Learning at a Distance: Where is it all going?

This fall LTSP begins offering courses at a distance in a collaborative effort with Lancaster Theological Seminary to give students - and potential seminarians - the opportunity to begin their seminary education at a distance rather than having to relocate to a seminary campus. (There's still time to register - learn more at Ltsp.edu/DLProgram.) This comes to mind as I reflect on the conference I attended last week sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, its 29th annual.

Distance learning is not new at LTSP - we have offered a selection of courses over the years that have allowed students in our first professional and graduate programs to do some course work without stepping on campus for the course. This has been an experimental effort, and in some ways the collaboration with Lancaster Seminary is a natural next step. Many of our courses include "distance" components to enhance and extend the classroom experience. This is a significant change for theological education in particular since the area of formation, critical for the training of leaders in the church and those going into ministry of all forms, does not seem to lend itself to the "virtual" presence in its many forms that is the basis for learning at a distance, but would seem to require a physical presence. I was reminded of a few issues, questions, and possibilities that make me think about what distance learning means or a theological education:

  • What is "distance" in its academic and other forms? Prof. Michael Moore of Penn State, one of the pioneers in distance education, has made the point that all we do is at some form of distance - he calls it "transactional distance." in education, the traditional classroom incorporates distance - students and the instructor are all at different locations in a classroom, and there is distance - varying with each participant relative to each other participant. Taken to the next level, there may be mental distance as a student (or the instructor for that matter!) may be day dreaming, looking out the window - physically "there" but mentally in another place. Yet a "distance" student may be more engaged and focused on the material and interacting with others, even though connected by some electronic means, than the student physically in the classroom.
  • What if the student gets to choose? I sat in on a session where the presenter taught a class where some students were sitting in the classroom while others were participating via web conference technology - either live or recorded - and some students were sitting in the classroom while connected to the web conference because they found the extra tools and engagement with their "distance" colleagues valuable. In the last year, LTSP has had several students web conferenced in to face to face classes so they could participate while at far locations - one in Uganda. Was the learning as engaging and valuable - even with the glitches of not perfect technology? The students thought so.
  • What's next? Smartphones, tablet/pad technology, who knows what are clearly coming, and the cost of the technology continues to drop as the technology becomes more functional. What struck me, though, was a hallway encounter. One of the attendees I had met earlier was in a wheel chair, not a big deal to his attendance. When I later came upon him in a corridor, he seemed to be talking to himself. Again, not a big deal in these days where the person in the Wawa talking apparently to no one is, on closer examination, talking on their Bluetooth earpiece to someone on the other end of a cell phone connection. But it took me an extra second to realize he was indeed talking not on a headset but rather to a 5 foot or so robot (with an attendee badge yet) that was speaking back to him. The robot was actually the virtual presence of a colleague in another city who was attending the conference "live" via robot while at an office in another place. The robot could see, hear and speak, and the conversation was live and "face to face" over distance. Truly, what's next?

Distance learning is not a replacement for classroom learning, but rather an opportunity for learners to learn regardless of their ability to physically be somewhere, to surmount barriers of time and distance. For a school like LTSP, it allows students to engage outstanding faculty and equally amazing student colleagues, and gives students choices that allow them to participate as they are best able. In a time where learning is of necessity becoming more and more lifelong, where technology allows all to participate in ways that technology pioneers like Martin Luther (yes, he was a pioneer, using the printing press to efficiently and inexpensively spread the German version of the Bible to everyday people) could not have imagined, and where change is ever increasing and ever unclear, it offers different opportunities to engage in theological learning.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.