With many seminaries now offering online courses, what should a prospective student look for in an online program? What makes a great online experience? Let’s assume you have researched various institutions concerning their theological positions, tuition, curriculum, and faculty. You’ve also determined that either an online seminary or a residential seminary will meet your learning goals. If all of those factors are equal, how do you determine if an online seminary is right for you? Here are 3 questions to help you make that decision:
- How do you best learn? Do you enjoy listening to lectures, discussing theological concepts with friends, reading, or applying what you learn in a local church setting? Do you learn best in a social setting or by yourself? Are you well organized and self-motivated? Some students need the structure of going to a physical classroom 2-3 times a week. They enjoy listening to lectures, taking tests, and writing academic papers. Others prefer to work at their own pace and set their own schedule. Others discover they learn best by having opportunities to practice principles learned in class. Online programs provide a great opportunity for students to stay engaged in their ministry make immediate application to their ministry. Research the online seminary and ask for a study guide and evaluate what types of activities are involved in courses and if it is suited for you.
- Do You Enjoy Interaction? In a residential setting, particularly if the classes are large, interaction between the professor and students, and among other students is limited. In an online course, students are expected to log in 3-4 times a week and engage their classmates and professor in meaning conversations. If you enjoy writing your thoughts and dialoging with friends through email, you will do well in an online program. At Rockbridge Seminary, classes are limited to 15 persons so students get personal interaction with colleagues from around the world.
- What technological and academic support is provided? Both residential and online programs require technology. Research the requirements of the school for Internet access, software, and browsers. Are you expected to purchase Bible software, and does the school have preferences of Bible software?
If you have trouble who is there to support you? It’s good idea to talk to a current student to see what support they have needed and how quickly faculty, administration, and tech support responded to their cry for help. Rockbridge requires faculty and staff to respond to inquiries within 24 hours of the inquiry, and typically response within 12 hours. (Faculty and staff do have to sleep.) In student surveys that assess the quality of teaching and learning at Rockbridge support that 82% agree or strongly agree that the course professor was responsive and helpful whenever they requested assistance and 15% indicated they did not require assistance. When students are asked, “When I requested registration assistance or academic advice, the seminary was responsive and helpful,” 52% indicated they had not needed assistance and 48% said they agreed or strongly agreed with that statement.
The best online programs provide learning environments that are simple to navigate. At Rockbridge, every class has the same structure, so students don’t have to figure out how each class is designed. We have students from around the world. Most of our students have been out of an academic setting for 20+ years and are nervous about entering the rigor of seminary studies. They have concerns about technology and the online classroom. Ninety-nine percent of students indicated, “The online classroom was easy for me to use.”
There are many things to consider when determining the next steps in your ministry training. Is an online seminary right for you?
About the Writer: Dr. Daryl Eldridge has served as Dean at one of the largest residential theological seminaries, served on staff at several churches helping to develop the ministry skills of leaders, taught in blended programs, and is now the president of Rockbridge Seminary, a fully online accredited seminary.