Recently, I wrote about 5 advantages to distance seminary education. Today, I want to share with you some of my own experiences as to the hardest parts of distance learning.
1. You have to create your own structure
This is probably the most obvious thing people know about distance learning. It’s self-motivated. I took an online course in college in the midst of my other classes and had to drop it after a few weeks—I just couldn’t do it. I had no motivation. Nothing in me on a given night inspired me to do the course work. And then, when I didn’t understand the material, I felt like I had nowhere to go. Send an email and wait for a reply? I needed an answer now!
All that to say: distance learning is an acquired taste. Ten years removed from that one online course experience, I am now flourishing in a distance learning environment. What changed? I don’t know.
In my current program, most courses are roughly structured like this: There’s reading assigned for each week of the course (and maybe a lecture). By Thursday, I need to post some thoughts on the reading on the message boards. By Saturday, I need to have replied to at least two other peoples’ posts. There are also other, bigger assignments (papers, presentations, etc.) for which we’re simply given the prompt, a grading rubric, and a due date.
That’s a lot of freedom in when you do what. Usually, I spend Saturday mornings in a coffee shop doing my reading for the week. I usually don’t finish it and spend the rest of the week getting in reading when I can and posting when I can.
In a distance learning program, you don’t have the structure of a schedule telling you where to be and when. You have to make that happen yourself. For some people, this could be extremely hard.
2. You have less immediate access to the professors—or none at all.
One of the most formative courses I took in my distance seminary program was one on the Synoptic Gospels. I had never really engaged New Testament scholarship to this depth, and it was amazing. Whenever I submitted a paper and the professor left comments on it, I was always so impressed with his knowledge and research into these issues.
The problem? I didn’t really get any teaching from him in the course. There were no lectures from him, just readings, mainly from one (admittedly amazing, and comprehensive) textbook, and then he told us to look up other articles of our choice on specific topics. I’d ask him specific questions trying to pick his brain, but he never returned my email. That was a big opportunity lost, in my mind.
I’ve had other distance learning classmates experience similar things in other classes. Some classes have a face-to-face component during week-long “intensives” for which we all have to travel. Other courses, however, are purely online. Sometimes the choices as to which courses are online, and which havesome online part are inexplicable. Friends of mine in Systematic Theology courses are at a loss why these are online-only and why there isn’t some place to have immediate interaction with the professor.
3. It’s greater temptation to be dishonest
Can I confess some things? When taking my distance Hebrew class, there were several online vocabulary quizzes where, in a moment of frustration, I turned to my textbook for help on some words. There have also been some courses that end with “quiz” where you have to put in what percentage of the required reading you completed, and… I sometimes haven’t been entirely honest about those percentages.
Sure, I’ve rationalized this. This M.Div. probably won’t be my final degree and so my grades here do matter. I still got the “point” or “essence” of the reading, even without finishing it. I did lots of the other “recommended reading”, and so that makes up for the required reading I didn’t do, right?
But still, at the end of the day, I’ve been dishonest.
One of the problems with seminary is that they are full of humans. Sinful and weak humans who give in to temptation. And, at least for me, cheating and skirting the boundaries is a constant temptation. In my program, all of the assessments are completed and submitted online. This is a prime moment for dishonesty. No one is there to check you or keep you accountable. It’s on you. For some people, for the sake of their conscience, they maybe shouldn’t do distance education.
4. Reading, reading, and more reading. Oh, and writing.
Between my one year of in-residence seminary work and my current distance seminary program, this was the biggest mental shift that needed to happen. In an in-residence program, the core “meat” and “substance” of your learning is through lectures. In distance learning, it’s through readings. Additionally, when it comes to assessments, whereas in-residence focuses on exams, distance learning tends to lean more heavily on papers.
These are broad, sometimes inaccurate generalizations, to be sure. And yet, it’s been my experience that this requires a shift of expectations in one’s mind when coming into distance education, and it would be helpful for many people to know this when deciding what program is best for them.
For me personally, I hate exams, but I love papers. I could research and write all day. Also, because I’m still working full-time while in seminary, it’s easier for me to read a book on the subway, pull up my textbook on my kindle app while standing in line at the store, or hear my phone’s robotic voice read an article to me out loud, than watch a PowerPoint lecture or sit in a classroom with a distraction-inducing laptop in front of me.
Maybe you can relate. Be sure to keep this in mind, and evaluate your daily rhythm to see what kind of program best fits in with your life.
5. The experience is less cohesive
This is an on-going debate about the nature of seminaries. Should they be places with a very specific and narrow perspective on things, and then try to form and shape you to fit that perspective? Or, should they be broader places of a greater diversity that encourage seminarians to come up with their own ideas and told to evaluate things for themselves?
Different people will think different things. Regardless, in my opinion, distance seminary education is more suited for the second of those two options.
Think about it. If you’re a seminary, or a professor, distance learning is great. You can have more students per class and the professors don’t need to be anywhere near the campus to teach the course. This is great for getting a hold of great teachers and making them available to a broad group of people. But for us students, this can be tough.
You see, one of the big intangible realities of residential seminaries is that the professors are also living life together. They argue, discuss, question, and wrestle through things together. And so, there develops a comradery—an ethos—that all the courses seem to embody. There’s a cohesion to it all and it feels like you’re moving along a path of courses that are deeply woven together and are taking you somewhere.
In distance education, many of the professors likely haven’t even met. A distance learning seminary education feels less like a tower being built brick by brick and more like a pain-by-numbers exercise, where you just keep going until all the required parts are filled in—then you have a full “seminary education”.
Further, as I said last time, there is such a great diversity of students drawn to distance programs. They are in different geographies, different stages of life, and even different denominations (and are only doing the program for the convenience). This further leads to a sense of disjointedness in distance education. The people the professors, and the course are all separate places that each inform you in different ways, but can be lost more easily as time goes on and prior building blocks aren’t built upon or used.
I hope these things help give you insight and perspective as you continue to evaluate your seminary choices!
By Paul Burkhart – Paul Burkhart lives in Philadelphia, PA. He is a deacon at Liberti Church and is currently working on his M.Div. through the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He works in social work, mainly in the areas of mental health and street homelessness. He blogs at The Long Way Home.