The latest issue of Christian Century was a fun read about how some mainline seminaries are finally beginning to address the changing realities of education in general. It is interesting to watch some of the more traditional seminaries enter into the online playing field--better late than never. The articles have a feel of "Gordon Conwell is cutting edge" because its students can now do a third of their MDIV in their pajamas at home without moving to Boston.
That tone is very amusing because over ten years ago Asbury students could already do two-thirds of their MDIV online. I actually hear that Asbury's current president is somewhat skeptical of online education, but thankfully he hasn't been able to dislodge the faculty yet. Students at our seminary, Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, can also do two-thirds of their program online and have been able to do so since we were founded over three years ago.
It is almost surreal to read some of the things in the cover story, as if they were something new. We've been doing them for years. For example, the government has tested and documented that the learning in online education is at the very least equal to that onsite and in many instances is probably better. After all, you can usually hide in the back of an onsite class (especially when it is in lecture format), but in an online class you either participate or you're absent.
The article also addresses some of the continuing skepticism about developing close community online. In our program, because you start together onsite, because you move through the program in a cohort, and because you return onsite once a year throughout your program, online classes are not disembodied or random. They're like calling someone on the phone that you already know (even that illustration is outdated, but I'm trying to meet the skeptics where they usually are on the technology spectrum). Again, I guarantee you there is as much community going on there as in most traditional seminary classrooms.
Some of the examples in this article are actually about the new MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and the use of increasing bandwidth to put longer lectures online. This is actually a step back pedagogically the way it is currently being done, although IWU will almost certainly enter this playing field because of the demand. Currently, it is simply transplanting the "90% loss of learning" in lecture format into the online world. Those like Asbury, Fuller, and Wesley who have been doing this for years know that lecture is the least effective learning method there is.
Those who say you cannot effectively teach preaching or do spiritual formation online simply have no idea what they're talking about. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy. I don't think any of us have any real idea what is coming.