything we do as an institution. As Southern Baptists give to the Cooperative Program, a portion of those funds make it to Southern Seminary. That enables us to save dollars and not need to charge students a higher tuition.”
Ferguson notes another advantage of Southern Baptist cooperation is that enables seminaries to work together as they innovate in online education.
“Although our SBC seminaries do not get CP funding for online education hours, I do think that the cooperation of our seminaries in this task of theological education is impacting the quality of education we offer online,” Ferguson said. “Because of our partnership, I often work with our sister seminaries’ online leaders. We contact one another when we have new initiatives, questions about software or strategy options, or faculty development needs. Our cooperation makes the online education we each offer better in many ways.”
Ferguson recommends students who are interested in studying online at one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s six seminaries contact the admission office at the seminary and ask questions about their online class size and strategy. She also suggests asking demographic questions about the online student body, such as average age, ministry experience, and the diversity of locations of the students.