To posit that technology has changed the face of graduate theological education could be the understatement of the millennium. Yet it might be more accurate to say that technology "has changed" as it would be to stay that it "is still changing" theological education.
In other words, it could be that the best is yet to comethat what we have witnessed over the past few years is merely the beginning of a trend whose full force has yet to be completely understood or appreciated.
Those who are closest to the technological revolution as it applies to distance learning believe it is a revolution still in progress. "The technology of online learning will continue to develop exponentially so that today's cutting edge practices will be entry-level concepts in five years," says Ronald Kroll, dean for distance education and media development at Columbia International University (CIU) in Columbia, South Carolina,
Andy J. Peterson, president of Reformed Theological Seminary's virtual campus, says, "To think that there will be little change in the format or the extent of online seminary education is to be ignorant of the great changes in communications technology. Who ever heard of 'podcasting' just a couple of years ago? And now Meet the Press is available 24/7. We have little idea of the resources that will be available five years from now."
The capacity of a computer chip has been doubling every 18 months since 1968, says Gordon McAlister, dean of distance education at Crown College in St. Bonifacius, Minnesota. "I dare say not even the folks at Microsoft can predict what online learning will be like when computers have three times the capacity they do now," says McAlister. He is confident that in five years "we should be seeing online practice sessions in counselor training, sermon delivery, small group leadership activities, and other things that people up to now have associated only with face-to-face learning."
Lagging Learning Curve
"Traditional seminaries are behind higher education in general in making use of the online medium because they typically do not have the internal knowledge bases or technical infrastructures to employ this medium, do not typically have an entrepreneurial and innovative mindset, and don't usually have the development funds to launch into experimental programs," says David Wright, former director of the department of graduate studies in ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU), and currently the dean of the school of theology at Azusa Pacific University.
Wright adds, "Because the ministerial profession is primarily about interpersonal relationships, seminaries have been reluctant to embrace a medium that they believe provides for less personal interaction than the [traditional] mode of course delivery. To be sure, there are differences between [traditional classroom] and online learning, but the fear that online learning must be impersonal is a consequence of not having tried the medium. Most people who use online learning (faculty and students) say that it can be intensely personal, but in different ways."
As technology and new learning techniques charge forward, the public largely lags behind with respect to its understanding of what distance education is all about. The fact that things are changing so rapidly has for some broadened the divide between what the public perceives distance education to be and what it actually is.