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Online Learning, Seminary Style

Until now, for a pastor in a small town to brush up

on theology, the choices were to read a book or to drive many miles

to a seminary. Now Princeton Theological Seminary is making pioneering

efforts so that continuing education classes are available online.

"We have seen the numbers grow," says David Wall, program

coordinator for the seminary’s Center of Continuing Education at 20

Library Place. "The first year I had to pull teeth to find people

who had the equipment and were interested. Last year I didn’t."

In two years the center has offered seven noncredit courses, costing

$90 each, for a total of 50 students. Students have come from New

Jersey and around the United States and are expected to enroll this

year from Scotland and South Africa.

With this seemingly insignificant contribution to online continuing

education, the seminary is shouldering its way into a market that

analysts claim will have three million students this year, a market

worth $1.8 billion. Online learning’s appeal is not just convenience;

it also can be an exciting way to get information and interact with

peers.

"Part of what’s wonderful is, you can do the virtual courses right

there in your home. You don’t have to hunt out all the books —

you can do some of the reading online," says Nancy J. Duff,

associate

professor of theological ethics. Duff brought one of her bricks and

mortar classes, "Feminist Theology from a Reform Perspective,"

online last year. She was very excited — and relieved — to

discover that she could preserve the course’s academic integrity and

that using computers does not make interaction less personal.

"People

actually are more willing to `talk’ than they are in class," she

says.

Everyone involved is learning as they go. "I never expected to

be the technology person working in this area but am learning a lot

— it changes continuously," says Wall. Calling himself

"the

coach," Wall sits in on each course.

Wall’s active guidance is probably the single most important factor

for the project’s success, says Dianne Jordan, a Booz Allen consultant

who co-authored an Idea Group Publishing book on distance learning

(www.idea-group.com). "Some distance learning projects fail to

thrive, while others take off successfully. In my experience, and

from the research I have seen, the difference is often the presence

of a project champion."

At first the seminary built its own web-centered software, but now

it uses CourseInfo software, which keeps track of log-ins and provides

for live messaging and chats. Each course has online resources with

articles put up by the seminary’s library and links to other sites.

All students are asked to post information to introduce themselves,

and some put up photographs and even web sites. Class size is limited,

particularly for preaching courses, which involve everyone preparing

sermons on the same text and having them critiqued.

Wall tracks and encourages students who are not responding and steer

discussion away from non-course issues. He also functions as a

one-person

help-desk for the many pastors who are tech newbies. "In the first

year, we had so many neophytes. Their learning to negotiate the

website

took time from their learning the course," says Wall. "Now

we post a required tutorial to introduce them to how it works before

the actual course starts."

"We use our own faculty, those are willing to work in online

courses,

those who are comfortable with that media or willing to learn,"

says Wall. "We take their topic and try to see how we can format

it to an online course. For preachers, working on a Bible text for

preaching has been very popular." Preaching courses are

particularly

suited for virtual classrooms that facilitate shared work: "Not

only is the faculty helping them, but they are coaching each other,

all working on the same texts. By the time the course is over, they

have ideas for the next several months."

The grandson of a Methodist minister and the son of an Air Force

colonel,

Wall went to Muhlenberg College, Class of 1976, and then to Princeton

Theological Seminary for a master’s in Christian education. After

teaching elementary school in Bucks County, he came to the seminary

and was asked to take the lead in updating the center’s technology

and building a new smart classroom.

The staff time required for an online course is fairly intense, says

Wall, because assignments and resources need to be posted on the web.

"We have approached it from subjects that are easy to translate

to the web environment — the preaching courses and the Biblical

texts and projects. I don’t know that there any courses that couldn’t

be translated, but some would take more resources — those with

PowerPoint presentations, for instance, or the historical study of

the faces of Mary in the arts."

Wall has scheduled three online courses this year: In October,

"Small

Signs of God’s Large Promise," will be taught by Dennis Olson

on an Advent text. Along with Cynthia Rigby, of Austin Presbyterian

Theological Seminary, Duff will teach "Reform Theology from a

Feminist Perspective" in January. In March, Brian Blount will

discuss ethics from the perspective of a particular cultural lens

— of African American slaves and their contemporary descendants.

The six-week courses cost $90; call 609-497-0709 or E-mail:

coned@ptsem.edu.

