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Oct  2009 02
Phillips Committed to Educational Excellence

Dear Friends of PTS:

This fall, Phillips Theological Seminary continues our tradition of innovation in the ways we teach courses and make the education we offer accessible to students. Anxiety and questions often accompany change. Therefore, I decided to write in hopes of assuaging anxieties and answering questions.

Innovation in the faculty at PTS is a tradition. About 20 years ago, the faculty began offering courses in 3 hour blocks. In the past decade, as a supplement to the block classes, we have experimented with several concentrated course formats—offering the course “contact hours” on four weekends in a term or all in one week.

Now, we have begun another supplement to our on-campus course offerings: a substantial number (5 this term) of courses online. We have taught so-called hybrid courses (2 class sessions on-campus and the other sessions online) for over 5 years now, but here and there and without a pattern. The innovation in fall 2009 is that we have begun to offer multiple courses per term online, beginning with the core courses a student needs in order to earn a degree from PTS.

Seven students who live well outside of a commuting distance from the seminary began online this fall. These students are able to keep their “day-job,” their ministry where they are, while beginning their theological education. In this we rejoice! They would not be enrolled in theological education at all if it were not for PTS online.

It is also the case that nearly 70% of our total master’s level student body decided to take at least one course online this fall. The administration wanted to understand, rather than guess, the reasons that so many students enrolled in online courses. Therefore, we developed and sent a survey, to which two-thirds of the potential respondents replied. In those replies, and now other conversations, we have heard some perceptions and questions that deserve responses.

The seminary’s new online program is founded on two core commitments:

  • The seminary is committed to offering a rich, high-quality teaching and learning experience for our students, regardless of the delivery method of the courses.
  • The seminary is committed to supplementing our full on-campus program with the addition of online course offerings, not by phasing out our on-campus program.

The seminary is committed to offering a rich, high-quality teaching and learning experience, regardless of the delivery method of the courses.

 

When the faculty deliberated and decided to begin online offerings, they did so with studies and research at hand regarding the comparability of online education with on-campus education. The faculty was convinced that a seminary education could be offered online at the same level of quality as on-campus instruction. Our commitment is to high quality education, whether on-campus or online, accessible to as many students as we can make it so.

 

Certainly, there is a “learning curve” to achieve the highest quality any time one tries something new. Is there a learning curve for teaching an online course? Yes, just as there is when a faculty member first steps into a classroom. Is there a learning curve for students to do well in an online course? Surely, just as there is a learning curve for students who step onto a campus of higher education, whether as an 18 year old freshman or as a 44 year old first-year seminarian who has not been on a campus for 20 years. Do some students learn better in an on-campus environment? Certainly, just as it is demonstrable that some students learn better in an online setting.

 

The seminary is committed to supplementing our full on-campus program with the addition of online course offerings, not by phasing out our on-campus program.

 

We’ve heard the fear or concern that PTS is becoming an online seminary only. Becoming only an online seminary is neither possible nor desirable.

  

The Association of Theological Schools requires that at least one year of any degree program is taken on campus. According to current rules, we could not offer a full degree program online, even if we wanted to do so. [Note: the 18 hour certificate in graduate theological studies program could be taken exclusively online because it is not a degree program.]

 Even if the day comes when a degree from an ATS-accredited seminary can be completed only online, the PTS board, faculty, and administration have no desire to close down the campus and become only an online school. We know the continuing value of forming a community of teaching and learning that is face-to-face, embodied, material. AND, we also know that a community of conversation is real in cyberspace, that teaching and learning can be and are accomplished well in that venue.

 If you look closely at our schedule this term, you will see far more on-campus courses than online courses offered. This will be the case each term.

 

We will offer on-campus, within one year, every required course that is offered online. [Note: some courses meet requirements but are not required courses. It is only required courses per se that I am addressing in this paragraph.]

Now, will there be changes in how we schedule on campus classes? Yes. The survey of student schedule preferences to which I referred above provided us data and feedback that we are taking very seriously. Current students will likely notice some modest changes in the spring 2010 schedule when it is published. But the issue at hand is when on-campus courses are offered (time of day, days of the week) and in what format (1 day block, concentrated)—NOT whether they are offered.

I continue to admire this faculty’s commitment to offer a high-quality theological education—on-campus in classes morning, afternoon, and night, as well as weekends and whole weeks; and online responding at all hours of the day, everyday. They demonstrate a capacity to innovate and adapt to the rapidly changing landscape for mainline congregations in ways that inspire envy in executives at other seminaries. And we are all committed to our educational enterprise, on-campus and online, because we respect our students and want to provide the best education for them, in order that they can fulfill their ministries and make the Christian faith more effective in human life and society. 

If there is a question or concern I have not addressed, I invite you to write to me at gary.peluso@ptstulsa.edu.

 

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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