Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I'm Thrilled That You Can Earn Your MDiv Online…Now, Please Don't

I'm delighted to have played some tiny role in rolling out the myriad online educational options available to Southern Baptist seminarians today. (Excursus: My role? Other people dreamed it up, did all of the work to plan the specifics, climbed the mountain that is accreditation, named it, packaged it, priced it, sold it, and implemented it. I said "Aye" in a committee meeting.) It is a wonderful and amazing world in which a missionary kid living in Bhutan can earn a Masters of Divinity degree at SWBTS. Thank you, Lord, for redeeming the Internet to do a little good alongside the torrent of bad.

Now that these degrees are available, I'm writing to beg you not to avail yourself of them unless it is impossible (and I don't just mean "inconvenient") for you to attend an actual bricks-and-mortar seminary campus. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Most people don't learn as well online: Really, I'm just nearly comfortable saying NOBODY learns as well online, but having received a face-to-face education of some significant quality, I've learned to be wary of universals and superlatives.

    I'm thankful for online classes because I'm personally indebted to them. I would never have been able to take German face-to-face at SWBTS. I was in my first year at FBC Farmersville. Taking German would've required that I drive to Fort Worth daily. Not possible. So I took it online. I did well enough in German to pass the tests and gain admission into the Ph.D. program. In fact, I did well enough to read books and articles in German for a lot of my papers.

    And yet, out of the languages that I have studied (French, German, Greek, and Hebrew), there's no question that German is the weakest of them all. The fact that I took German online is a significant factor in that reality. I'm thankful that I was able to get German online, but I sure am happy that I didn't get anything else that way. Whatever you learn in an online class, you're probably not going to know it as well as you will know something you've learned in a classroom setting.

  2. A seminary education is about more than just the mere accumulation of facts. Last night I sat in Dr. Matt Queen's Personal Evangelism class at SWBTS. For the first fifteen minutes of the class session, I heard student after student as they told stories about the people with whom they had shared the gospel as a part of the "Second Mile" campaign on the SWBTS campus. Dr. Queen and a whole host of SWBTS faculty are out with students walking door-to-door throughout this region of Fort Worth sharing the gospel. That's difficult to replicate in an online class.

    There's the experience of chapel. As a student, the chapel experience at SWBTS blessed me many times. No, not every time, but many times! The online student is missing the entire environment of seminary. I think that environment, even for the commuting student that I always was, is quite an important aspect of a seminary education. Think twice—think twenty-two times—before you relegate that aspect of seminary education away to unimportance.

  3. Am I crass to mention networking? There's the network of friends you will meet in your classes. My seminary friendships endure to this day. For example, I commuted to SWBTS with Ken Miller, who now works at NAMB. I sat in seminars with Joe Early, James Egan, David Goza, Greg Tomlin, Rex Butler, Scott Maze, and a whole host of others who remain my friends to this day.

    But they are more than just friends. They are also the peer group to whom I often turn when I don't know what to do or when I just want to learn to do something better than I am doing it. Being a part of this cohort is an important part of my life.

    Beyond that, there are the relationships that I built with professors. I occasionally get to sit down to lunch with James Leo Garrett. I have an ongoing friendship with Malcolm Yarnell. I have gleaned much from the many who have taught me, and by the blessing of God, those gleanings have extended beyond my time with them in their classrooms.

    I could not name a single person with whom I shared an online class. Furthermore, when a church comes to a professor and asks for a recommendation of someone to fill their pulpit, I don't think that they very often reply, "You know, student 'godrules1384' in my Introduction to Philosophy of Religion class seems like a really sharp guy." I think they're going to mention someone into whose eyes they have looked.

  4. Enrollment Does Not Equal Graduation: Online ENROLLMENT is through the roof, not just in theological education at places like Liberty but also in the broader educational world at places like the University of Phoenix. But how many of those online enrollees make it all the way through to graduation? Not nearly as many as you might think. The dirty little secret of Internet education is that such an astounding number of people quit long before they graduate. Easy in; easy out.

    Whether it should or should not, the obstacle of moving to a seminary campus to pursue theological education is a testing point for many people with regard to how serious they are about their calling to ministry. The person who has left behind a job, sold a house, uprooted a family, and relocated to Fort Worth is a person who is committed. In moments of horrific sacrifice and despondency, that person can reach the point where it is easier to press forward and finish than it is to go back. Not so for the online student. It is so, so easy just to quit or postpone (indefinitely).

    Burn the ships, my friend! Burn the ships! Climb out onto the limb. No turning back; no turning back!


Doug Hibbard said...

I am uncertain how it is bigger proof that you are committed to your calling to abandon your local church and move away then it is to stay put and serve.

And having gone through the process of packing off, moving to a seminary, and then being forced by finances and family situations to quit school, it's not all it's cracked up to be. Especially when the only response when I reached out for help to the seminary community was that I was struggling because I lacked faith.

