The Association of Theological Schools is made up of over 270 graduate schools of theology in the United States and Canada. It provides accreditation for these schools based on very strict criteria. ATS recently presented a State of the Industry webinar that provided an overview of enrollment, students, faculty, and finances at member schools.
There were a few surprises in the report but there was validation of some ideas that have been circulating based primarily on observation and anecdotes. One of the more interesting findings related to a comparison of student satisfaction between “main campus or traditional daytime students” and “majority online students.”
In recent years, many theological schools have been moving more of the content of their degree programs online. This has certainly been the case with Central Baptist Theological Seminary, the institution that provides me the opportunity to teach online, at the Nashville site, and at the main campus in Shawnee.
The ATS staff member making the report noted, “When students were asked how effective their education had been, they rated many areas highly—but then they were graduating when they completed the questionnaire, and may have been a bit euphoric!” The presenter went on the compare residential and online learners:
“When asked about areas of personal growth . . . graduates who had completed most or all of their work online rated their personal growth in several areas slightly higher than graduates who had completed most of their work on campus. These ratings are not significantly different, but the difference is nonetheless interesting. Was it because online students were older? Was it because they had wanted to go to seminary for a long time and finally were able to? Was it because they had a better educational experience? We don’t yet know.”
Online students evaluated several factors of their education slightly higher than residential students did--enthusiasm for learning, respect for my own religious tradition, self-knowledge, self-confidence, self-discipline and focus, and trust in God. Perhaps the most important finding was that there was little difference between residential students and online students in their evaluation of their educational experiences.
Certainly, differences in the age, level of motivation, and ministry involvement of those taking online classes may make a factor. Even so, the findings would seem to validate the decision of the ATS Commission on Accrediting’s recent decision to increase the amount of study students can complete primarily online.
As Central Seminary begins a new curriculum that offers students a great deal of flexibility about when and where they take classes, we are acknowledging that online education—or “technologically enhanced education”--will play a major role in forming future leaders for the churches, judicatories, and parachurch ministries. This new approach certainly seems to be filling a need in an effective way.