Technology in Theological Education Webinar - February 15-28, 2010

The second Technology in Theological Education Webinar, on the topic
Virtual Incarnations: Community Interaction in Cyberspace, is planned for February 15-28, 2010, with online discussions talking place on this ning site. A flyer for the event is below. Register online for the event here:

Questions, email John Kahler,

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My classroom formats vary a great deal. At one extreme, for courses in which I am trying to communicate very definable and delimited content which I want the seminarians to know, I have a very thorough course pack with I distribute. The approach is almost close to the Mastery Learning model of Bloom and Block, only we move through the material with lecture and group discussion. It might seem that this approach would be the ultimate bore, but the nature of the content is important enough to the seminarians that they find it excellent. They are especially grateful for the thorough notes, which include section-by-section study questions. I began this approach years ago as a junior high school teacher, long before I was a priest or a university level instructor. I had multiple levels of students who could work at their own pace in various modules of the course content (e.g., English grammar). I suppose that this approach would very simply translate to an online format. It could run by either having everyone move along at the same pace, or it could be set up for students to run through the units individually, taking tests on discrete content as they are ready. The objectives for this type of class are almost entirely in the cognitive domain, and rather basic ones at that.

At the other extreme would be classes in which I introduce the fathers of the Church. They consist of some introduction to each father, followed by reading and discussion of texts. This kind of course lends itself more easily to threaded asynchronous discussions, group presentations on various themes, with short lecture/modules by the teacher or by students on various related topics (e.g., the use of the letter in the ancient world). The objectives for this kind of class are much more diverse, including many objectives in the affective domain. One of my principle hopes is that students fall in love with the texts and authors, and desire to come back to them outside of any formal academic setting.

My main concern about putting either kind of course online is the time required to do so. The first type of course might take more time to get ready, but take less time to administrate. The second might be easier to get ready to present, but take more time to direct, because of the use of threaded discussions. A second concern is that our institution is only just on the cusp of making the investment necessary to make it happen. It is hard for an individual professor to get this going without an institutional commitment to it.
In smaller classes in theology and philosophy face-to-face, I have lots of discussion, book presentations, and leading of discussion (as well as often having students taking turn leading devotionals). And I enjoy very much leading and facilitating such discussion, which often involves lecture and discussion or mini-lectures. All of this changes dramatically in online classes, which I've actually found, doing one a semester for about four years, to be pedagogically superior in some ways, deficient in comparison in other ways. The move to the guide-on-the-side, as John Kahler mentions, is huge. The format I've used is guided forums every week, with grades for each week, so a lot of weight is put on each student being very involved in discussion each week. The students generally reply that they like this very much (much to my chagrin since I don't have as much a leading role!). The students become co-teachers in many ways (which works better in the graduate setting), but it also depends a lot on the make-up of each class. Most of the time, this has worked out very well, with some, of course, being better than others. Even though we do introductions, I don't usually see pictures, so I've actually had the experience of having students in one or two classes online before meeting them in person, which is usually surprising!
While most seminaries define “distance learning” as text-based asynchronous learning, Florida Center for Theological Studies (FCTS) chose to extend its classes with live interactive videoconferencing. Our “distance learning” courses are live synchronous courses where students have the option of attending class with the instructor, attending class with a group of students at a remote center, or joining the class by computer from home or office.

We started using videoconferencing to link our Orlando and Miami campuses together to avoid unnecessary duplication of instruction. But with demand for classes from students outside of commuting distance, we developed the Extended Classroom which allowed groups of students in multiple classrooms to be linked with individual students (at home or office) into one live synchronous electronic environment where all participants can see, hear, and speak to each other.

Instead of “converting” classes to “distance learning,” our professors simply walk into a classroom and start teaching. Some professors with limited technical skills start using this system with only an hour of training. In addition to lecturing, they can use a whiteboard, document camera, PowerPoint slides and prerecorded DVD videos. Faculty participation was 100% as soon as they realized that they did not have to “re-engineer” their classes or change their teaching styles. With over 1600 completed class sessions and zero cancellations for technical reasons, we have a robust and reliable system.

