Distance learning in vogue

Published November 1, 2000

THE PROFILE OF the ‘average’ theological student has changed dramatically in recent years.

Colleges and universities report an influx of older students, many beginning a second career, others wanting formal education to further their own lay ministries.

Many of these older students have families and spouses with established careers and the idea of packing up and leaving home for months at a time holds little appeal. In response, theological schools have developed a variety of ways to accommodate the distance education student, from courses taken through traditional written correspondence, to audio-taped or televised lectures, to courses taken entirely over the Internet.

The Henry Budd College for Ministry in The Pas, Man., teaches by “extension.” The president, Canon Fletcher Stewart, said the college has no real campus and just two staff who travel to teach Natives in six local communities. Most students, many of whom are older and lack much formal education, take one course at a time.

“It’s much less disruptive to their family life and to their involvement in church,” Canon Stewart said. “Initially, what we’re doing is lay training and out of that emerges ordination training. Those who go on to be trained for ordination are learning in company with active lay people. And we think that’s a good approach to formation. They’re not trained to be lone rangers, they’re trained to be part of a team.”

For many Natives, it’s the ideal way to study.

“Going away for education is always a bit alienating from your home culture,” Canon Stewart said. “University has its own culture. For people who already belong to a different culture and are trying to get it back, the last thing they really want to do is to go away and learn a new way of doing things.”

Teachers adapt to local conditions, meaning they might postpone a class for a funeral. “Because students remain engaged with their local community and local parish, there is a lot of competition for their time and energy. They’re not able to give us as much focused work as students who go away.”

The Vancouver School of Theology offers an extensive distance education program, partly by extension and partly through what they call “self-directed learning.”

The College of Emmanuel and St. Chad in Saskatoon, affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan, caters to mature students living in isolated, rural communities. It offers its first year by distance to the 30 or so students living in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

“We call it guided independent study,” says the principal, Canon William Christensen.

Students receive audio-taped lectures professors have delivered to on-site students, along with printed support materials, texts and a small reference library which is to be returned at the end of the year. Professors hold conference calls to discuss any problems. The college does not deliver its program on line. “We are making the assumption that in some smaller, rural communities, students still do not necessarily have access to a computer and the Internet,” Canon Christensen said.

Students must attend the college for the second and third years of their degrees, which are offered at the bachelors and masters level.

“We’ve had a lot of requests to extend distance education to the second year,” Canon Christensen said. “I think the formation process is very important. You can’t do it on your own. Students need to worship together, live together.”

But the first year at home allows students – many of whom are older and married with children – to test their vocation and get their finances in order before making a commitment to uproot themselves for a couple of years, he said.

And that is the key to the popularity of distance education.

The Centre for Christian Studies now offers its entire program by distance education (see story on page 13). “People are not removed from, for example, a rural Newfoundland context to a central urban centre like Toronto where they have this profound experience and then wham, culture shock when they go back,” principal Caryn Douglas said. The students spend about seven weeks together each year.

Montreal Diocesan Theological College was a pioneer in distance education, (see story, page 14) introducing it in the 1970s. It requires students who wish to be ordained to spend one year in residence for practical and pastoral training but offers the academic component through home study under the guidance of a local tutor appointed by the college. Currently, the course is administered through the mail but principal John Simons said the school would like to be able to deliver it electronically.

The Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax offers some courses over the Internet as well as the entire Certificate of Theological Studies, designed for people in volunteer ministries, says the director of continuing education, Tom McIllwraith.

AST has offered distance education for at least 15 years, he said, but it’s just now moving to the Internet. Until recently, lectures were taped and later televised to students in their homes.

Now, students taking courses over the Internet can participate in on-line “threaded discussions,” in which one student posting a message in response to another will see the two appear adjacent to one another. A third person can join the thread later.

“One of the major pros in my view – and it is supported by considerable research – is that on-line discussion is frequently at a higher level than classroom discussion,” Mr. McIllwraith said. “Somebody can read a message and can compose, in a considered way, a response, rather than shooting from the lip ? It tends to be much more widely participatory then a face to face classroom.”

Thorneloe University in Sudbury, Ont., offers a full bachelor of theology entirely by distance, continuing the distance education it began in the 1970s with lay reader training. The provost, Rev. Donald Thompson, said part of the degree uses a traditional format in which students get and submit assignments and course material by mail or e-mail. The final year of training uses Internet and e-mail.

Students assemble initially and live in residence for about a week in order to get formed as a class. They later supervise each other by e-mail. They also have supervised field placements and additional oversight in their final year by a pastoral educator.

Thorneloe is the Anglican presence at Laurentian University, with about 1,500 students taking arts and humanities. Another 135 students from across Canada study theology, almost all part-time.

The most obvious drawback of distance education is the lack of face-to-face contact. “Students are in contact by e-mail but that’s certainly not the same as having a meal together or having coffee together,” Dr. Thompson said. “That is a piece we want to work at.”

But that problem is not limited to schools providing distance education, he added, suggesting major theological colleges face the same problems. For the last 10 to 15 years, students have been moving away from residences. “They have other commitments,” he said. “They go to a class then leave. They don’t have the same sense of community. It’s regrettable.”

The trend is common to society as a whole, he said. “Few of us have a singular, devoted life. We’re mothers, we’re fathers. We have a local job, involvement in a parish. It’s all part of our lives but they are disparate pieces.”

Dr. Thompson said he likes the style of Roman Catholic religious orders in which a person becomes part of a vocational community and is offered lifelong support and oversight through that community.


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