More choosing ‘virtual’ seminary over on-campus experience

SEAGOVILLE—James Pritchard was more than halfway through his master of divinity degree when an Oklahoma church called him to serve as their pastor. Determined to finish his education, Pritchard commuted each Monday to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth while getting started in his ministry field. His last semester, he took online courses to finish remaining requirements.

Now that he’s back in Texas pastoring First Baptist Church of Seagoville, Pritchard is again utilizing online education to complete four semesters of German as he prepares for an on-campus Ph.D. at Southwestern.

He is part of a growing number using online education in all disciplines of higher education, a 2009 study cited in the Chronicle of Higher Education showed.

“When you’re in ministry you need flexibility, so it definitely helps out,” he said of the distance-education option.

When Nathan Lorick began as pastor of his first church in Martin’s Mill he weighed his options of driving two hours to take classes one day a week, versus completing the entire degree online at a faster pace.

“Education is very important, but to me there’s no better education than experience,” Lorick said. “I didn’t want to forfeit the opportunity to have ministerial experience to sit in a classroom.”

Through Liberty University, Lorick began taking eight-week classes by spending late nights watching lectures on DVDs after his wife and child had gone to bed. “Online was the way to go because I could focus on what I was trying to learn without distraction.”

Jay McFadden was pastoring an international church in Germany when he began looking for an online option for theological education. He saw that Rockbridge Seminary, an entirely online institution begun in 2004 by two men with administrative experience in Southern Baptist seminaries, was attracting some of the internationals he knew.

After returning to the U.S. where he now serves on staff at the Church on Rush Creek in Arlington, McFadden enrolled at Rockbridge.

“They have students from all around the world with almost instant access to the professors,” McFadden said. He appreciated the practical application of the eight-week courses, which required a local mentor supervising his progress and work ethic. “I grew up with a traditional style of classroom, but since the most we’ve ever had in one class are 10 to 12 people, I feel we were given a lot of personal attention.”

Rockbridge is in the process of seeking accreditation with an agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Jamin Roller is in his second semester of classes offered by Criswell College through their distance education classes, making it possible for him to continue serving as student pastor at Glen Meadows Baptist Church in San Angelo.

Unlike the delivery systems Pritchard, Lorick and McFadden utilized, which allowed them to complete all of their work online, Roller’s classes are delivered via the Internet in real time to the host classroom at Glen Meadows Baptist where he and other students gather weekly. Through live interaction with professors and students, Roller can ask questions, participate in class discussion and even deliver course presentations from the San Angelo site.

“Last semester I took a critical thinking course which taught basic principles of logic and sound argumentation,” Roller recalled. “The course has been immensely helpful in increasing clarity in my teaching and has proved to be useful in counseling.”

After experiencing education on campus as well as the online format, Pritchard still prefers taking classes in person. “Regardless of how you simulate that online experience, face to face can’t be replaced,” he said.

“For me personally, I benefit from that personal interaction,” he added. Reading requirements and other assignments typically remain the same, he said, “but you can’t replace being in the classroom. It’s not just the professors, but the students around you. It is a good option, but from my perspective it’s not the main entrée. It should be a side dish. And yet, for some that’s the only way they’re going to get it so it still needs to be provided,” Pritchard recognized.

Online education continues to grow. The Sloan Survey of Online Learning, last published in 2009, reveals online enrollment for all of higher education rose by almost 17 percent from a year prior. The survey is a collaboration of the Babson Survey Research Group, the College Board, and the Sloan Consortium. The results came from more than 2,500 colleges and universities. The survey showed 4.6 million online students—one-third of all higher education enrollment in the United States.

For some students, a non-traditional approach allows them to progress more swiftly.

For example, Lorick was determined to work as fast as he could and moved through the series of Liberty’s requirements, taking 18 to 21 hours of credit at a time. Watching videotaped lectures of professors teaching the same class at the Lynchburg, Va., campus, Lorick had the option of interacting by e-mail and phone calls with a course supervisor.

“The classes went so fast that by the time I got the syllabus and got to work on it, I didn’t have a lot of questions,” Lorick commented.

According to advice offered on Southwestern’s website, “Online courses require more self-discipline from students than traditional courses do. Most online assignments have a window of one week in which to complete them. The online student must be self-disciplined enough to spend the right amount of time daily or every couple of days to get the job done.”

Computer literacy is an obvious requirement as students navigate web pages, attach files via e-mail and utilize word processing, PowerPoint and Adobe Acrobat software.
For Paul Easter Jr., who began his seminary studies at the age of 50, a year’s worth of online study gave him the confidence to pursue studies on campus.

Easter hopes to pastor a small, rural church after completing Southwestern’s master of arts in Christian education. Before giving up his full-time job supervising construction work in southeast Texas, he took online classes from Liberty to see if he could handle the academic environment.

He found the coursework fairly easy to complete, scoring 95 or higher in the first two classes of systematic theology.

“Without having some online classes first, I think I would have been in over my head at Southwestern, especially since I’ve been out of school for 31 years,” Easter said. Taking similar courses on campus at Southwestern has been harder, he acknowledged, describing the challenge of maintaining high B’s.

“With online courses you read for yourself, but here we read and talk about what we read, hear from other students and then the professor,” he explained. “I think I missed a lot of that online.”

Physically moving to a campus environment helped him make a commitment to ministry, Easter said. “I said, ‘OK, I’m leaving home, I left my job, I’m going to campus and I’m going to stay.’ Coming here specifically for that purpose let me know where I was in my walk with God and I was able to turn loose of those things.”

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