Last week, I turned in the final grades for the seminary course I was teaching. Distance learning semesters are different from what you may have known. This was the “Winter Semester,” and began Nov. 4 and ended March 9. Which is why I have not added anything to this blog since October!
You see, teaching a master’s level course is a lot of work. And teaching a distance learning course is, well, a lot of work.
But it’s all worth it.
The course I taught was Systematic Theology II, which is a required course for the Master of Divinity degree. There were 19 students in the course for all but the first few months of the term. One student lives in Arizona, three (?) are in Iowa, one is in Chicago, and the rest live in the Eastern time zone. Most of them will graduate in May.
Because this course is conducted by distance learning, the interaction is hardly ever face-to-face. My lectures were audio recordings, typically a short one and a long one each week of the course. My guidance and counsel of them was through my comments on their written assignments, in exchanges of e-mail, and through a few phone calls. I offered two “online office hours,” which were basically like multi-point Skype calls, where we could all hear each other and they could all see me. Not many students were able to join these (their schedules are often very complex), but those who did seemed to like it. I certainly did.
So, most of the interaction was at a distance and asynchronous. But not all of it. There was also a two day intensive in January, during which I and my students met face to face at Western Seminary. The instruction I was able to offer was much more interactive than it could ever be in an asynchronous context. But there was another benefit: as a result of the intensive these students became for me more than names and assignment submissions. I got to know them, and I liked them, quite a bit, so that even though I was glad to go home to my family I had some regret that I couldn’t be with these students even more.
Twelve years ago I worked for a seminary, and a big part of my job was helping professors use the technology we had for distance learning. The tools we had then could be viewed as somewhat primitive today. For a variety of reasons — the state of the technological art at the time, the novelty of the whole idea, the distinct pressures and goals of that particular institution — distance learning was an uncertain endeavor. Partly because of that experience, but also because of my experience teaching college and seminary students in the late ’90s, I have not been a DL “true believer.”
I feel very differently now. Sure, I still see the limitations and difficulties in this kind of teaching. You have to account for the lack of face-to-face interaction. It may take more work on the part of the professor than does in-person instruction. But when I look at the pedagogical values, measures, and outcomes that I believe are relevant in theological education, I have to say that high quality distance learning can happen. I believe, with my course, that it did.