50% of our students attend class in this virtual environment. You can see a “demo” of the experience at
I am curious about a technical issue here, and in relation to many other posts regarding full use of the interactive features of course management software. Now matter how fast the intra-campus network we are at the mercy of inter-campus network speeds for distance learning applications. It may be fine in these early days when only a handful of courses video-conference or stream video, but what happens when (and my university has hundreds of classes simultaneously) a much larger number of people simultaneously use these technologies? Bandwidth isn't infinite. Does FCTS have a dedicated internet connection with its branch campuses that can bear a higher load?
Work I've done with a consortium of colleges can be helpful here. We found that students were just as happy with medium-quality, smaller size video streams, even with content that was coming from broadcast original programs. A relatively small (320 X 240) image was quite acceptable for viewing. While we think of HDTV now, the personal computer experience online learners are experiencing doesn't require anything close to high bandwidth images (which are good for selling large screen TVs, for instance). Of course, poorly designed video content (shot too wide, poor quality visuals, etc.) won't work well, but that's because of the poor design, not the technology. Since it's asynchronous, the overall demand is a small percentage of overall bandwidth use. Your IT staff can do work to shape your bandwidth and give priority to learning content compared to other content. We found on our campus that a great deal of our bandwidth was being used by a few users - and our IT director implemented some relatively inexpensive tools to manage those folks and their (clearly) non-academic bandwidth use.
Thanks, Jerry, for this post. We have decided not to go this route here at Concordia Theological Seminary mainly because we are trying to make the program more accessible and flexible for our potential students. We do use a combination of several ways to provide content, such as you can see here. We use the discussion boards and other online tools to promote, then, interaction, processing, and application by the students. But the students can then carry out their studies according to their schedules and other committments.

That is not to say the video streaming is not an option. I've taught a couple of courses for other institutions in that way.

Online teaching is difficult fundamentally. I have found that successful classes keep focus on learning objectives and everything is built around these objectives. Technology is a tool to meet these objectives so there is no one "right" way to build a class. However, I have found through my training with "Quality Matters" (if you want info on this please talk to me) there are some items that should be in every class such as a strong introduction to the instructor (video is best but not required), try not to duplicate what is done is f-2-f classes such as recording all lectures and putting them online. I think it would be great if seminary education would adopt a quality model such as QM so that we are doing the best online teaching we possibly can.

Sorry if I am all over the page on this discussion. I am passionate about GOOD online education.
I meant to say different NOT difficult. ha ha wonder what that slip of the "tongue" meant.
Vickie, I would like information about "Quality Matters." CJP
Go to Quality Matters Website

It is a nationally recognized quality program for online courses. I would love to have seminaries use it as a common practice.

I'm interested in feedback concerning the synchronous version of the webinar yesterday. I have a couple of observations. First, I've used WebEx before. It has a very serious problem in that it to manage large amounts of audio it requires a telephone connection. In my office that means I'm expected to hold a headset under my chin for an hour and a half. Ridiculous. Students won't do it either, and telephone headsets for a normal desk phone are expensive as well. Finally I skyped into the discussion - which worked just fine and allowed me a headset. So point 1 - we need to think of the mechanics of webinars from the standpoint of the user at the desk or elsewhere. Point 2 - there seemed to be a lot of up front technical glitches. I could never see the videos myself. Audio was intermittent. I don't think my students would tolerate these kinds of problems. And it is exactly such problems that led me to give up the "virtual lecture hall" in Blackboard. If I have an hour with my students I want to use it interacting with them, not fixing problems with 20 levels of internet connection, three different kinds of browsers, installed or not installed Flash players, Quicktime, and two different operating systems. THAT SAID. Folks here were more excited that I have ever seen them, and the different tools and possibilities were great. I can't wait to put it all into practice.
Robert, thanks for your comments/observations. I have a speaker phone in my office, and when the ATS Tech group meets I usually use that, but at home I too was using a handset and it was a challenge. WebEx has what I'd call small group and large group feature sets, in small group mode it allows use of IP audio (therefore computer audio including headsets). Other products may provide higher quality with larger groups. Since I'm very much a tech guy (my background is educational media with video production and broadcast experience), to me having a high quality microphone and using good microphone technique is important to providing a high quality experience. It's like when I'm a reader in church, I can be heard because I'm used to using the tools (and I was involved in their installation so I know they do work). Phones, especially most of the ones around now, do not really provide high quality audio. A definite consideration. The points you make about the technical glitches are still a challenge in working online - it's not a dependable "TV" experience (though with digital broadcast that's not exactly a dependable experience either!). Standards are relative and a moving target. For our seminary, we build in time at the start of online courses and have a help desk to assist students - before they are doing their course work. This has helped to minimize technical problems and glitches. And our class sizes are in the 15-30 student range. It's much more of a challenge when you have a group of over 100. Still, glad you benefited from the session - that means the learning objectives were reached, despite technical problems.


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