Getting an MDiv Online?

I mentioned this book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart by Q. Schultze here on the blog before.  I was recently reading part of this book again and found a great critique of online classes/education.  I agree with Schultze: online learning is far inferior to the “old school” method of teacher, students, and desks (or tables, of course).

I realize our readers are reading this online, so I want to note a few brief things before I use Schultze to critique online learning.  First, I am speaking specifically of MDiv classes taken with the goal of being a future pastor.  Though these critiques are applicable to all online learning, I’m not focusing on anything but MDiv classes that men take to become a pastor.  I believe “old school” seminary training is far better than online seminary training.  Second, I realize there are some extreme and rare cases where online seminary classes are better than nothing, though “extreme and rare cases” would exclude most of us who live in modern Western countries.

Here are a few things to consider about learning, listening, interacting, and understanding in the context of an intimate group.

“Cyberculture nurtures primarily superficial messaging and highly monologic discourses that lack the richness, equality, and spontaneity of conversation.  Proximate speech is the primary ‘technology’ that we use to build mutuality, trust, and a shared sense of the common good.”

“As David F. Ford puts it, ‘One lesson is that wisdom is best learned face to face by apprenticeship to those who have themselves learned it the same way.  Perhaps the ultimate privilege is to have wise parents, teachers, and friends – a wise community of the heart.”

“The contemporary hoopla about cyber communication generally ignores the fundamentally oral nature of our createdness.  We are created principally as speech agents, as conversationalists, not as keyboarders, uploaders, and downloaders.  No matter how many new types and technologies of communication we fabricate, the most powerful and character-shaping forms of human discourse are always tied to our native orality – to our speaking and listening ‘in person’ with each other.”

“‘Distance learning,’ writes [Clifford] Stoll, ‘offers all the information, all the facts, all the boredom of an ordinary classroom, with none of the inspiration, none of the commitment, and none of the joy.  It’s ideal for the student who equates information with education.  Perfect for the school that wants to hustle students through with minimal human interaction.'”

“Much of our moral bearing in life comes from our everyday rituals of conversation, through which we mutually attempt to build trust through dialogue.  The discipline of listening to one another, of truly trying to empathize and sympathize, is part of what makes us human.”

“Partly because of the technologizing of our daily communication, we are losing the moral dimensions of speech and slipping into inhumane forms of monologic communication.”

There are several more dimensions to Schultze’s discussion; you’ll have to get the book for more info.  Again, I agree with Schultze.  In my experience, the content of the lectures in seminary was only about one-fifth of my education.

The other four-fifths include: 1) The professor’s body language, eye contact, and the overall ethos of the classroom setting.  In my seminary classrooms, we could feel the professor’s intensity, pick up on his sarcasm/irony, or struggle through some difficult concept together as questioning students.  It was intensely personal.  2) The dialogues with professors between classes.  Piety, godliness, wisdom, love, kindness, and patience cannot really be taught in a lecture, but they can be “caught” by interacting with professors who have these qualities.  Knowing the professors on a personal level showed me what Christian virtue looks like and made their lectures even more stimulating and personal.  3) Interactions with other students was also a major part of my seminary training.  We would discuss and debate what we were learning, study exam questions together at a coffee shop, take an evening jog while talking apologetics, and enjoy seminary chapels and picnics together (with our families).  Seminary helps future pastors interact with others face to face – which is obviously a large part of pastoral life.  4) Another thing “old-school” seminary gives a person is self-discipline.  Seminary teaches a man to get up, study, make the 8:00AM class, write, pray, spend time with family, and press on in life.  The pastoral life demands these things as well; seminary training is a good prelude for real pastoral life (though seminary life is so much easier than the pastoral life).

Based on these things (and some others), I would strongly not recommend online seminary training for future pastors.  It is true that “old school” seminary requires tons of sacrifices, structure, sweat, speech, and study.  But so does the pastoral life!

The above quotes are found in chapter seven (“nurturing Virtue in Community”) of Habits of the High-Tech Heart. Also on this topic, see Clifford Stoll (quoted above), High-Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian.  Finally, I should note my (and Andrew’s) alma mater, Westminster Seminary California, which doesn’t offer online classes, but does offer a solid, confessional, Reformed, “old-school,” seminary education.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

4 Replies to “Getting an MDiv Online?”

  1. Greetings,

    I came to your blog through Scott Clark tweeting the link to this post. I have a few thoughts on this topic. To put my cards on the table, I’m a graduate of RTS-Virtual, but I also did half of my degree on campus before switching to the virtual program. So I have had the experience of both online learning and classroom seminary instruction.

