Distance Learning

 By Jim Butler

           I was sitting in my office one quiet afternoon many years ago when the telephone rang. It was the New England district president (whose office was located in our church building). A meeting would be taking place at Concordia College, Bronxville, the next day. He’d just found out about it and wanted to know if I could go to it. It was about a new way of developing pastors by distance education. Before I knew it, I was on the steering committee for the Northeast DELTO cohort. Later, when the seminaries allowed the districts to teach the first ten courses in DELTO, the steering committee asked me to teach one of the courses (which later grew to three of them). So, since 2001 I’ve been teaching in the Mission Training Center (MTC) at Concordia, Bronxville. I taught my first distance education course in 2002 via compressed video to a group in Pittsburgh. Since the fall of 2003 all of my courses have been exclusively online.

          I believe in distance education. I think the distances will grow smaller as technology advances and will give the LCMS (as well as other denominations) the opportunity to teach pastors and laypeople so that they may be equipped for service.

          There are several advantages to distance education. Thanks to technology, the overhead is very low. When we first started DELTO, we would fly the professors from the seminary to our site for the weekend. You can imagine the expense! When I started teaching in the MTC, I would drive to the Bronxville campus and would teach from a classroom. Again, this was not cheap! Now I sit in my office, log onto the Internet and go to my virtual classroom. The computer I would own anyway, as well as the software that I use. The church already had a high-speed connection. The overhead cost is almost nothing. The same is true for the students.

          When I log on, I can meet with students from anywhere that has a high-speed connection. Unlike my early Bronxville days when my students were all from New England, New York and New Jersey, I’ve had students from New Hampshire to Alaska all in the same class. There is no reason this cannot take place on an international scale as well. In a presentation at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, Leonard Sweet noted that many foreign countries actually have better and faster internet connections than we do in the U.S. One day we may be able to have teachers in the U.S. speaking to people all over the world at the same time and for very little money. (And we may have some of them teaching us as well!)

          As an aside, I should mention that my students have been quite creative in finding connections to the class. One student used a computer in a university library, another student would sit in the local Starbucks, and a couple of students have worked with dial-up. There are all kinds of possibilities.

          The teaching can also by asynchronous. In other words, the students don’t have to be present to take the class. Using Apple’s Garageband or the open source Audacity, I record my classes and put them on my website. The students are then able to download the presentation (along with the Power Point slides and anything else I think is useful for the class) and listen to them at their leisure. Recently, another pastor contacted me and asked if he could use my lectures and Power Points to teach some people in his congregation. It’s all there for the taking!

          I’m very pleased to see that this has caught on with the Saint Louis seminary as well. Recently, Apple’s iTunes started “iTunes U,” where lectures and courses can be downloaded from Stanford, MIT, Harvard and … Concordia Seminary. You can take a refresher course in Greek with James Voelz or study the Lutheran Confessions with Robert Kolb and Charles Arand or listen to Leonard Sweet’s presentation to the seminary community. And you can listen on your time. I listened to Sweet’s presentation as I was driving to a meeting using my iPod in my car. Just think: One of my students might be listening to me lecture on the Christian faith as he’s stuck in traffic!

          This does not mean that everything is wonderful in distance ed. It does have some difficulties. There is a limit to the current technology. Last fall I had twenty-five(!) students in my Christian faith class. This severely overloaded the server, and half of my first lecture was unintelligible. We used a combination of Internet and conference calls for the rest of the course, but there are limits on the number of students one can have effectively.

          There is also less interaction between the student and the instructor. When I compare teaching in a classroom at Bronxville to teaching online from my office, there is definitely a different feel to the teaching task. Since students usually type in their questions and comments, they are much shorter, and there are fewer follow-up questions. I remember my first class in which a Vietnamese student told us how he became Christian. It was fascinating, and we hung on every word. But a long detour like that would not be possible in an online setting. Nor can we do role plays and skits or use props like I did in a live classroom. I also miss sitting with the students over lunch and just talking about their lives, their churches, their interests and (of course!) theology.

          The role of the mentoring pastor is also much more critical in a distance education setting. I remember being at the Saint Louis seminary in the early ’80s. My fieldwork church was over 30 miles away. My interaction was minimal at best. Everyone knew that the real fieldwork and on-the-job training would take place during vicarage.

          This is not and cannot be the case in a distance education setting. Most of the men and women I’ve taught are already in a ministry setting or are serving as elders and small group leaders. The need for guidance and interaction with their mentoring pastor is critical, especially since their interaction with the instructor is limited (although I have had a few students call and talk to me about a situation they are dealing with).

          Do I think that the distance education is every bit as good as the residential model? No, I do not. Given the choice, I would encourage every student to attend one of our colleges or the seminary.

          However, this is not possible for every student, nor is it possible for every congregation. For example, New England has three churches currently being served by DELTO vicars (all of whom are my former students, I should add). If they were not there, the congregations would be vacant and unable to have pastoral care. None of them is in a position to afford a full-time pastor. Part-time worker-priests utilizing distance education are a God-sent blessing for each of these churches and the men who are serving them. For this reason, I strongly support the distance education programs of our synod and hope to see them expand in new and exciting ways.

         When I was in high school and college in the late ’70s and early ’80s, we still used overheads, filmstrips and on occasion some video. However, none of these learning tools was found in the house. No one owned an overhead projector. None of us had a filmstrip projector in our dorm room. Only a very few rather wealthy people had a VCR (which was still caught in the VHS/Betamax battles). The technological tools for education were in the classroom and that’s where they stayed.

          Today, almost everyone has a DVD player. A vast majority of Americans has Internet access. A quick look at You Tube will show the number of video cameras being used. Educational technology is everywhere; we need only have the will and the imagination to use it. Thankfully, we have a God who can work beyond our imagination and do things greater than we have ever thought of. Hopefully, as the technology continues to improve, we can go further and do greater things in training church workers and equipping God’s people for works of service through distance education, not only in America but also throughout the world.

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