Distance Learning and the Western Mission Cluster

LS/PLTS Joint Faculty Retreat

September 27-28, 1996

Our two faculties wouldnít be meeting this weekend if it werenít for the pressures on us from churchwide to get with the program and start coming up with our piece of an "ELCA Theological Education Network," a concept which seems to have been met on our two faculties with varying degrees of chagrin, contempt, rage or indifference, and very little enthusiasm. The joint response of our two faculties to "Possible Programmatic Goals and Specializations" attendant to that Network was a politely phrased, quite civilized representation of our shared reservations about the concept and its potential implementation. Of course, the fact that our two faculties have never met in toto before this weekend is not due to any dislike for each other or distaste for working together. As we discussed earlier, various of us have been friends and working colleagues for years. But the expansive geography that separates us and the eccentricities of our separate histories have made this amalgam seem particularly incongruous, like a square peg forced into a round hole that may well have fit everyone else but us

But I would like to propose today that the whole clustering experiment, like this retreat itself, can become, in fact, something we might greet and even embrace happily, perhaps even eagerly. Let me set the scene and then we can take time to talk about it, to check out our happiness and eagerness quotients, to map where we want to take this project from here.

Context of Clustering

Transition from Modernity to Post-Modernity

In our response to the Program Action Teamís document we reminded its authors that they had described the new ELCA Theological Network as a "post-modern" system. We concluded our response with a little flourish along these lines:

To be the "post-modern" interdependent system your document expressly desires means emphasizing and empowering diversity, creativity, ingenuity, and alternative perspectives, rather than either-or solutions. We recognize that we must support competition for excellence, as it may be developed within any given cluster in view of specific needs, rather than competition for power or place.

This language was intended as a mild rebuke to what we perceived as an all-too modern (rather than post-modern) bureaucratic, top-down, centralized planning model that seemed to lie behind the proposed new theological education network. I believe we need to promote the concept of clustering as a post-modern initiative. To me post-modernism may be characterized by some of the following cultural, institutional, intellectual, and psychological shifts. You may disagree with these or think of others.

from an industrial culture to an information culture

from real estate to cyberspace

from mail located in a city, state, and zip to email in a virtual domain

from centralized bureaucratic organization to dispersed networking --associations/coalitions/clusters/consortia

from unitary concepts of truth to multi-leveled provisional perspectives on truth

from self-authorship to self-transcendence

Such major shifts as these--would it be too pretentious to call them "paradigm shifts"?--if indeed they are really in process of happening, and I think they are, mean a fairly different world is emerging from the one in which we grew up. They will alter the shape of the church, and I expect they will alter fundamentally the shape of theological education.

Two Greatest Yearnings in Human Experience

If the cultural and intellectual context for clustering is the emergence of post-modernity, the psychological context is, I think, rooted in our childhood families and how they helped or hindered us from dealing with what Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan describes, quoting David Bakan, as "the duality of human experience," the yearnings for "communion" and "agency." The yearning for communion Kegan describes as the longing to be included, to be a part of, close to, joined with, held, admitted, accompanied. That longing is linked, at the same time, to the fear of becoming completely unseparate, of being swallowed up and taken over. So, on the one hand, we want to be part of a larger community at the same time we fear being obliterated by it. The other yearning, for agency, is the longing to be independent, autonomous, to experience oneís distinctness, the self-chosenness of oneís directions, oneís individual integrity. And that longing is linked, according to Kegan, to the fear of being totally separate, of being utterly alone, abandoned, and remote beyond recall. So, if we want to be joined to a larger community, that longing is in tension with a desire to be our own autonomous and free individual unencumbered by social constraints at the same time we fear being exiled, alienated, excluded, and alone in the outer darkness.

This language finds its way into prayer, and much of liturgy and scripture is an expression of one or the other of these two longings: Schleiermacherís "ultimate dependence," on the one hand, and Lutherís "Here I Stand," on the other; the fervent communalism of Hasidism, on the one hand, and the lonely Job, talking to and cursing God, on the other.

These two fundamental yearnings--for intimacy and autonomy--are bound to affect us as we contemplate clustering, as we imagine, on the one hand, the bonds of support and care that may come from the one bigger and happier family that we could conceivably become and, on the other hand, as we dread the possibility of the loss of our individual selfhood in some larger collective managed by faceless nameless bureaucratic control freaks making decisions for us off somewhere.

