Does Face-to-Face Education Damage Seminary Students?

The Campus Experience

Recently a student from a previous semester sent me an email saying, “A course I’m taking this semester is confusing me. Could we have coffee and talk about it?”

This is the kind of connection I think every professor dreams of. Running into students after you’ve had them in the classroom, reconnecting, and seeing them change is a truly satisfying joy. I also teach online and I am responsible for building out the technology in Dallas Theological Seminary’s online programs. As much as I support and believe in what we are doing, in my personal experience I’ve found it harder to create these same kinds of connections in online classes, and that has always made me wonder about the spiritual formation side of online education.

So is this true? Is online education inferior when it comes to relationship building and the spiritual formation side of the seminary experience?

Studies in Online Education

Last year, two major studies were released about online education in seminary. In the spring, Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the accrediting body for the majority of seminaries in the North America, from the SBC schools to my employer, DTS, to Harvard, Duke, and Roman Catholic seminaries, put out a two-part study (part 1, part 2) of 2016 graduates which compared the growth and skills of students who completed their degrees primarily on campus to those who did most of their work online. Auburn Seminary also put out a comprehensive study called “(Not) Being There” which has some rich insights. One of the key takeaways answers our question saying that “Online student outcomes are equal to or better than those of traditional residential classes.”

The ATS study drills down and compares individual ministry skills (Since their data is in PDF, I’m reproducing it below). In many cases in the charts below, online students actually reported that their personal growth and ability to perform ministry work was at a higher level than what the campus-based student reported. One might think that a student sitting alone with a laptop would be less enthusiastic about education, have a less vibrant spiritual life, and without rubbing shoulders with us – the esteemed faculty – they’d be less able to teach, pray, and lead people. But this study shows just the opposite!

Online vs. Campus Personal Growth

Personal Growth Majority Online Majority Campus Difference
Enthusiasm for learning 4.42 4.17 +.25
Respect for my religious tradition 4.22 4.17 +.06
Self-knowledge 4.19 4.11 +.08
Respect for other religious traditions 3.92 4.05 -.13
Empathy for poor and oppressed 3.78 4.00 -.22
Insight into troubles of others 3.85 4.00 -.13
Trust in God 4.30 3.95 +.35
Self-discipline and focus 4.27 3.97 +.30
Ability to live one’s faith in daily life 4.20 3.88 +.32
Strength of spiritual life 4.20 3.75 +.45
Self-confidence 4.10 3.92 +.18
Desire to become an authority in my field 4.03 3.87 +.16
Concern about social justice 3.72 3.95 -.23
Clarity of vocational goals 3.86 3.80 +.06
Ability to Pray 3.64 3.37 +.27


Online vs. Campus Ministry Skills

Skills Majority Online Majority Campus Difference
Ability to think theologically 4.49 4.45 +.04
Ability to use and interpret scripture 4.38 4.33 +.05
Ability to relate social issues to faith 4.18 4.18 +.00
Ability to work effectively with men and women 4.11 4.17 -.06
Knowledge of church doctrine and history 4.19 4.11 +.08
Awareness/appreciation of globalized context of ministry 4.20 4.07 +.13
Ability to work effectively in my religious tradition 4.09 4.07 +.02
Knowledge of Christian philosophy and ethics 4.21 4.00 +.21
Ability to interact [well] with other cultures, racial/ethnic contexts 3.97 4.00 -.03
Ability to teach well 4.20 3.93 +.27
Ability to lead others 4.09 3.89 +.20
Ability to give spiritual direction 4.07 3.77 +.30
Ability to preach well 3.96 3.97 -.01
Ability in pastoral counseling 3.80 3.85 -.05
Ability to interact effectively with other religious traditions 3.91 3.92 -.01
Knowledge of church polity/canon law 3.72 3.71 +.01
Ability to conduct worship/liturgy 3.70 3.79 -.09
Ability to administer a parish 3.53 3.24 +.29
Ability to integrate insights from science into theology/ministry 3.79 3.62 +.17
Ability to integrate ecological concerns into theology and ministry 3.54 3.59 -.05

How do we explain this?

I have to admit that I was genuinely surprised when I first read these results. I have worked in seminary online education for more than 10 years, and I believe in the importance of bringing education to wherever God has called people. But even as I argued that the value of a student staying in his or her community, my experience of connection online versus on campus always made me wonder.

