Seven Reasons Theological Faculty Might Not Embrace Online Instruction

A friend wrote to me today asking why I thought faculty tend to be opposed to or simply not sufficiently embracing the move to online modalities of learning in higher education, particularly with regard to seminaries and theological education. Administrators all seem keen to the move (less costs, wider market) or at least the ideas of such. In reflecting on my reply I came up with the following seven reasons I gave for why I think this is happening (seven just seemed the right spiritual number for a response from this seminary professor 🙂 ).

  1. Lack of knowledge/skill with online modalities in general (tools, modality, engagement, etc). An awful lot of faculty have spent a tremendous amount of time becoming experts in a niche field of study. Online education was not one of those for most. Nor even pedagogy/androgogy (nor online approaches to such). Some may simply lack tech skills in general or may even fear such (whether consciously or unconsciously). Lack of awareness and lack of experience contribute to make this an area many theological faculty simply are unequipped to deal adequately with as part of their teaching life.
  2. Concern over lack of genuine and/ or deeper student engagement and discipleship. This is a concern for quality of engagement that seems all too lacking in online modalities. The kinds of conversations that happen by sharing space and time in person simply do not happen. There are other engagements, but these are never of the kind one encounters in person. Whether faculty are genuinely engaging in such positive ways (in person or online) is another issue altogether.
  3. Lack of sufficient care or interest for courses where one does not face students in person so may under develop their courses just by default. Honestly, for myself, I find myself far more engaged in heart and mind toward in person courses. Online modalities simply do not give the same stimulation intellectually, emotionally, or socially that in person classes offer to professors (even to introverted professors). This lack of care may not be fully appreciated by the faculty themselves who may not even be aware they lack the same intuitive draw for person-to-person engagements.
  4. (Often) lesser remuneration especially as online requires unique course developments. While there are schools which pay to develop courses, the person paid to develop the course may not even be the one teaching (or grading, or engaging in dialogue online, etc). Some schools simply expect faculty to develop courses in the normal fashion of in person where there is not usually any thought of extra remuneration for course development. The amount of time that may be required is often tedious and little more than data entry beyond the actual contents of a course. This can be a demotivating factor for faculty driving further lack of interest or enthusiasm for online instruction.
  5. Prioritization of seated modalities in the mind of professors. Faculty are most often hired for seated courses. While most faculty roles include the need to teach online as well, these are viewed as a portion of the job and may not be perceived as holding the same central aim as in person modalities. The question of value matters. If online modalities are expected, but not viewed as primary then there is the potential for a psychological barrier to its value being equivalent.
  6. Lack of value to the professor who desires personal relationship and personal engagement. Faculty are people. And people are made for relationships. While this can happen online (and does in all sorts of modalities through social media, for example), there is something lost in not seeing, hearing, and sharing space with others. This unique sharing of time and space can serve as an innate potential for bonding. And many faculty may feel already isolated in much of the work of researching, course prep, writing, meetings, etc. Thus, this is both a relational outlet and relational input for many.
  7. Resistance to reducing classes to information transfer. While I am unaware of any online courses being promoted as if it were just about information transfer, this seems to be a default setting in all too many cases. This can be all too true in any form of education, but seems perhaps more prone to such when there is less direct human engagement. While faculty should not fear such, it seems to linger as a fear in the back of many minds. And theological faculty might often explicitly be committed to modalities of discipleship in how they teach (and engage students). And discipleship is never reducible to an information transfer.

And having listed my seven replies, let me add one more: sometimes we’re just lazy (or done). Maybe I shouldn’t be saying it. But the reality is that we are people who wear out and care about what we care about and don’t care about what we don’t care about. We only have so much energy and time and focus. And when all is said and done we may simply not care about the online courses like other courses and thus take lazy ways out. Copy and paste. Quizzes. Discussion boards. We just don’t want to put in the effort for an alternate modality and course development that requires alternative approaches, alternative tools, alternative assessments.

So what might you add to or change on my list?

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5 Responses to Seven Reasons Theological Faculty Might Not Embrace Online Instruction

  1. John R Davis says:

    I teach on a bricks and mortar campus. We also have a significant portion of our students who take classes we offer online. Because of the nature of our student base the same students maybe taking both online and in person classes. This has given me the opportunity to observe the same students engaged in in-person classes, synchronous classes, and asynchronous classes. My opinion is that asynchronous classes are much less effective for actual learning than in-person classes. Synchronous online classes involving live video interaction fall somewhere in the middle. I have also observed that student learning styles can greatly affect how well online classes function for different individuals.
    When our college went wholly online during covid in the middle of the semester in person our in-person classes became synchronous video classes. This allowed me to observe the same students in the same class in both environments. I saw less engagement over all from the students even though we could all see each other and interact in real time. A significant portion of the class just seemed ‘zoned out’ which did not happen in in-person classes.
    However, with ministry training there is an additional factor. Christianity is caught not taught. Direct exposure to a godly teacher is a genuine part of the process. Consider the difference between experiencing a great service where the Spirit is moving in the congregation vs watching online. Things happen in live classrooms, maybe even in interactive synchronous environments that just do not translate well to many online approaches. I have seen people healed in class. When a student’s son was murdered the effect of the other students laying hands on him and praying was significant. Spontaneous questions arise and immediate back and forth interaction can happen to achieve understanding. There is a spiritual dynamic to in-person learning that is difficult to replicate in other ways.
    An analogy to this may be seen in the missionary experience. Many parts of the world today have access to the Gospel in some sort of online presentation. Yet most of the cross-cultural missionaries I have talked to say that very, very few people respond to these approaches. It generally takes direct personal interaction to achieve effective evangelism. My point is that while calculus as an intellectual discipline may be learned without any personal interaction, ministry education may be in a different category. A category that requires greater interaction to be truly effective for ministry preparation.

  2. Amy Anderson says:

    Number 7 is the most important to me. Not only does online learning (unless really well designed) reduce to information transfer, the students develop an attitude of minimalization. “Just give me the content, let me skim it and take a multiple-choice test, and give me an A.” I get the feeling (which started already with students taking notes on laptops in class) that they think if they have the information in their device, they know it, have mastered it.

  3. Andrew Gabriel says:

    Great post! Are you thinking only of asynchronous online courses here?

    • Rick Wadholm says:

      I am referring specifically to asynchronous as the most typical (?) of “online” approaches but also have in mind the synchronous (which addresses some of these but creates new challenges as well). FWIW, I plan to write several more addressing some other issues relevant to this theme.

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