With opportunities for online learning growing by leaps and bounds, many people are now able to take advantage of Christian higher education without having to leave their ministry, family, or work. While course quality may be on par with traditional on-campus learning, questions exist regarding the possibility of significant spiritual formation away from a campus community.
Mary E. Lowe and Stephen D. Lowe of Erskine Theological Seminary, co-directors of the National Consultation on Spiritual Formation in Theological Distance Education, conducted a three-year study funded by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. The following article reports on the findings of the study and looks at the question, "Is spiritual formation possible in online Christian education?"
Trends in Seminary Distance Education
Most institutions of Christian higher education are experiencing an explosion in enrollment for distance and online education. The Sloan Consortium reports that enrollment in the future will probably increase for those institutions that are the most engaged in online learning. Many seminaries and four-year private and Christian colleges are part of this trend. While the economy continues to take a toll on traditional enrollment, according to USA Today (March 17, 2009), more Bible colleges and seminaries are turning to online study as one way to address declining enrollments.
Financial concerns are not the only driving force behind increasing online study at Christian schools. Many of the students at Erskine Theological Seminary are mid-career changers and/or bi-vocational ministers. Most simply cannot afford to move away from their ministry, family, or work. They are determined to find schools offering online courses that enable them to remain where they are while they study.
The Association of Theological Schools has over 200 member institutions, more than a third of which report various forms of distance education. This figure is likely higher, since many schools offer hybrid programs combining both online and on-campus courses. According to Baker's Guide for Christian Distance Education, there are over 500 online programs including schools, colleges, universities, and seminaries that offer Christian education. ACCESS, the Association for Christian Distance Education, has a membership of more than 100 institutions and/or organizations that offer Christian distance education, either nationally or internationally.
The Problem of Spiritual Formation in Online Theological Education
Despite the increase in online course offerings and degree programs, for many seminaries and other institutions of Christian higher education the question of spiritual formation remains elusive and problematic. While many in theological education applaud the technology that enables online learning, they question whether online learning communities foster the kind of student spiritual formation associated with traditional on-campus experiences.
Everyone who has considered spiritual formation has his/her own definition of the term. Each denominational and theological tradition has its own unique take on what the term involves and implies for the Christian life. The Erskine Seminary National Consultation on Spiritual Formation in Theological Distance Education defined spiritual formation as "whole person transformation into the fullness of Christ." One of the major problems identified in the deliberations was the plethora of confusing terms used (spiritual development, spiritual growth, faith formation, spiritual formation, Christian life, faith development, Christian development, etc.) and the delimiting nature of most of the terminology.