Technological Revolution

The more immediate context for clustering is the current technological revolution that we are all rapidly learning about and experiencing directly. Many of us have been keeping in touch with friends and colleagues by email. Our two campuses have been connected for point-to-point video conferencing. Our two seminaries now have our own impressive ever developing World Wide Web Pages. You now have computers wired into--I guess--just about every room on your campus and are about to launch, with our somewhat tardy collaboration, a Western Mission Cluster Online Learning Network. We have a downlink satellite, soon expect to have uplink capability and the makings of a modest television studio on our campus, and we have begun satellite programming on a first small scale. We expect to telecast our Preaching Day program in January to a number of downlink sites throughout the West.

Our efforts are just a small piece of an explosion of electronic communication that is linking information resources all over the globe. At any moment on the internet we are now able to tap instantly and cheaply into a true electronic global village. What will these changes mean for our two seminaries and for theological education?

The Future of Theological Education

The End of the Seminary?

In an interesting article in Science magazine, Columbia University professor Eli Noam predicts a dim future for the university. "While new communications technologies are likely to strengthen research, they will also weaken the traditional major institutions of learning, the universities. Instead of prospering with the new tools, many of the traditional functions of universities will be superseded, their financial base eroded, their technology replaced, and their role in intellectual inquiry reduced. This is not a cheerful scenario for higher education." These comments, not from a philosophy, literature, or classics professor, but from a professor of Finance and Economics in the Graduate School of Business!

His point is that the changes in technology that we are witnessing will have a major effect on the three key elements of scholarly activity, as he sees it--the creation of knowledge and evaluation of its validity; the preservation of information; and the transmission of this information to others. The old model consisted of centrally stored information, scholars coming to the information, and a wide range of information subjects catalogued and stored under one roof. The Great Library of Alexandria was an example, not only a library but a graduate university with scholars, disciples, and apprentices gathered to study and learn and publish. I think about how often it has been said that it is the Common Library that holds together the schools and centers of the Graduate Theological Union.

Noam records how this model is being undermined by the new technologies. As the body of knowledge increases and becomes more and more specialized, all the narrowly specialized branches of learning no longer can be fitted into every campus, so the creation of new information is occurring more and more outside the university. Air transport and electronic communications are creating new electronic scholarly communities in response to the elementary need for intellectual collaboration. Hence, the advantage of the physical proximity of scholars in universities declines steeply. The implication for us is that the distance between PLTS and Luther becomes increasingly insignificant at the same time the proximity to others within our two schools becomes increasingly irrelevant. But, then, it may also become irrelevant to have the two faculties gathered in any one or two geographic locations at all.

As for the preservation of knowledge, their increasing expense implies that comprehensive library collections will soon be unaffordable. So the investment of universities (seminaries) may be less in the physical presence of information on campus than in the creation of electronic access. If the combination of a laptop computer, modem, and phone line eventually provides that comprehensive access to information anywhere, anytime, the fundamental role of universities and seminaries as the repository for specialized information will be undermined.

With respect to transmission of knowledge, the teaching role, Noam suggests that it is hard to imagine the present low-tech lecture system surviving. As alternative instructional technologies and credentialing systems are devised, we can expect a migration away from class campus-based higher education. The tools for alternatives can be video servers with stored lectures by the most outstanding scholars and lecturers, electronic access to interactive reading materials and study exercises, electronic interactivity with faculty and teaching assistants, hypertextbooks and new forms of experiencing knowledge, video- and computer-conferencing,, and language translation programs. Much of this we are familiar with and have already begun to experience, and, in fact, we are moving ahead with such innovations at both of our institutions.

Noamís fear is that the ultimate providers of an electronic curriculum will not be universities, but commercial firms, for example, textbook publishers, a fear not to be lightly dismissed. Prof. Lynn Nakamura, of Trinity Seminary, is right now working on development of a course in Old Testament to be taught by interactive CD-Rom. She is trying to get Augsburg-Fortress interested in underwriting the project. What will assure continued financial support for seminaries if much of the learning that has been our monopoly becomes inexpensively and easily accessible locally from a variety of other sources?

Of course, it can always be said that the other roles associated with seminary education--mentoring/guiding/role modeling, socializing ( functions we have generally called "formation"), and certification--will necessarily have to continue to be provided by seminaries. Surely there will always need to be face-to-face contact between students and teachers and among students themselves. The question is why these necessary functions should have to continue to be met by bringing students to a few often distant geographic locations. Probably there are ways to fulfill all of these functions through enlistment of dispersed faculty in studentsí local areas. Unless we actively engage with the new technologies and learn from them the shape of our own new legitimate role in theological education, there is every likelihood that we will find ourselves left behind in the dust.

The End of the Classroom?