    So with that in mind, I have a few thoughts in response:

    (1) Your argument is an argument against online (seminary) learning done poorly, not online learning done well. What I mean is that the “4/5” of learning that you mention can be had without being in a classroom environment. Video lectures address much of the first one, though I think that much of the irony, tone, etc, can be had through mp3s as well. The second aspect can be had if one is in regular dialogue with a pastor in the area. E.g., mentorship needs to be a huge component of any training for ministry, whether on a campus or in a local church. Regarding the third one, while some contexts might make it hard, you can often have significant discussions with others about what you’re learning, whether it’s another student going through the online training, or whether it’s a friend over the phone, etc. The fourth one, to be perfectly honest, is off the mark in my opinion. It takes far more discipline to work full-time, do ministry in the church, and then on top of it add seminary classes than it is to simply be a full-time seminary student. I’ve done both, and it took a lot of discipline to come home after work, listen to lectures, write papers, interact with professors and students on forums, take tests, and so on.

    (2) Following up on number 2, if by online education you mean simply someone sitting in a room, jamming his head full of knowledge without getting to know people, and then one day becoming a pastor, then of course that’s absurd. But I don’t know of any Reformed schools that allow one to graduate with such a model. RTS, for example, required regular meetings with a mentor (I met with a ruling and a teaching elder regularly). To be perfectly honest, I had far more interaction with them than I ever did with such a figure when I was on campus. The piety, wisdom, godliness and so on that you mention can be caught from spending time with leaders in a local church just as well as it can be from a professor at a seminary.

    (3) Perhaps WSC is different in this (and if so I commend them for it), but at RTS, I rarely interacted with professors outside of class. When you have anywhere from 20-50 students in a class all vying for attention, you just don’t get much. I actually had far more personal answers to my questions from professors in the online program than I did on campus.


  2. Joel:
    Thanks for the reply, and thanks for being courteous. I knew some readers would disagree with my conclusion here, so I am OK with some disagreement (no hard feelings, of course). Our readers will benefit from reading your comments.

    I don’t have time or energy for a lengthy discussion (these comment threads aren’t always very helpful anyway), so forgive me for being brief. I think there are some benefits to online learning. However I believe there are far more benefits to “old-school” education (especially for future pastors). Perhaps we could think of a broader discussion: the use of technology (i.e. the internet) and how it affects communication, live eye-contact, apprenticeship, fellowship, discipleship, and so forth. For one example, though it would be easier and less expensive for me to counsel a parishioner using Skype, face-to-face counseling is much more preferable. Skype would be better than nothing, but I would do everything in my power to have an “old-school” counseling session. As a personal (and side) note, I try to fight against the urge to utilize technology in such a way that makes me a lazy pastor!

    Anyway, I am glad for your input. Thanks again.



    1. Hi Shane,

      Thanks for your gracious reply. I think it is perhaps instructive that one’s background, experience, and personality has a lot to do with his perspective on the discussion. I actually gained a lot more out of my time in online learning and serving in a Christian school and church at the same time than I did studying full-time on campus. But others such as yourself may have profited immensely from your time on campus.

      I certainly agree that we ought to be careful about the use of technology in general, and I don’t think online learning is for everyone. It can be a cop-out. I think my basic point is that if it is coupled strongly with ministry in the local church (and mentorship there as well), it can give the same outcomes as on-campus studies. My point is certainly not that online is always (even usually) better in this day and age.

      But I digress and appreciate your thoughts and your ministry.


  3. Hi Shane,
    I would add as an elaboration of #3 that going to a denominational seminary (in my case Calvin Theological Seminary) with a view to serving in said denomination (in my case the CRC) creates an ethos of friendship and common cause that can (and often is) carried over into the pastoral ministry. Having had classes, meals, conversations, etc. with each other over the course of three years, we grew together and now have a greater sense of trust which is beneficial for the church. Thus, when we are called to engage in ecclesiastical work together post-seminary (e.g., classical work, synodical committees, etc.) we already have a working history.

    I realize that this is a bit different for a place like RTS or WSC, which has more denominational diversity. However, I think it contributes to your main point. “Real” classrooms far exceed virtual classrooms.

    Let me go a bit further and say that my face-to-face seminary experience not only contributed to a sense of shared camaraderie with the other CRC students but also (in my case at least) encouraged my hopes for the future of my denomination. If I had done the majority of training online, I would have no idea of the powerful preachers, wise pastors, and budding scholars who have recently entered the CRC ministry.


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