Thursday, July 02, 2009

Seminary Vision (7-2-09): Leading Edge

The final of the IWU Seminary videos is "leading edge." I've been providing further commentary along with the videos. Here are the links to the commentary, and each video on YouTube is further linked there:

Spiritually Enriching

The final video is on the Leading Edge aspect to our degree.

1. As I thought about what is leading edge about our seminary, really, all of the items on the above list fall into that category. A couple of them are now fairly common, although they weren't 10 years ago. For example, the fact that you don't have to move somewhere for three years--or even for one--is a new innovation that has saved the very existence of seminaries. You can do 2/3 of the degree online and the other third by coming to campus for 1 week intensives. Thanks to Asbury for pioneering much of this.

2. Asbury gives good training to its online profs. By the same token, Indiana Wesleyan has really perfected adult education both online and at satellite sites. We use the cohort model, where you take a sequence of courses in a particular order with the same group of fellow students. The model of course creation is usually three stage: 1) course content is generated by content experts, 2) the content is put into instructional form by pedagogical experts, which then is 3) taught by good facilitators.

This process in itself is a leading edge process. Most schools focus on getting content experts with name recognition. This makes a school look good, and it does privilege a group of students who are on the same wavelength with that professor.

But in practice, world renown content experts are rarely spectacular teachers. The majority of students thus do not benefit as much from having a world class professor as they would from a less brilliant scholar who is a more brilliant teacher. This is an interesting irony and self-defeating aspect of most educational institutions. That which is most valued--spectacular names--more often than not undermines the very reason for most educational institutions' existence: to teach.

A unique curricular process has evolved in the design of our seminary at IWU. Yes, our online courses with syllabus, grading process, and specific assignments are preset in a template in Blackboard, regardless of the particular professor. This is potentially discouraging to the maverick prof but is student oriented. It ensures the best pedagogy with the best content.

The content is generated collaboratively, not by a single content expert but by a half dozen brilliant minds. The pedagogy has also been generated collaboratively, by a group of people including several with significant online teaching. We have changed the standard format of Blackboard. I didn't use to like Blackboard, but I realized the reason was more than anything the way they generally package and promote its format. A small tweak--making each of the left hand buttons correspond to one week's assignments and discussion forums--and all is good. I'm left dumbfounded at who these Blackboard people that they have promoted such a counterintuitive format all these years in so many different institutions!

I have concluded that, really, big name scholars are best reserved most of the time for one week intensive formats. For the long haul, you want a good facilitator. Good education is not the transmission of information. The lecture in itself is the most inefficient form of teaching. Learning that is most retained and appropriate is learner generated, and thus the best teacher is one who designs a learning experience that leads a student to generate his or her own understanding. And it will hit multiple learning styles.

The teaching of individual courses will also include a collaborative element, where the course is led by a practitioner, but you receive some feedback from Bible and theology/church history professors, and other professors will feel free to drop in and comment too. We are thus trying to set up a true learning community, rather than a bunch of lone ranger superheroes like you get at other seminaries.

The seminary at IWU has also convinced IWU to add the Blackboard Community add on, making it possible for students across various cohorts to interact with one another. Asbury had this with its Cafe that so irked its board of trustees during the presidential crisis a few years back. But it was a great thing to create across the seminary cohesiveness and camaraderie. We will implement something like this as well, including alumni of IWU's MA program so they can keep in touch.

3. You can see from the process of course creation that integration has been a primary concern. It has been a challenge, but we have managed to meet in the middle on course design. There have been differences. One person wants a book that is just too long and too much for one element of a course. Some of the debates we've had as course designers have made their way into discussions for the course.

Is the missional movement wrong when it opposes thinking about attracting people to your church? Does your church community have to include the community immediately surrounding it or can your church be located in an area with which it has little interaction? We've debated and disagreed and finally made these discussions things for students themselves to make up their minds up in the course.

We've mentioned already how we bring Bible, theology, and church history to bear on topics. I'm excited for a couple weeks in the missional course where students will look at social justice in the prophets one week and study Rauschenbush and the early twentieth century social gospel in the next.

And as we've said, it is the leading edge of seminary education for training to be done in ministry, on the job. Students in our MDIV have to get in a church if they are not. We will be refining and retrofitting our MA degrees for those not in local church ministry. We haven't abandoned you in the parachurch or you lay leaders or you ministers wanting to beef up a particular skill set. But the MDIV is on the job training, "take your church to seminary."

4. The attention to spiritual formation is not unique to our program, but it is unusual. Tht we require it across the curriculm is fairly unique. And the robust way in which we address it is fairly unique. We look at the process of real change rather than the less productive--go and pray approach. And when you look at some other programs in spiritual formation, they usually myopically focus on the personal dimension, when in fact the corporate dimension must be present for the personal dimension to flourish. This is a blind spot of Western individualism that shows up even in the most noted spiritual formation programs in the US.

5. Finally, we have designed a program that is both faith-full and mature in its understanding. We are in the Wesleyan tradition, which means we are most interested in life change more than adding a set of mental widgets or skills. We are interested in you being able to do ministry more than in you knowing things. To be sure, knowing things is good and important, but we are getting the priorities of seminary education straight.

We are hermeneutically mature, especially for evangelicals. Most evangelical seminaries play a game here--if I learn Greek, diagram the sentences of the Bible, study a little historical background, then I will somehow mysteriously and almost automatically know God's will for today. We're seeing this paradigm unravelling before our very eyes. God has as often as not used the words of the Bible in ways other than their original sense and intent. This fact in itself undermines a curricular program at most seminaries that dedicates as much as a third of the curriculum to the pursuit of the original meanings of individual biblical books.

And of course, very little attention is spent in this typical curriculum to teaching what to do with that original meaning once you think you have it. How do I get from that time to this time. For that matter, how do I get from my class in Romans to my class in pastoral care and counseling, let alone to my class in preaching?

I have mentioned elsewhere that this is a great time for the Wesleyan tradition because of currents in the intellectual flow today. And as such, this is a great time to be starting a Wesleyan seminary!

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