Regardless of how we conceptualize the whole of theological education, the impact of the technological revolution will likely mean major changes in the ways that teaching and learning will occur. In an article on distance learning in the ELCA, James Moy has highlighted the following trends that he sees in the shift from the industrial to the post-industrial information age:

Classroom / library --> networking

Teaching --> learning

Lecturing --> coaching

Credit for contact hours --> performance standards

Textbooks --> customized materials

Information acquisition --> knowledge navigation

Perhaps clustering is about finding ways to help one another negotiate with serenity the changes that will increasingly be required of us.

Western Mission Cluster

With that I want to look at implications for our own Western Mission Cluster.

Multiple partners

The first observation I have is that it is characterized by multiple partners. Of course, there are our multiple faculty "colleagues"--those whom we see and work with internally in Luther Seminary departments or GTU areas; those whom we actually hobnob with and confide in; but, especially, those colleagues world-wide with whom we share special interests and with whom we may have invested together in special projects. The range of colleagues knows no geographic boundaries. Then there are the students--degree and non-degree--the most apparent of whom we see in residence on our two campuses. But there are also the students at extension centers whom we rarely or never see and others dispersed around who are taking courses here and there and whom we advise by mail, phone, or email.

Among our multiple partners are the educational resources we employ, of course, the books and journal articles that have been the bread and butter of academic life, but now also, for some, videotapes and the internet with its email, news groups, listservs, and World Wide Web resources.

Most dazzling are the institutional partners available to us in the west if we choose to join with them: Within the ELCA orbit there are our ELCA colleges and universities, other ELCA seminaries, LBIs, CE Centers, Churchwide Agencies, Augsburg/Fortress, Synods, Lutheran Social Services, Teaching Congregations, and we could add pastors with doctorates and other advanced degrees serving in congregations and other sites all around the west. Beyond our ELCA circle, there are other colleges and universities religious and secular, the GTU and Minnesota Consortium, other seminaries (I think especially of Iliff, Claremont, and Vancouver, though there are others), other continuing education centers (I think of Ghost Ranch in Santa Fe, NM, for example.), judicatories of other denominations, publishing houses; agencies, think tanks, and development centers; telecommunications networks

The challenge is how all of these partners may be interwoven into an coordinated theological education resource for the area of our cluster.

Distance" Learning

Distance learning is the model that helps us to grasp what is happening to us--both its threat and its opportunity. What really is distance learning? Dick Nysseís Pentateuch course provides a convenient case study. This term he is offering it in two forms, one for residential students, the other for students in extension. In both forms the use of computer bulletin boards and email will be used to facilitate interaction and closeness among course participants. Residential students will have one on-campus class session per week, while the other class session has given way to computerized interaction. Extension students will complete the whole course through computer interaction. So already for residential students half of the on-campus course is taking place at a distance from the classroom, i.e. from the studentsí rooms on campus or their homes at a distance from the campus. What if commuter students or even students living on campus wanted to take the extension version of the Pentateuch course altogether online? What would be our rationale for saying no?

Ambiguity of "distance"

Distance is an ambiguous category. Once students live off-campus, how far off-campus becomes "distant"? At PLTS we have commuters officially in residence who nonetheless miss out on virtually all of campus life except classes, a portion of which they can take through independent study. What then becomes the difference between living 50 miles distant from the seminary and being 500 or even 5,000 miles distant? How much of their mentoring and socialization or formation is occurring with us on campus and how much elsewhere with teaching parish and internship supervisors? If course instruction becomes increasingly electronic media based, geographical distance becomes less and less significant to the knowledge transmission function of the seminary.

Even the assumption that face-to-face time in the classroom is necessary to student formation needs to be questioned. In our classrooms we need to create an educational "holding environment, " a safe place, a "liminal" space or "neutral zone" where learning can optimally occur. We create that holding environment by starting and ending our classes on time, by interacting with students in a non-judgmental way and facilitating their interaction among themselves, and by our eye contact with them. But what if, as in Dick Nysseís model, every student interacts online with every other student in his or her class and, perhaps with Dick, every week? Is it possible that that kind of direct electronic communication may actually be superior to the intermittent classroom eye contact students can expect to get from their instructor and the rare opportunities offered in large classes to have their say? As for maintaining boundaries of time and space ("protecting the container," as therapists might say), is it possible that asynchronous learning--such as watching video lectures or going online at home--might actually prove to be more effective because the time for learning is chosen by the student to fit his/her work and family schedule, not to speak of his/her natural biorhythms?

