Distance Students Know What Makes a Great Online Course20 Oct

Distance Students Know What Makes a Great Online Course
Current students in seminary distance programs share their ideas on what is needed to make a great online course. Add your voice in a post and share what you’ve learned to assist future seminary students and faculty!

Technology that works, is easy to use, and is accessible from anywhere while on the go.
Distance students are juggling jobs, ministry demands, family and other relationships. We need to be able to access our online course materials and assignments as we move through our day, from our laptop or cell phone, and wherever we are.”

“I had to drop a course because the professor would not allow access to the course materials offline so I could not do my Greek exercises while on a flight, and I travel for my job!”

Courses designed for the uniqueness of the online environment.  Transferring a residential course to online creates great problems for the students!
Assignments and lectures need to make sense and fit the design of an online course.  CD’s of lectures recorded in a residential class don’t work online. Classroom length lectures (40-60 minutes) are not workable in an online course. Faculty needs to realize that an online course is not a modified residential course.”

“The best on-line courses have been able to develop a sense of community. This has happened in a variety of ways through the discussion boards, and during the Intensives. To go beyond just meeting a class assignment to creating community takes some real intentionality on the professors’ and the students’ parts, but it makes all the difference in a distance course.”

“A well organized, balanced, and logical course set-up and syllabus – that still provides some flexibility in order to serve community.”

“Timely feedback from your professor on assignments. Without face-to-face contact, distance students need more feedback. Waiting weeks for a grade is very frustrating. You end up really floundering without direction not knowing what the professor wants from the assignment and this creates a lot of anxiety.”

Faculty who understand the distant student and create their course for working adults not full time students.
“If more professors understood the lives of distant students they would be better able to teach. Those who show grace in enforcing deadlines, for example, seem more interested in learning than rules. Many distance learning students can only devote one or two days to their class each week. If there are expectations for posts to be made multiple times in the week those students cannot comply and lose one of the theoretical advantages to online classes-flexibility.”

“Institutions offering multiple courses simultaneously must work with the various professors to balance the work load throughout a semester. An exam, 20+page paper, and a major quiz within the same 7 calendar days is a complete and total ‘killer’ for the online learner.”

Faculty (and administration) who are comfortable using interactive technology and make use of it to connect often with distance students.
“Faculty (and staff) need to communicate with us. Don’t treat us as an after-thought and secondary to the residential students.  Too often it seems that distance students are invisible to the way a course is led and the way program decisions are made.”

The professors need to love to be learners themselves. This would mean that they are passionate about being taught a new way of teaching and then teaching in this new way.”


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.

Six Models for Teaching and Learning with Interactive Technology04 Oct

Interactive technology can: (1) deepen student learning in a course, (2) increase the use of residential classrooms, and (3) expand the reach and enrollment of a seminary. Schools with little interest in distance programs can reap important benefits from the use of interactive technology like wikis and blogs when used in any course. Research shows that interactive technology, when used to support learning outcomes is increasing student learning.

  1. Course Assignment – use an interactive tool for an assignment in a residential course.
    A residential course can integrate interactive technology (web-based discussions, blog, wiki, document sharing) to engage students in creating, demonstrating, and collaborating together. Course assignments can bridge between the classroom and ministry settings with the immediacy necessary to enhance the transfer of learning. Mobile devices that capture real events as they happen (iPhone and Flip video cam) can provide valuable illustrations for class discussion and “case” analysis. Assignments that integrate interactive technology draw students into a course and increase motivation to learn, critical factors in student learning. See Harnessing the Benefits of Interactive Technology for illustrations.

    Considerations – Choose the technology that bests support the learning goals. Use a common interactive tool such as a wiki and repeat the assignment several times before determining if it has been effective. Students may need tutoring on using the technology for a course assignment.

  2. Course Hours – replace a weekly class hour with an online component for each week of a semester. The equivalent of a class period each week of the course would be moved online stimulating interactive learning without the physical classroom. This option is especially valuable if a school has a large population of commuter students. This format is becoming widely used in higher education to expand the number of courses one classroom can support. New programs or added sections of popular courses can be added when classroom sessions are moved online. This blended design capitalizes on the best learning from both online interaction and face-to-face.

