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Education Regression: Should United Methodists Limit Distance Learning?

Commentary has recently been showing up around the blogosphere on the decision of the University Senate of the United Methodist Church to limit the number of credits taken towards the M.Div. to one-third of the total degree curriculum (see here and here). Such a move could have a significant impact on some schools who have extensive online programs. For instance, Asbury Theological Seminary currently allows two-thirds of the M.Div. to be completed in an online format. Asbury also provides a substantial number of ministers to the United Methodist Church many of whom undertake a large part of their studies online. Questions as to the adequacy of online education have arisen before now; but with this move by the University Senate, they have arisen once again. During my own time as a student at Asbury, I split my degree program down the middle with approximately half of my courses being online and half on campus. I like to think of myself as having had the best of both worlds in this regard. Here are a few reflections based on my own half and half experience. Let me say first that my experience is limited to Asbury, and I can only speak to that program. Asbury has a high quality online course delivery system that is constantly being improved and is much better now than when I began my classes in 2005. I’m not familiar with other distance learning programs; so I can’t speak to those.

First, in online courses students receive much more detailed and extensive feedback on assignments. The comments on my papers and assignments were far more thorough in online classes than in traditional geophysical courses. I learned this both as a student and as a teaching assistant in two online courses. As a TA, I was expected to give a lot of substantial feedback that formed a great deal of the course instruction. In online courses, not only are corrective comments given for what needs improvement but positive comments are made on what is done well. Across the board, I tended to get much more feedback in online courses, which made them very beneficial.

Second, online courses tend to be more heavily weighted on substantive participation. Many classes divided students into small groups for discussing the assigned readings, and the discussions were expected to reflect substantive interaction with the texts and our classmates. If we did not do the reading, then we would have nothing to contribute to the discussion and our grade would suffer. In contrast, its quite easy to attend class on campus, sign the roll, skip the readings, and surf the web during the lecture. It should be quite plain that online courses create much more accountability for students to actually do the work.

Third, online courses typically provide for more interaction with the professor. I tend to be the kind of student who tries to get to know his teachers, but many do not. The traditional classroom gives provides a superficial feeling of connection or interaction simply by virtue of everyone being is the same room. The online format leads profs to do a bit more to make sure they are connecting with students. If they don’t, then the students are just sort of out there in cyberspace all alone.

The traditional classroom certainly has some strengths over the online classroom as well. I am not persuaded, though, that the traditional classroom is significantly stronger or that the online classroom is second rate. Major strengths of the online classroom are significantly increased interaction with the professor and with other students. I am disappointed that the University Senate has placed this limit on online courses. I believe it is a mistake that may ultimately lead to a less educated clergy, but an explanation of that claim will have to come in another post.

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