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Technology is impacting seminaries

PC(USA) seminaries increasing online offerings: Fuller to close satellite campuses to meet demand for digital classes

By Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Fuller seminarian

Fuller Theological Seminary’s online enrollment has surged by 50 percent in the past four years. Fuller currently has some 6,500 enrollments in 260 online courses — and more of its students take classes online than at any of its campuses. (Photo courtesy of Fuller Theological Seminary)

LOUISVILLE – Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, is planning to close its satellite campuses in Seattle, Menlo Park and Orange County and reduce degree and program course offerings in Phoenix and Colorado. The changes, if approved by accreditors, will be effective at the end of September 2019.

According to a letter to alumni, Fuller officials made their decision because of a growing demand for their online offerings and a decline in residential enrollment. The letter said that regional campus enrollment dropped by about 30 percent from 2013–17, while online enrollment surged about 50 percent during the same period. Fuller currently has some 6,500 enrollments in 260 online courses — and more of its students take classes online than at any of its campuses.

“Technology is causing a mass disruption in higher education,” said Irene Neller, Fuller’s vice president of communications, marketing and admissions. “Students’ learning preferences, the pace and the way they go about learning has radically changed.”

Fuller officials believe there will always be a core group of students who are campus residents, especially at the PhD level, but they say that closing satellite campuses and retooling online offerings will allow the seminary to expand its global reach.

The effects of the technological revolution are also impacting PC(USA) seminaries. Columbia Theological Seminary is currently preparing a strategic plan that includes adding an online program, which trustees will vote on in October. If approved, online courses and programs could begin in the 2018–19 academic year.

“All of the Association of Theological Schools data show that a really good online program does as well, or even a bit better, at building community and spiritual formation,” said Columbia President Leanne Van Dyk. “I’m excited to lead Columbia into an expansion of our teaching and learning models, including online.”

Van Dyk hopes that Columbia might one day offer a massive open online course that anybody could access for free or low cost.

“We could do the four Gospels, and with one login anyone could access our Bible faculty,” she said. “It would help spread the good word of what we do at Columbia.”

Meanwhile, at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, most students now get their theological training online. Dubuque is the only Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary offering a master of divinity program online, and in 2000, Dubuque began offering its Commissioned Ruling Elder (CRE) classes online. With more than 1,500 registrations from all over the country over the years, Dubuque officials decided to increase the seminary’s online offerings.

“It’s a fabulous experience as a professor to teach digitally,” said Annette Bourland Huizenga, Dubuque’s assistant dean and associate professor of New Testament. “Primarily because students can’t hide; they have to do the work. They can’t come into class and pretend they’ve done the readings by spouting something off.”

Dubuque currently has 15 first-year online students in this year’s MDiv class — all from the PC(USA) — and 11 residential students. Dubuque also offers a one-year Master of Arts in Christian Leadership Program online that has 24 new students; all but two are Presbyterian.

“Our distance learners say the top reason for their satisfaction as online students is spiritual and faith formation,” said the Rev. Dr. Sue LeFeber, Dubuque’s director of seminary vocation, field education and placement. “I’m excited about the seminary’s future. By using technology, we are staying nimble and flexible rather than saying, ‘This is going to be our one path.’”

Union Presbyterian Seminary has also been a pioneer of sorts in online learning in the PC(USA). Union was the first PC(USA) seminary to launch a Masters of Arts in Christian Education (MACE) program through its Blended Learning Program, where students spend 11 weeks online and one week on campus each semester. Blended Learning and MACE were part of the Extended Campus Program that started as a summer school program at the Presbyterian School for Education (PSCE) when it was a separate school from Union. Union joined in federation with PSCE in 1997.

Union also started an online learning program for those not seeking a degree through Pathways to Learning & Leadership for CREs or those in a congregation who might want to do coursework at a higher level than what they might find through their congregation’s adult education classes.

“The spiritual formation we’ve been able to do with incoming residential students online through our Community of Learning program before they arrive has been wonderfully creative,” said Union President Brian Blount. “We’re now trying to figure out how we can reach into areas of spiritual life in the church. It’s important to take what we learn and serve the wider church.”

In addition, Union recently completed a three-year pilot program in which each of its faculty members agreed to teach at least one course in the Blended Learning Program.

“It was really helpful for us to get our feet on the ground as we begin to think about future degree programs online,” Blount said. “Some of the faculty that was skeptical actually enjoyed the format.”


According to a 2016 report from the Association of Theological Schools, an increasing number of students are completing most of their classwork online. In addition:

  • In 2016, 87 percent of the students enrolled online at Dubuque were ages 41–55, but LeFeber says the 2017 class list skews younger.
  • The average age of a Fuller online student is 37.
  • Columbia’s Van Dyk expects average online students to be “30- and 40-somethings.” 

Additional online/hybrid offerings at PC(USA) seminaries: 

Austin

 Pittsburgh

 Princeton

 Continuing education   

  • Certificate of Theology and Ministry
  • Certificate in Youth and Theology
  • Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising

San Francisco

Online courses

  • Introduction to the Old Testament
  • Vital Worship in 21st Century
  • History I: Christianites from Jewish Sect to Colonial Religion

 Johnson C. Smith

Hybrid

 

Seminaries related to PC(USA) by covenant agreement

 Auburn

Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico

  • Creating a digital “smart room” that will make more courses available to Puerto Ricans living on the island’s west side and Latin America and Hispanic congregational leaders in the U.S.

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