What has Digital Learning to do with Theological Education?
During the onset of COVID-19, a meme went viral on social media, asking, “Who led the digital transformation of your company: your CEO, CTO or COVID-19?” The answer was obvious. In a mere few weeks, the whole world stumbled into digital learning as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns. This is true also of theological schools. and many of us are now examining the roles that digital learning plays in theological education and the opportunities it offers.
This paradigm shift is occurring within a broader context: From the enrolment decline in Western seminaries, the rise of digital training alternatives, and the disruptive challenges of Industrial Revolution 4.0 to the shifts in global geopolitics. In this article, I shall survey these changes, before examining the merits of digital learning for training adults in seminaries.
Shifting Sand in Theological Education
I begin with some of the emerging challenges and opportunities in Asia and, in particular, Singapore.
While digital distance education is mainstream in North American seminaries, the adoption rate is far less in Asia, due either to the lack of resources or a preference for in-person teaching. In Singapore, for example, only one school had adopted a Blended Learning approach to train its students prior to the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, of course. Almost overnight, seminaries worldwide became online schools. Having discovered the benefits of online learning, many have continued to employ these training modes even when pandemic restrictions have eased.
This being said, the real long-term disruptors of theological seminaries are neither pandemics nor other seminaries. Rather, they are the alternative modes of training delivered through digital platforms, such as FaithlifeTV and SeminaryNow which can offer training anytime, anywhere at a fraction of the cost. Due to their investments in fixed assets and faculty, it will be difficult for traditional seminaries to match the disruptive prices of the new platforms (Joshua Gans, Disruption Dilemma, 66).
These digital platforms are only one facet of the broader impact that digital disruptions are making on theological education. The advent of Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4) is heralding a rapid merging of the “physical, digital and biological worlds” that will fundamentally change the way we work and live. To help future generations flourish in this new environment, Institutes of Higher Learning must transform themselves into nimble institutes of lifelong learning that can help students pick up new competencies to retool themselves regularly. The challenge for seminaries is similar and two-fold. Firstly, how do we prepare Christians to engage the new ways of living and the ethical challenges that IR4 inadvertently poses? Secondly, how might the emerging educational technologies inform the way we educate and disciple Christians? We shall focus on the second question as we explore the merits of digital learning for seminaries.
Digital Learning and Theological Education
a) Technology and Theological Education
Up until the 2000s, discourse about digital learning has been the domain of educators. As they see it, the impact of computing on classroom learning has largely been marginal. As an educator, Larry Cuban, puts it, “Computer meets classroom, classroom wins.” This being said, educational technology did contribute to the progress of one sphere of higher education: Distance education. This has been employed extensively by many theological colleges to train laypeople and church leaders who don’t have the time or means for full time training.
b) New Voices
The last decade, however, has seen a new voice entering the fold: The developers of new educational technologies or business models, from Khan Academy and AltSchool, to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) platforms such as edX and Coursera. These make varied claims from how digital technologies enhance learning to the reinvention of higher education. At first glance, these new players offer much promise for transforming the face of education. edX, for example, delivers more than 2,800 courses to 34 million students worldwide. Previously, such courses would be available only to the privileged few enrolled physically in the universities.
These being said, Neil Selwyn observes that these newcomers have very little understanding of the nature of education itself. There is also significant conflict of interest between their commercial goals and those of public education (See Neil Selwyn, Is Technology Good for Education?, Chapters 1-5). Nonetheless, Selwyn believes these technologies are here to stay and much reflection is needed on how human teachers can partner them. This involves identifying aspects of human teaching that are irreplaceable.
c) Additional Concerns in Theological Education
Besides these concerns, many theological educators also reject digital learning on theological grounds. As they see it, “the fact that Christ took on human flesh indicates that theological education, too, should take place in the flesh, in a face-to-face environment.” Jones et al, however, have pointed out that much of the Apostle Paul’s teachings were actually conveyed through his epistles. No doubt, the apostle did not regard the written word as “a primary medium of his apostleship”. Nevertheless, like his Greco-Roman peers, he did assume that his letters can not only convey his teachings but also mediate his social presence and authority to his readers (Jones et al, Teaching the World, Chapters 2-3).
Theological education, however, is not just about helping students acquire cognitive content. It is also about the discipleship and formation of the students. For this reason, Jones et al stress the importance of recruiting online faculty who are theologically competent and also have the spiritual maturity to be a model for and to mentor their students.
In light of the above, what does this mean for theological education in the decade ahead? First of all, it seems that Blended or Hybrid learning is here to stay. After 2 years of COVID-19, most Christians are now comfortable, I believe, with the use of digital alongside in-person learning. This also presents exciting opportunities for equipping God’s people, not only locally but also those in the region. This is because who previously cannot attend classes in Singapore (due to time, ministry and/ or financial constraints) can now do so.
Secondly, since attention span is likely to be shorter on the “Zoom” space, educators will need to move away from lectures to higher order learning activities during the tutorials, such as case discussions, debates or project presentations.
Lastly, digital educational platforms appear to hold much promise as a means of extending a school’s ministry to the less privileged in Asia, and also acting as an avenue for promoting contextualised theology. What it entails will depend on how schools collaborate on this venture.