So, what does this data really show? When I posted it on social media some time ago, I heard a number of interesting responses, and I’ll work through them below:

  1. Question the Method – A few people seemed to distrust the results because they were self-reported. Some thought that it would have been better to ask the students’ spouses, friends, and congregants about their spiritual development and skill, but that’s not terribly realistic and shouldn’t affect the outcome. Others suggested that online students aren’t reporting accurately either because they are untrustworthy or because they aren’t around fellow seminarians and profs makes them less aware of their shortcomings. If this were true, it doesn’t explain why they rate themselves lower in some other areas.
  2. It’s the Evangelicals! – In summarizing the data, Tom Tanner, the Director of ATS’s Institutional Evaluation, pointed out that the two areas where online students reported less skill were “empathy for the poor and oppressed” and “concern about social justice.” He explained this by saying that, “a greater number of predominantly online students tend to be evangelical, rather than mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic, two ecclesial families who tend to give those areas greater attention.” This is plausible, but if this study is simply comparing evangelicals to mainline or Roman Catholic (rather than online vs. on campus) it would imply that evangelicals tend to be worse at social justice but better as teachers, leaders, prayers, and parish leaders. I had the chance to ask Tom if he felt that this was the implication, and he said he thought it as more complex than that.
  3. Campuses Are Negative – Lastly, as the title of this post suggests, one twitter friend suggested that perhaps we have it all wrong. Maybe seminary campuses are toxic places, and interactions on campus actually weaken spiritual life, the ability to teach and pray, etc.

I definitely wouldn’t argue that a campus is an inherently negative place for formation. But I think there is something to this. The process of uprooting one’s family and moving to a residential campus does come at a high cost that goes beyond the financial. Compared to a generation ago, seminary students today tend to be older which means they have more family and financial responsibilities at a time when the cost of education is much higher. Taking graduate classes, whether online or on a campus is tough to balance alongside work and family. But these data may indicate that distance ed students are able to lean on their existing jobs and community to lighten that burden.

Of course, these aren’t the only explanations for why online education is as good as or better than face-to-face. Some literature suggests is that online courses tend to get created from the ground up rather than retread like a campus class, and sometimes the fresh thinking makes for a better course. The Auburn study also suggests that, “The old divide between traditional, online and hybrid courses is obsolete,” and that students learn in a variety of ways including where they live and work.

All of this suggests that as with other areas of life, technology change functions like a mirror that forces us to evaluate how we’ve always done things. How and where does education and formation take place? Is the professor the key to change and what is the role of presence in forming meaningful relationships? These are important questions to wrestle with for both online and campus education. The good news is that after a few decades of experiments and tests, we can say that online education appears to be a spiritually healthy way to train men and women for ministry.

5 thoughts on “Does Face-to-Face Education Damage Seminary Students?

  1. What about these two factors.

    1. Most of the things that are stronger for online are about strengthening the learner whereas the offline ones tend to be about developing interpersonal skills. This is not entirely the case, but seems true of things like social engagement, engagement with people of different faiths, etc.

    2. More of the online students are perhaps more mature (older) and have more responsibilities and are more likely to take an online option than uproot a family and have an oncampus option. This is at least true of the online students I have seen in the UK. So online students score better on ability to teach, lead, and give spiritual direction because they have more experience in life and in these matters and are strengthening them. Moreover, it also may be that older individuals **may be** more set in their ways and if they did not care about the environment, poverty, etc., in the past they would not care now.

    1. Alex has said just the two things I was thinking. Especially the first, I am a real fan of distance education, but the real issue with how much is conducted is that it fails to really develop interpersonal relationships. We claim to do this through forums and live conferencing sessions, but often the reality of both of these is less than we’d like. On the other hand, the insertion of the students in their real world during their educational experience really helps them develop. It is striking that even in areas where one would expect the biggest difficulties for online students (like counselling and preaching) they do almost as well on these measures.

      My wife teaches counselling in a Christian institution they are moving towards a hybrid model for all students. With intensives and online components. Anecdotal evidence seems to support theory here.

  2. It would be interesting to see further data about the demographics of those surveyed to determine if there are any other variables in play here. For example, maybe the online students are on average younger, and maybe younger people tend to be more optimistic about the strength of their spiritual life. Or maybe distance learning programs are cheaper, so the students are on average poorer, and maybe poorer people tend to trust in God more. Just some made-up examples, but I wonder if distance learning vs traditional has really been isolated as the only variable.

    1. Brian,
      These are interesting guesses. At DTS the tuition is the same online and on campus. Some seminaries charge a little more or less, but I don’t know of any accredited one that are diploma mills.

      As for the age, at DTS our distance students tend to be older while our Dallas students tend to be younger. I’m assuming this is because younger students have fewer encumbrances making it easier to move while older students have established ministries and families and need to stay and learn.

  3. Perhaps we have ignored or downplayed the importance of staying in your local church context where you implement and apply what you are learning amongst those who know you well.

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