    Considerations – Collaborative projects that allow students to engage the class material more in depth are an effective way to use the online component. Usually introduce this new design after a week of class and be prepared to coach students new to this format.

  3. Multiple Site Web Connection – offer courses simultaneously at multiple sites through both face-to-face and web conferencing system. Full feature web conference systems allow students who cannot experience a class session in person to be online listening and seeing the professor (or class) through their computer. It can be beneficial for a professor to rotate between sites providing all students with the experience of face-to-face. Small inexpensive webcams (usually built into laptops) allow students to see the class and professor, and to participate in discussion based on how the professor sets the controls. Commuter students who travel several hours to a class find this option very important to keep them enrolled. Web conference systems function over the internet and can be initiated and accessed from any location. These systems have multiple uses beyond the classroom such as meetings, project collaboration, or faculty search interviews.

    Considerations – Important features include the required internet connection, connection reliability during long sessions, recording and playback, technical support requirements, and payment options (such as month to month or annual).

  4. Multiple Site Live Video– stream real time video between designated classrooms usually linking two locations. Video classrooms often require significant special hardware and extensive high speed connection for each location. Technical support and an class facilitator at each location is very critical. Quality technology that faculty will use and students find meets their expectations are essential. Cuttings costs with lower quality cameras and mics resulted in a video conference system that went completely unused at one seminary.

    Considerations – These systems have become more portable and costs have declined, yet this remains a learning design with significant investment and limited flexibility.

  5. Laboratory Program – create a laboratory-style curriculum where students learn while fully immersed for a sustained period in another context (urban, very remote rural or cross-cultural). For one seminary, a two year MA begins with students living in overseas locations with mentors for the first year. Residential faculty guide students’ learning through online collaborative assignments and web-based communication tools. Students study cultural anthropology and cross-cultural communication while living in another country, fostering authentic experiences that are immediately connected with textbook theory. Students complete their final academic year on campus.

    Considerations – Determine the laboratory locations before choosing the technology. Determine the most reliable technology likely available in each location by the time the program begins. Cell phone reception can be more advanced globally than internet; mobile devices are becoming the technology of choice for many around the world.

  6. Distance Program – full distance learning program where all students live away from campus. These programs are best designed to reach a new student audience and can increase a school’s enrollment and impact significantly. A growing number of young adults prefer not to be a full time student again. They want to learn while remaining in their ministry. Older adults looking to fulfill their ministry calling are limited to a seminary they can access from a distance. Distance learning programs offer these adults the flexible option they need for gaining a theological education. Concerns regarding the quality of learning based on earlier generations of technology have disappeared as experience and research have documented strong student learning with appropriate course design. Significant transformational learning in students is identified in programs with a cohesive and holistic design that incorporates interactive technology.

    Consideration – Distance learning programs make valuable contributions to an institution and are important strategies for schools that desire to reach a broader audience. Technology costs have decreased substantially and new learning applications allow groups to share many costs. Read more about the benefits of distance learning.

View other Articles and Resources


Harnessing the Benefits of Interactive Technology12 Aug

The following vignettes show how interactive technology can create active learning within the design of a typical seminary course. Tapping the benefits of interactive technology does not need to require a costly course revision or the adoption of a full distance learning program. This kind of technology engages students, increasing their motivation to learn, and incorporates the diverse ways that many students learn best.

Vignette 1 – Systematic Theology

Maria is on the train to Dr. B’s class and working on her wiki assignment. It’s her team’s responsibility to suggest the best questions for the final exam that will cover the week’s reading assignment. Glenn and Suzanne are both online, too, so the discussion in their exam wiki along with their added Twitter feed keep them moving fast. “We might get finished in the next 20 minutes before my stop,” thinks Maria.