Duff graduated in 1973 as an English and religion major at Austin

College in Sherman, Texas. She went to two Union Theological

Seminaries,

one in Virginia, then one in New York, to earn her master’s and

doctor’s

degrees. "I was trying to work out what I believed," she says.

"By my senior year I did know I wanted to be ordained." She

began teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1990. Her husband,

David C. Mertz, is an ordained United Methodist minister who is a

chaplain at Rossmoor; they live in Princeton and have an 11-year-old

daughter and 9-year-old son.

Perhaps because she is the daughter of a physician and

a nurse, one of Duff’s favorite areas of research and teaching is

medical ethics, including the issues of cloning and genetic research.

And perhaps because she went to college at the time of feminist

ferment,

another favorite area is the interaction of women with the church.

"At seminary I was stunned that I was one of the more traditional

feminists," she says, explaining that some feminists insist that

traditional Christianity has kept women from "the true freedom

God has called us all to." The questions that feminists asks,

Duff says, are also being asked by "people in the pew" and

should be taken seriously. So she tries to help her students come

up with their own answers in the context of what is known as

"reform

theology."

Some educators fear that using computers will jeopardize the teaching

process. Jordan, the Booz Allen consultant, calls this the "FUD

factor: fear, uncertainty, and dread," noting that the skeptics

may have spent their lives helping people to learn how to think and

learn how to learn. "They are driven not so much by fear as by

dedication."

But Duff points out that bad teaching can also take place in a

classroom.

"Some awful courses can be done online, maybe some terrible

pedagogical

tools can be used, but what is possible — being creative and

pedagogically

sound, and meeting different participants’ ways of learning —

can be very exciting."

For Duff, stumbling was a necessary part of learning in her first

try at translating her course to a website. By merely writing lectures

and putting them up on the website, she learned that linear lectures

without links don’t keep student interest. "My course started

out strong but participation dwindled," she says. "I didn’t

do what I needed to keep the energy up — I was learning as I went.

I don’t think I could have done it differently the first time

around."

Now she has a better idea of how to involve online students: Integrate

her lectures with case studies. "To maintain the same academic

integrity as in any other class, I will post case studies, dilemmas

from a personal care situation or from a sermon. To me, real teaching

gets students to be critically engaged with the material, to ask

bigger

and broader questions about what they are reading."

Duff is not totally converted to online teaching. Noting that her

current course is in the continuing education department, Duff says

she is not prepared to teach a "really good credit course"

in today’s virtual classroom where she cannot see how students react

and read their body language. She has affective as well as cognitive

goals: "In almost any class some students feel like they are over

their heads or are stupid. I want to help them understand their

strengths

and weaknesses and not to lose confidence in themselves."

Duff does admit that she was surprised how much you can "hear"

from students’ written responses. "You can hear that someone is

angry, offended, or really excited about something. It comes through

in a way that it would not if they were writing formal responses."

Such informality works two ways. Wall has seen someone

"flaming"

or lashing out at another student can be a barrier to learning.

"Sometimes

students write things and say things they would never say in a real

classroom. I catch it early and interpret it very quickly," he

says, "reminding them that it can be misconstrued, and try to

have them clarify it right away. But online discussions can also lead

to more honesty and more directness in evaluating one another’s work.

In a classroom you would be more laid back."

— Barbara Fox

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Online Pro: TVC

Various online teachers and programs were queried by E-mail for this

article, and Dorothy Gleckner sent an enthusiastic response. Known for

her 1975 design of the first word processing training center for the

State of New Jersey. She teaches Business Communication at Bergen

County Community College, is a consultant for Thomas Edison State

College, and offers the Business Communication through the Virtual

Campus (E-mail: dgleckner@bergen.cc.nj.us).

"My course worked in the beginning because I used the KISS (keep it

simple, stupid!) principle," says Gleckner. "I added something each

semester and am still adding. I could never teach a course that had 20

teacher all following the same course outline. I’d rather be

responsible for teaching a body of knowledge and come out to exactly

the same place, but have as much fun for myself as possible."

The individual approach does require a huge investment of time,

particularly in the beginning, she says. Students hand in work

monthly, and she grades all the papers over one weekend, "and I

sometimes leave my home and stay elsewhere for the blitz so that I

don’t have any interruptions. I work Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 12

to 16 hours each day, to give feedback to every student in both

classes."

"Internet students E-mail me on a pretty regular basis and sometimes

get sad at the end of the semester because they like having someone to

talk to about the coursework on a one to one basis."


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