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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
"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,
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.
actually are more willing to `talk’ than they are in class," she
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
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
help-desk for the many pastors who are tech newbies. "In the first
year, we had so many neophytes. Their learning to negotiate the
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
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
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
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,
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:
Duff graduated in 1973 as an English and religion major at Austin
College in Sherman, Texas. She went to two Union Theological
one in Virginia, then one in New York, to earn her master’s and
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
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
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
But Duff points out that bad teaching can also take place in a
"Some awful courses can be done online, maybe some terrible
tools can be used, but what is possible — being creative and
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
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
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
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
or lashing out at another student can be a barrier to learning.
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
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: email@example.com).
"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
"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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