A few weeks ago, Dan Wallace wrote an article on the recent trend towards online theological education. I would like to summarize his points here, and then offer a few comments. You can read his entire post at this link (and I encourage you to do so).
The main point of Wallace’s article is that online theological education is useful but not best, and students pursuing ministry should seek the best. It should be noted that Wallace is not against online education; indeed, he notes that in some limited ways it may have an advantage over in-class education. Further, Wallace has recorded classes for consumption outside the classroom. Nevertheless, he believes that many students are sacrificing their ultimate good for temporary convenience.
To argue for his point, Wallace uses the example of Jesus. He notes that Jesus’ training of the disciples was intensely personal, messy, intentional, serendipitous, sacrificial, and communal. Most of these are self-explanatory. Two deserve further consideration. First, by serendipitous Wallace means that much of the teaching gained by the disciples was given in non-planned settings. He persuasively argues that online education has no natural venue for such teaching. Second, by sacrificial he refers both to Jesus, who gave Himself to the task of training, but also to the disciples who sacrificially gave themselves to discipleship.
In sum, Wallace argues that online education cannot match in-class education in regard to some of the most formative aspects of Jesus’ discipleship. He observes that many theological institutions (or individual professors) have refused online education, suffering financial loss, because they believe it is an inferior method of instruction. He concludes by giving some personal, anecdotal examples of how in-class education is superior in the ways outlined in the article.
Here I want to give a few of my thoughts concerning the article.
- Having taught online and in-class, I strongly prefer in-class. This is not only because of the points mentioned in Wallace’s article, but also because I think online education hurts the most vulnerable. Consider the following points to see why I think so.
- I believe online education works wonderfully for the self-motivated. Some online students I have had would not have further benefitted educationally by being in-class. These, however, are the exception. Many students look only to what they need to do to pass/graduate. They never look beyond to what they need to succeed in future ministry. Part of this is simply maturity. Older students tend to do much better in online, while younger students do not. This observation is anecdotal, but I am confident other online professors would say the same. In sum, I believe online education requires more investment of the student, and some students do well, but the less-motivated do not.
- Following the last point, students who need in-class education (the less-motivated) will naturally select online education. As Wallace notes, they do this even when they live on campus. Finding that they can take the easier path, they choose the one with less obstacles to their laziness. Online education feeds such problems. For their sake, let’s remove the temptation.
- Additionally, less motivated students are much more likely to (falsely) believe they can multi-task. Ask nearly any online student if they watched the class video without doing anything else during the “class.” Focused attention is sometimes a challenge in the classroom; it is nearly always a challenge for non-motivated online students.
- While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting the inferiority of online theological education, one more firm evidence is the recent change to the Air Force’s chaplaincy program. They now note that “a qualifying degree program requires no fewer than 72 semester hours or 108 quarter hours of graduate-level work with 2/3 of those course hours completed in residence.” Recently, I was speaking with a chaplain for the Navy and he noted that they were talking about adding a similar requirement. Why? He said that it was because there is a notable difference between those who took their MDiv online and those who took it in residence.
- Wallace’s article is an application of John Frame’s vision of a seminary. Frame argued that seminary education must be personal. See the following articles: Learning at Jesus’ Feet and Proposal for a New Seminary.
- Interestingly, when Frame originally began speaking about this, there was no major push for online theological education. He was criticizing theological programs that did not engage the student personally. Similarly, while Wallace’s article argues against online education, it also argues against large, impersonal schools as well. Sometimes students will tell me they chose * Seminary because of Professor X. But in reality that student may never have a conversation with professor X, because that professor has 200 other students in the class. That professor will certainly never read his work (a GA will do that). In the end, one can become lost amidst the large schools. A smaller student to faculty ratio is important, for it provides the opportunity for the relationships Wallace speaks of in his article.
- One weakness of Wallace’s article is his lack of attention to the local church. The purpose of a seminary is not the purpose of a local church, and some of the things Wallace mentions can and should happen in the local church setting. Indeed, the one major benefit of online education is that it allows people to remain in their local church. Let me say a few words about this:
- At DBTS we recognize the primacy of the local church, and we do not think discipleship is our primary obligation. Nevertheless, we take seriously the opportunity we have to aid in the formation of students, and we seek to work alongside the pastors who send their student here to be trained. Accordingly, I don’t think this is an either-or situation.
- If I could have stayed in my local church and taken online education, I think I would have missed valuable experience that prepared me for ministry. I was involved in three churches during my training. First when pursuing an MA, I was at a small country church, where I was able to teach Sunday School. I got to know the local pastor and to share in his burdens, sorrows, and joys. Later when I pursued the MDiv, I went to the church that hosted the seminary, and I learned quite a bit about ministry there. A big church is a different matter than a small country church! Halfway through my seminary experience, I helped in the ministry of revitalizing a struggling church in the city. This, likewise, was an entirely different experience of ministry. These together were a part of God’s education plan for me, and I truly believe I would have been less prepared for ministry by remaining in the local church I grew up in. Indeed, if God called me back to that church, I think I would be better prepared to serve them. I am not arguing that my experience should be normative, but I am suggesting that God may call people to move to another area in order to prepare them better for His service.
- In sum, I am not against online education. I think some good has come from it. Nevertheless, I think on-campus education is better for many, if not most students.
 Of course, this is a potential weakness in an on-campus classes as well, but I can observe when a student is not with me, and I can confront them. This is not possible in an online format.
 I cannot speak to the benefit of other fields. It may be that some are better done in an online environment. I speak only of online theological education.
 I understand that some theological schools have intentionally limited enrolment for this reason.