As education everywhere continues to evolve, and more and more is done through various forms of online learning, it is important that we pause to ask whether, and to what extent, seminaries, theological colleges and Bible colleges should utilise leading-edge technology to provide distance education. While I am prepared to declare up front that I have some serious reservations, it would be far too clumsy and reactionary to simply polarise the conversation, or to suggest that nothing good for the Kingdom can be achieved through distance study. My hope then, is that this piece can serve as a proper conversation starter; not a final declaration, but the opening up of a discussion that I believe we need to have as we witness a significant growth in the number of options for distance theological education.
The Obvious Benefits of Technology
One of the most obvious benefits of the communications revolution is greater access than ever to vast worlds of knowledge and to the people who generate it. Thanks to the internet, we can now realistically organise for people in, say, remote central Australia, to directly access research and scholarship from, say, Cambridge or Yale, or anywhere else that it might be found. And much more than just being able to read a book housed in a far off library, our central Australian student can also now actively participate in an interactive virtual classroom which might see them working through biblical and theological issues with professors and other students who could be linking in from a dozen different countries around the world. Add to this things like our ability to record, store and distribute teaching by the best of the best so that it can be streamed into the lounge rooms of remote students at a time of their choosing and we might wonder whether education has finally been freed from the tyranny of distance. To a considerable extent it has. But that does not mean that in yet in other ways it has not.
Distance is Distance
Much as the gains won by new technology are exciting and will play an important part in any modern education program—whether distance or attendance-based—we must ensure that we count the very real losses of studying remotely as we consider how to grow Christian leaders. The bottom line is that there are some critical parts of human communication and development that require close contact. Distance is distance, and as great as the modern tools are at closing the gap, I do not think anything fully substitutes for students and teachers being together in the same place at the same time.
Of course, this is why we have continued to gather students and teachers together for centuries despite the fact that we have long had relatively easy access to mountains of print. Books are fantastic for capturing and distributing information and ideas, but they have never fully substituted for direct human-to-human interaction. It is worth noting that the Apostles both participated in, and encouraged, sustained face-to-face teaching in texts such as Acts 20:17–35, 1 Thessalonians 2:1–16 and Titus 2:1–10. That they also acutely felt the wrench of distance is recorded in places such as 1 Thessalonians 2:17—3:5 and 2 John 12. Part of the pain of separation for them was, of course, relational. The Apostles loved the people they converted, discipled and apprenticed, and so they felt the emotional sting of being apart. But true as this is, it was not solely for their emotional wellbeing that they wanted to be in close contact with their children in the faith. It was also because the close personal interactions were integral to their way of building up others in faith, knowledge and service. That is, the Apostles did not seem to have a model of discipleship that was disentangled from close, personal relationships. They were not simply transmitting information or establishing skill sets, but training others in Christian living within the context of church families growing together in faith, hope and love.
The Importance of Formation
'Formation' is perhaps the key word that needs to be maintained in our conversations about distance theological education. While we may be able to link up and engage with lots of information over the internet, can we connect at a level that allows for any sort of thorough Christian formation?
Every good lecturer knows that part of the skill in teaching a class is constantly reading the room. Did that student tense up when we were discussing our last topic? Did the inflection in that student's voice suggest that their comment was meant to be ironic? Why does that student keep offering the same strange example whenever this issue comes up? Is that student's extended silence due to deep thought, disengagement or disgust? These are the kinds of things that are nigh on impossible to detect when we are not regularly face-to-face, and they can still be hard to interpret when we are. But the benefit of learning in a face-to-face environment is that the lecturer can quickly follow up in the breaks between classes, or perhaps even organise to have a longer chat over a cup of coffee later in the week if they think that is necessary. That is to say, they can pursue the holistic formational needs of their students in the context of their ongoing proximal relationships. One of my former professors (who has led two theological schools) once quipped that theological education is one third lecture room, one third library and one third lunch table. You simply do not have all these parts with distance education.
Weighing the Costs; Recognising the Benefits
So, am I saying that the importance of sustained, close relational interaction means that there should be no theological education by distance? Absolutely not. It is a truly great gift and an incredible blessing for those who want to study the Scriptures in depth but are unable to attend a Bible college. It is an excellent Plan B.
I am saying, however, that we must never communicate (nor ourselves come to believe) that nothing of much consequence is lost to those who chose to study by distance. Moreover, we must particularly encourage anyone who hopes to serve the Lord in vocational gospel ministry to do all they can to attend seminary in person, knowing that good formation requires much close contact between them and the faithful trainers who will walk alongside them in their development.
This piece first appeared on The Gospel Coalition Australia website - http://australia.thegospelcoalition.org