Should Theological Studies be Online?

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Jay Akkerman - NNU Master of DivinityWhen I was first asked to teach in Northwest Nazarene University’s graduate programs more than a decade ago, I was a busy pastor living in Phoenix. “How could I possibly teach in Nampa, Idaho?” I thought to myself.

That’s when I learned NNU was launching an online program in spiritual formation. I’ll be honest: my first reaction wasn’t positive.

I felt suspicious of online education. While I’d never taken an online course myself, it seemed somehow “less than” the kind of face-to-face learning experiences I’d always had before. “It’ll never work,” I thought – “Not for theological studies.”

Despite my doubts, I gave online teaching a try anyway—and it didn’t take long for me to become a firm believer. Online education really can work. In fact, many leading educators today contend that highly interactive online courses actually offer better learning experiences than many traditional classrooms at brick-and-mortar seminaries.

We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, much of the New Testament is actually first century distance learning! Just look at the Apostle Paul writing from his prison cell, reaching out to people he had never met. We’re just doing with computers what Paul and others did some 2,000 years ago!

And over the past decade, our programs have grown: today we offer five different Master of Divinity tracks in Christian Education; Christian Studies; Missional Leadership; Spiritual Formation; and Youth, Church & Culture. Plus five Master of Arts tracks in Christian Education; Missional Leadership; Pastoral Ministry; Spiritual Formation; and Youth, Church & Culture.

“But there’s no social interaction,” some critics still say. “You can’t possibly build community online.”

Not true—at least at NNU. When you’re a student in our online programs, you’ll develop real relationships with students from all over the world. That’s because our students progress through their studies in an online learning community with the same people from Day One. You’ll get to know each other really well—whether students are in Nebraska or Nepal, Maine or Malaysia. You’ll share in each other’s triumphs. You’ll console one another in the tough times, too.

While traditional institutions offer face-to-face courses, you might be surprised by the lack of community that often occurs in some seminaries these days. In an effort to help seminary students complete their studies around their daily work schedules, many seminaries now enroll students in block courses for three or four hours per night, or on just two or three days of the week. Too often, this can actually be counterproductive, especially if students merely become commuters who rush from work to class to home—and they’re too busy to interact deeply with each other.

Today, bricks and mortar don’t make a seminary. It’s the students and professors—exchanging ideas, beliefs and life experiences—who do. And at NNU, your professors and student colleagues are real people living real lives—and enjoying a very real learning experience together.

Dr. Jay Akkerman is professor of pastoral theology, directs NNU’s graduate theological online education programs, and co-directs the university’s annual Wesley Center Conferences. Read more about Dr. Jay Akkerman and other Wesley Center Personnel

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