Seminary education is experiencing a paradigm shift…

Newsflash: The internet has arrived!

Like nearly every other industry and field, graduate theological education has been experiencing significant disruption with the advent of the internet. This is obvious to everyone and educators have been responding by moving courses and programs online. For instance, Tom Tanner and Eliza Smith Brown observed that as of autumn 2015 “more than half (145 schools or 53 percent) of all ATS members now offer distance education, as contrasted with less than 10 percent just a decade ago…one-fourth of all ATS students were enrolled in at least one online course, whereas a decade ago fewer than one-tenth were.” Online offerings have proved to be a key driver in enrollment growth for Seminaries.

Star Trek warp-drive
Hyperspace travel photo by


The old “bricks and mortar” paradigm

Seminaries, colleges, and Bible schools have been responding to student and constituency needs by “going online.” In the process they have learned much about how to deliver courses and programs in innovative ways, best practices for teaching in online environments, and the sort of infrastructure necessary to support these efforts.

I’ve noticed, however, that the underlying paradigm that frames how one conceives of teaching, courses, programs, or learning environments seems to lag faaaar behind. As I’ve engaged educators from various schools, it seems that when they describe an online class, how to best teach, or a proper learning environment, they have in mind the ideal of the “bricks and mortar” residential campus. The goal becomes creating a traditional classroom–online. The classroom with expert lecturer is still seen as the ideal learning space, surrounded and supported by a library, faculty offices, registrar and finance offices, student life, residence halls, and so forth. This should come as no surprise inasmuch as the idea of the university itself developed along these lines over 800 years since the founding of schools like Oxford and the Sorbonne in the 12th century. One cannot expect the rise of the internet roughly 20 years ago to easily dislodge our shared imagination for higher education.

The new “cloud” or “web” paradigm

In Star Trek, the crew of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise travel from one world to another, “to boldly go where no [one] has gone before.” They will be in one world, enter warp drive, and then jump to another, entirely different world to explore. Often when the crew arrived, they would be quite disoriented and only understand and adapted to the new environment after dealing with a number of challenges or crises. Unavoidably, Captain Kirk and crew would draw on their knowledge and experience in previous worlds to meet these challenges.

In a similar way, graduate theological education has suddenly been dropped into a new world, but we continue to act and think as if we are still in the old. For instance, a professor wishes to begin teaching online. A strategy might be to record her lecture and post it to an online course site for students to watch. By so doing, she seeks to replicate online what happens in the “real’ classroom. The “bricks and mortar” world she knows still informs her imagination for online teaching.

The reality is that we theological educators find ourselves in a new world and are not entirely sure what it is, or how best to characterize it. Perhaps the two best candidates to describe the new paradigm are “web” or “cloud.” The first emphasizes the interconnectivity of everything by the internet, while the second emphasizes that the “base” is no longer the material, but the virtual.

The implication: Everything changes. Everything.

At George Fox we are striving to understand this shift in paradigms and to fully adapt to this new world. We accept that the new reality is “web” and “cloud.”

  • In a world where all knowledge is accessible, faculty function more like conductors of a learning symphony where they both guide and collaborate with students rather than expert sages who provide knowledge to passive recipients.
  • Students can engage one another, faculty, and university services online from their ministry context 24/7/365, instead of having to uproot and live cloistered away at a common physical location to learn.
  • In the extreme dynamism of this new, connected world, degrees have an increasingly short “shelf life.” Credentials will continue to matter, but life-long learning communities will matter more.
  • And paradoxically, in-person engagement and experiences actually matters more than ever in this virtual world, but not in the ways of the old world. “Residency” is no longer about “bricks and mortar” classroom or lectures; it is about connection with other ministry leaders and participation in rich, shared learning experiences that cannot be replicated online.

We are excited about the opportunities that this new world provides for theological education, and like Kirk and Spock, we look forward to going boldly go where no one has gone before.

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