“Three questions down, two more to go”, she writes on the wiki. To cover the reading assignment, Maria and Glenn think five questions are really needed. Suzanne hesitates – she’s not quite sure. Then she has an idea – she tweets – “better idea – revising Q3 & Q4 – watch – respond.”

Maria clicks back and forth between the tweets and the wiki using her mobile phone keeping up with Suzanne as she revises Glenn’s fourth and fifth question, a great feature of a wiki. Maria tweets – “brilliant work S – I like.” Glenn, on the wiki, picks up from where Suzanne left off and makes a couple of small changes to the fifth question. “nice work. – sharper focus,“ tweets Maria. Suzanne tweets Dr. B, ”suggested questions for the final exam ready for class review.“ He responds, “excellent – right on time!” “It will be interesting to see what suggestions others in the class make this week,” thought Maria as the train jolts to a stop. She tweets the team while waiting to exit – “train just stopped – we did it! See ya in 5!”

While on his way to class, Dr. B decides to start with the small groups reviewing the recommended exam questions created by Suzanne’s team. “In light of the challenging reading this past week, it will be good for the whole class to review the questions and see what recommendations they make,” he thought.

Tip – blogs and wikis can be available to faculty without a high cost software contract. Numerous options are available in password protected social networking sites. Students can easily create their own Twitter account for the course. Watch the video of an Australian professor who used a wiki for this kind of assignment at http://vimeo.com/13414761

Vignette 2 – New Testament Introduction

Dr. K’s class is working on the New Testament characteristics of the Church. Teams of students must determine their five primary characteristics based on class lectures and then create a visual presentation that illustrates those characteristics drawn from within a ministry setting.

Using the project blog, each team of students communicates back and forth as they work to refine their five characteristics. Jasmine’s team liked the blog for posting comments and Jim added a Tweet feature so that each team member would know when a new post was up or a question needed to be discussed. That way the work on the project could keep moving as each one was quickly alerted to what was being said.

Jorge found the blog posts a good way to start their discussion but he was frustrated with how cumbersome it was for creating a final synthesis of their ideas. “An easier way to collaborate and finalize our ideas was needed,” he thought. So he set up a wiki and inserted their list of characteristics. He sent a tweet to the team to let them know what he had done and suggested they finish refining their list down to five through the collaborative feature offered in a wiki. Within minutes several were online making revisions. Jasmine tweeted, “great idea J. – faster and much easier – let’s get this step done, team!” The wiki allowed each one to revise any contribution made by a member of the group. If one person on the team did not agree with the latest wording, that person could edit the text suggesting a different statement.

Jasmine posted a suggested timeline to complete their final step, the media presentation. Their final project would illustrate each characteristic with either a short video or a photo collage. Team members would use their own personal media. Jorge, Jim and Jasmine had their own pocket-size video cams and Keith and Liz had their cell phone cameras for still photos. They decided that each video and photo collage would have a description in English and Spanish so Jorge’s community could see the final project and their part in it. Jorge agreed to do the final production work so the project would flow as a whole. The rest of the team agreed to recommend songs for background music and Liz agreed to do the final proofing.

After several weeks of intense work, a rough version of the project was linked to their wiki and the team began making recommendations for the final edits. Jorge was able to film a family baptism and Jasmine captured her church’s special worship celebration of new members. After watching the final production, Jim was moved by the story of the Church they had created. “Wow!! — awesome job everyone – what a powerful story of the Church in action,” tweets Jim. “A fantastic lesson on the Church for my youth gathering next week☺ !! Can we make this available for use after the course is over?” tweets Jasmine. “Thinking of the same thing. Let’s do it – everyone cool with that?” tweets Keith. “My blog site could hold this easily – access it for ministry whenever,” tweeted Jorge. “Sweet – do it”, sends Jasmine.

Tip – if a school does not have a software learning application such as Sakai, a short term (month to month) contract with a host service or social networking site such as Ning can be arranged for a modest fee. Many students today have their own blog site or website and this may provide the tools needed.

Post your ideas for including interactive technology in a seminary course!

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