Navigating the Pitfalls of Online Education
August 30, 2023
Many people, when thinking of online education, might envision an isolated experience of studying alone in a dark room without any fellowship or interpersonal communication from their professors or classmates. This is a very real concern for a lot of people who are considering online education. It’s often true that opportunities for fellowship are harder to come by in the online modality, whereas they can occur more organically with the opportunity to brush shoulders with classmates in person. After all, there are strengths and weaknesses of both online and in-person education.
However, Westminster has engineered a number of ways to ensure that our online students enjoy a rich time of fellowship woven into their course of study. You can read more about our online experience broadly speaking here. In this article, we will be examining some challenges of online education, the need for hands-on Spiritual formation and fellowship in the online space, and how our online programs help to facilitate these vital components to ministry preparation.
Challenges of Online Education
The concerns stated above find their validity in the fact that online education has indeed been quite isolating in the past. Fellowship was practically non-existent in the case of asynchronous, mail-based educational programs, where tapes or DVDs of lectures were mailed to students with the students then sending their assignments back to the institution. A modern approach, where students essentially watch YouTube videos from their couch and then fill out online quizzes, offers little improvement, though students may progress through the course material at a faster pace without having to wait on the postal system. If an institution isn’t thinking deeply about fellowship and intentionally providing ways to bridge that gap, then the educational experience is going to suffer, even with ongoing technological improvements available. Any online program that doesn’t take this into account will essentially provide intellectual training alone. It will be a mere graduate school of theology, not a theological seminary.
The distinction may seem inconsequential, but a seminary, properly conceived, is concerned not just with intellection formation, but with spiritual formation as well. Character is most effectively formed and developed through interpersonal relationship, not only through the typical academic channels of lectures, readings, and assignments. Again, any online Christian education that is not taking these things into account is going to set its students up for failure.
The Need for Spiritual Formation
With these challenges in mind, Westminster has endeavored to incorporate spiritual formation as a key component of our online programs. Westminster’s Pastoral Theology department is deeply concerned with ensuring that our students can connect the intellectual material that they are learning with the work of the Spirit that happens in the hearts of believers. The ultimate aim is to then be able to communicate that melding of head and heart knowledge. This could be described as the theory of spiritual formation. In the history of the Reformed Tradition, this concept has been known as “divinity” and is where the term “Master of Divinity” comes from.
However, with the distinction between theology and divinity, a further distinction needs to be made. You will not find a course anywhere in Westminster’s curriculum entitled “Spiritual Formation.” This is because knowing the theory of spiritual formation and actually being formed by the work of the Holy Spirit applying the Gospel to your heart through progressive sanctification are different things. The last thing a seminary student needs is a resume that shows they got an A in Spiritual Formation.
The Need for Fellowship
An important source of spiritual formation is fellowship with other believers. The Spirit works through our friendships with other believers, as iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17). Through Christian fellowship we learn to practice what we preach. We see how the Gospel works in others and also how it is working in us. The school of Christ is in session at Westminster before and after the lectures have finished.
Fellowship is a major priority at Westminster, not as a mere respite from the brain fatigue that results from hard hours of study, but as an intentional way to grow in grace, assuming that Jesus is with us and will work in and through us together.
So how does Westminster do this? What are the mechanisms in place to instill spiritual formation and fellowship? To start with, our Dean of Online Students, Jerry McFarland, is available for meetings and loves to shepherd our online students as a voice of encouragement. He is also not alone. He is surrounded by six to eight current students and alumni that make up the Core Advisory Team. These students actively and continually think of ways to improve the online community, strengthen relationships, and increase fellowship amongst the student body.
One of the fruits of the Dean of Online Students and the Core Advisory Team is the online “coffee houses” which meet monthly at four different times to accommodate busy schedules and various time zones. These Zoom gatherings are rich times of fellowship for the students to practice the fellowship and spiritual formation discussed above. The Core Advisory Team has also recently begun implementing regional, in-person gatherings for students that live within a close enough proximity to one another.
An important aspect of the coffee houses, in-person gatherings, and conversations with Jerry is that none of these things are required. There is no pressure to participate nor is there a grade that depends on these events. They are fully for the benefit of the student. In that sense, what you put in, is what you get out.
Students and alumni have also reported developing personal friendships which they maintain apart from formal seminary events as a result of the connections they’ve made in class and via coffee houses.
Don’t take our word for it, hear these testimonials of current students and alumni.
Online education doesn’t need to be a lonely and isolated experience. At Westminster, it can be one in which your Spiritual formation blossoms in the context of rich fellowship with your fellow students. The Spirit is at work among our student body and we celebrate that, through technology and intentionality, many of the struggles of online education have been overcome.
Again, if you would like to know more about online education at Westminster take a look at this article. Our Admissions team would also be happy to speak with you about any of our online programs. You can reach out to them at email@example.com.
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