ATS Standards External independent study. This type of extension education provides for-credit courses for individuals engaged in external independent study, which includes any form of individualized study where regularly scheduled, in person conversations with faculty or other students are unlikely to occur. Such courses typically employ printed, audio, video, computer, or electronic communication as primary resources for instruction. Because of the formational requirements of most ATS degree programs, and the perceived relationship between intentional community and formation, not more than one-third of the total credits required for completion of an ATS-approved basic degree can be earned by external independent study. The institution shall demonstrate how credits earned by external independent study contribute to or accomplish the overall goals and standards for the degrees to which they are credited; how faculty maintain appropriate involvement in course design, delivery, and evaluation; how instructional resources for courses adequately support their goals and objectives; and how administrative services are provided to students enrolled in external independent study.

With all of this in mind, some of us who attended a technology conference in Chicago last summer have proposed development of a full one-year program of M.Div. education offered in extension. The program would use computer online courses of the sort being developed by Dick and by Rollie Martinson. The foundation for such an external program is laid in the new ATS standards, which allow for 1/3 of credits for an ATS-approved degree to be met through "external independent study." It is, I think, an exciting opportunity to serve students isolated in Alaska as well as in Reno or Fargo or many other locations too far from our seminary campuses for commuting. In fact, the potential is there to offer our program to students anywhere in the world who have computers and can connect to the internet. As online courses proliferate, we would be able to limit our own load by employing qualified adjunct faculty, who also could live anywhere in the world where they have access to the internet, to engage the students on line.

Further down the road, I see the potential for electronic communication to comprise a larger part or even all of our various degree programs if we group students in such a way that they can meet together with local mentors in qualified extension centers. Complete degrees. This type of extension education offers all work necessary for completion of an ATS-approved degree at an extension site. Such programs shall provide al the educational and formational opportunities necessary to achieve the goals identified with each approved degree that can be earned at the location. The number, diversity, and sequence of courses available shall be adequate to fulfill all the stated purposes for the degree. Institutions shall assure that all appropriate institutional resources are available including: classroom facilities, library and information resources, faculty, administrative support services, and technological support appropriate for the administrative and educational needs of the program.

But I think itís safe to say that such extension centers would achieve a critical mass of degree students and qualified local faculty only if they are ecumenical. With GTU and LS library catalogues accessible online and provision for fast mail or email of resources, extension centers could satisfy the ATS requirement for library and information resources without the physical presence of a local theological library.

What is "distance/location" in Western Mission Cluster?

What I am suggesting is that we begin thinking of the three regions we serve and beyond as our local service area. Our future students will not have to be physically located in the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul or San Francisco Bay areas. They may live and carry on their education with pockets of other students gathered here and there across a vast geographic expanse. They would be an ecumenical student body served by an ecumenical faculty, for which I propose the GTU, a collaboration of interdependent but autonomous seminaries, centers, and affiliates, as a helpful model. In this view, a "unified faculty" would necessarily comprise all faculty throughout the WMC associated in something like a WM "consortium." Our "location" would extend throughout our three regions (just as the PLTS location includes the campuses of other schools and centers in the GTU consortium). The functions of theological education--especially mentoring and socializing (i.e. formation) and certification--would be shared by faculty throughout the consortium. Just as the common library is the physical glue that currently holds the GTU consortium together, a fiber-optic or satellite communication network might be the glue for our regional Western Mission Consortium.

Goals for the Western Mission Cluster (including LS, PLTS, and all their partners)

It is in the light of such an ecumenical, perhaps even interreligious, vision that I think we should be setting our goals for the western mission cluster. Those goals should include:

A common plan for educational strategies and programs, including knowledge transmission through electronic media; formation through localized deployed faculty; and perhaps certification by synods.

Cooperative relationships among all the parties (with the GTU as a model), including coordination through email and teleconferencing and development of common academic policies.

Common Plan for Academic Cooperation and Common Faculty Development, within which seminary faculties might become more research oriented in the new broader cooperative configuration.

Development of Protocols for Technology

Systems of Administration and Governance, that recognize the need for a sensitive balance of interdependence and autonomy and that provide for maximal local control within a maximal regional vision

Coordinated Financial/Business Plan, that assures a continuing role for the all the partners in the emerging western consortium.

If we can achieve the most wholesome balance of closeness and distance, of intimacy and autonomy, and if we can base our forms of future collaboration on a thoroughly modest, post-modern, therefore decentralized, process-focused, provisional posture respectful of all the parties involved, we will have the prospect of a fresh, engaging, invigorating shared response to Godís mission as we enter the third millenium of the common era.