Distance Learning in Seminary: Finding Programs of Excellence06 Oct

When searching for an online or distance seminary program there are important signs of excellence to look for. Distance programs vary widely so take time to investigate carefully. Here are steps to help you find three essential marks of excellence in a distance learning seminary program where you can be transformed for God’s Kingdom work.

    Steps to follow when looking for a seminary program:

  1. Know yourself and what is most important to you.
    How do you learn best? Is respectful and collaborative interaction with seminary faculty and peers important to you? Not all programs are designed to offer what you may expect. Make a list of the important qualities you most want in a seminary program experience, whether online or on campus.
  2. Collect information
    Ask extensive questions and gather information from different sources; website, admissions, faculty, current students and formal documents such as handbooks and syllabi. Look for information on the qualities most important to you.
  3. Reflect, pray, and consult with others who know you
    Take time to reflect on the information you have collected. What is your sense of the school’s culture and values? Is this a place where you can thrive? Involve others who know you well in your decision. Be cautious of pressure from admissions staff or generic marketing emails.

Three Marks of Program Excellence

Leadership, Transparency, Design

  1. Program Leadership
    A mark of excellence in distance programs is the leadership of a faculty member who teaches regularly in the program, is personally invested in the guidance and support of distance students, and participates regularly in the academic work of faculty at the school. Get to know the director of the distance program you are considering. How long has that person been involved with distance learning? How do they keep up with the changing field and what courses do they teach in the distance program? This faculty member needs to be effective in solving the program problems of students and faculty. Is the program director approachable and effective with current students in solving problems? An effective program leader that students have confidence in is critical for program success and long term health of the degree program.
  2. Program Transparency
    A second mark of excellence in academic programs is the easy availability of extensive program information, a key indicator that the seminary understands the needs of distance students. Extensive information is especially important since distance programs vary a great deal. Do not assume that everything a school describes on their website or in their catalogue is available for distance students. The same extent of student support that residential students receive may not be provided for distance students. And some seminaries charge higher tuition for distance students.

      Here are important sources of program information to review.

    • Degree program handbook: lists the program requirements of distance students, including the non-credit requirements, such as supervised ministry. Some seminaries have extensive requirements beyond courses. How flexible is the program and will it fit your demanding lifestyle?
    • Student and/or academic handbook: lists academic policies such as transfer credit or picking up a course you miss.
    • Course syllabi and sample course: review the syllabi of two recent courses to see how the courses are designed. Watch for outdated technology used to deliver lectures and tests as the design of a course. Look for how the course offers regular interaction with classmates and faculty.
      Talk With Current Students (and faculty):
      Learn how current students describe the school and the distance program. Ask these students for the names of other students you can contact. Ask students:

    • What most surprised them about their experience?
    • Would they choose the same program if they were making the decision again?
    • What are the strengths and limitations?
    • What is essential to know about the distance program?
    • How does the school response to and incorporate the voice of distance students?
    • What changes have been recently made that have improved the program?
    • How many have graduated and how has the school assisted them in placement?
  3. Program Design
    The third mark of excellence is the design of the distance program. Distance programs vary considerably and will result in very different experiences for students. Here’s what to look for:

    • What kind of person teaches most courses?
      A seminary may use teachers who are full time permanent professors, visiting faculty with advanced degrees or instructors who lack the advanced expertise of faculty in a subject area. Watch for a heavy use of TA’s (teaching assistants without advanced study). Quality graduate programs most often have a high percentage of permanent faculty teaching distance courses.
    • What is the maximum number of students enrolled in a course?
      Some programs have no limit on the number of students allowed in a distance course even though they may have limits in their residential courses. More than 25 students in a graduate distance education course is not recommended. What do current students most often experience?
    • Do courses begin and end on a set schedule?
      Some programs are designed as an independent study where a student begins a course when they are ready and works alone privately at their own pace. There is no class for the student to participate in and no collaboration with class peers. Other programs are based on a standard course model where a group of students together engage a professor for a set period of time, such as a semester.
    • How does the program specifically foster spiritual and relational growth in students necessary for ministry effectiveness?
      Seminary degree programs designed for ministry leadership in the local church or other context are expected to invest in the spiritual and relational growth of their students. Often this involves a residential component woven through the curriculum, such as for the Master of Divinity. This is a vital component in quality seminary distance education.

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Quote by Evangelical Seminary Dean

“If Meri MacLeod speaks on distance learning, listen. Her mastery of the topic is matched by her enthusiasm. When we were contemplating online education, Meri was the first person I contacted and brought to campus. And now we’re moving ahead. I heartily recommend Meri to any school wishing to move into digital education.”

John V. Tornfelt, VPAA, Dean of the Faculty
Evangelical Seminary
Myerstown, PA

North Park Theological Seminary

“Dr. MacLeod is first an informed and able educator and designer of learning experiences. This is significant. It means that she comes from the perspective that technology supports, it doesn’t drive education.”

Thumbnail-Theo Ed Matters (1)

Linda Cannell
Academic Dean (retired)
North Park Theological Seminary