And working 50-60 hours a week, plus attending classes didn't bode well for networking, either. All the networking opportunities came at professor's houses and during work hours.

So, all in all, if it weren't for online, I would have no opportunity for finishing my education. It may not qualify me to do great academic things, but to put forth that I should instead just not bother pursuing an education since all I can do is an online degree.

Not everybody fits the mold of living at a seminary.

Bart Barber said...

Good points, Doug. And for some the prospect of an on-campus education will be impossible. That it proved so for you does not mean that the on-campus would not have been more valuable for you if you had been able to experience it.

I never lived in Fort Worth. I served as a pastor the whole way through two degrees at SWBTS. I know that I was not nearly as involved in the seminary community as a commuting student. Nevertheless, event apart from living at Fort Worth and without having experienced any of the after-hours experience at Fort Worth, I still can recognize all of the benefits that I mentioned connected with having studied on-campus.

Again, precisely because there are people like you who wind up not being able to complete an on-campus degree, I am thankful for the existence of the online options. It's just that, if it had proven possible for you to get an on-campus degree, I think that you would have received a greater value.

With regard to the commitment factor, I did not have in mind someone like you who was already serving at a local church. Rather, I had in mind the experience of the person who has a non-ministry job, a home, a family, and a lifestyle of some comfort. This person surrenders to ministry. Rather than leaving the job, selling the house, and moving to seminary, he starts an online degree but makes no other moves in the direction of ministry. A couple of years in, when the studies get to be difficult, it's awful easy just to sit out for a semester, which becomes two, etc.

Big Daddy Weave said...

You led off with a great thesis - most people don't learn as well online - and then proceeded to ruin the argument with your German example! No way that the average student, even the average quality student, can learn German online well enough to pass the various language tests that we all had to pass to either get into a Ph.D. program or graduate from a Ph.D. program!

I learned French through one long, awful, intensive course. Worst summer of my life. Class every single day. But, I don't think I could have done it on my own without the face to face classroom instruction and group work.

I *get* some online programs, maybe a master's program, but any online program that offers a terminal degree is just incredibly problematic. Most of the learning that goes on happens in the classroom - when you've written the seminar paper and now are defending yourself. Or, sitting on the other side, waiting to raise questions - politely or perhaps not so politely - to a fellow classmate who has written a paper with all sorts of problems.

The discussion is where the learning happens. Online discussion is just not the same.

Of all my semesters at Baylor, the most memorable and most formative, was when I sat in a seminar led by Barry Hankins that included Ben Cole, Scott Culpepper, an ACLU employee, a couple Southern Baptist pastors and an old-school feminist and we read everything from Rawls to Neuhaus and discussed it all, passionately. That was my first semester, so I sat back and took it all in. But, you can't recreate that experience online. IMO, that's what graduate education is all about.

Bart Barber said...

BDW, :-)

I agree with you about the value of discussion in seminars. I don't know how to express how much I miss it. Something about walking into a room with a number of people, all of whom are actually prepared for the discussion, is exquisitely valuable.

As for the "not politely," only one time did I go into a classroom for the express purpose of dismembering someone. He had insulted and caused problems for Karen Bullock, all because she had VERY politely pointed out a problem with a book review that he had submitted. The critique I brought that day could've been used as evidence for his expulsion. I found every source that he had lifted and every error that he had made. And I delivered the critique without mercy.

I'm the kind of guy who usually drowns in remorse after any act of aggression. But not that time. I still feel good about it.

Ray said...

Bart, count me as one who is skeptical of an online Masters as well. I still remember sitting in a theology class with Dr. Kirkpatrick when someone asked him what our textbook would be. He pointed to the Library and said, "there is your textbook." Without the library I could have never received an education, which I consider to be altogether different from receiving a Degree.

Bart Barber said...

Great point, Ray!

Matt Johnson said...

Dr. Barber,

As someone who finished the last 30 hours of their BS degree online (in Bible), and is now also 24 hours into a 36 hour online MA degree in a secular field, many might think I would disagree with your assessment. I do not!! I agree wholeheartedly.

I hate to hear stories like the one from the brother where his faith was questioned. Unfortunately, I've heard that same sort of spiritual condescension spewed several times from some "pious" brethren. I certainly would not fault him for continuing in his local ministry while continuing his studies online.

However, I still agree with your basic thesis. MOST will gain exponentially more from being in a brick & mortar classroom for all the reasons you described. I like you, miss those days at the small Bible college I attended in Conway, AR. The interaction with godly, conservative, kind, and gracious faculty is something that had a tremendous impact on me, and as I recall them, they still do.

Online education is a good thing. Is it the best thing? I don't think so.

Bart Barber said...

My thoughts, exactly, Matt.