Technology and Seminary Teaching

This site is designed to stimulate theological reflection on the
uses of technology in theological education.

The fictionalized story represents a typical faculty discussion.
To learn more about the characters, click on their names.

The sidebar contains:
* reflections from characters in the story
* articles about theological education
* lessons from the field of educational technology, and
* reflective papers that evaluate technology's usefulness to seminaries.

"This course represents all that I feared about computers intruding into the classroom," Professor Michael Lancaster said to the Curriculum Committee at Keymark Theological School. A respected theologian, he was used to exercising intellectual leadership at KTS. And the syllabus he held in his hand alarmed him. It was a proposal from first-year professor Derek Concord to re-structure the "Introduction to Ethics" class required of M.Div. students. Concord was not present at the meeting because most of the time the Curriculum Committee simply rubber-stamped new courses. Indeed, it was not clear that Concord even had to submit a new syllabus when he was simply revamping an old course. Nevertheless, he requested that the committee consider the course because he wondered if it might create a stir. He was more right about that than he knew. "How can you expect students playing with computers and watching television to think deeply about the complicated questions of post-modernity?" Lancaster continued. "Where is the depth, the writing, the real learning? This course is nothing more than the triumph of style over substance."

Show me the syllabus
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"I think the course has merit," Alicia Valencia responded. "There is a Niebuhr-ish quality to the course. Students have to deal with complicated issues in all their real-life messiness. The discussion with pastors will see to that. And I'd say they read quite a bit. The Hays book will stretch them, as will Rasmussen and Volf. But then he makes then go the extra mile and translate their thinking into a medium that speaks to this generation. You know, Michael, I am not sure that there is a problem here at all."

"There is more pooled ignorance here than actual learning."

"Relevance is highly over-rated," Prof. Lancaster said with a snort. "And reading newspapers is not the same as reading scholarly texts -- just as some 'on-line discussion' with local pastors is a far cry from struggling with wisdom that has stood the test of time. There is more pooled ignorance here than actual learning." He paused for a breath before continuing. "And reading on the Web simply does not elicit the same thoughtful response that a book or article engenders. Where are the hard issues? I mean, how can you do social ethics in this day and age without assigning at least one serious treatment of theodicy to address the post-holocaust encounter with evil? Look at it this way. Students will have been primed in my theology classes to ask important ethical questions. They'll eat this guy alive." He concluded with a look at the dean, Catherine Blackburn. "Someone should take him aside Kitty."

"He can't fall in love with the Internet. I'm worried he might try publishing his scholarship to the Web."

"Are you sure you want to be so hasty, Kitty?" Professor Tom Bruno said before the dean could respond. Bruno was greatly respected in the faculty for his wisdom -- and his gentleness. Yet his students jokingly called him 'Buddha' because he often adopted the kind mannerisms of a sage when skewering the class with particularly pointed questions. "Do you think, Michael, that we might be having the same conversation we had when we interviewed young Derek? Am I correct that you said at the time that 'ethics without philosophy is not really ethics'? Don't you think he is proposing just the kind of course that many of us hoped he might produce? Perhaps we should give our new ethicist the same leeway we give other professors?" And then turning to the dean, he said, "But Kitty, I do think that you may want to have a quiet conversation with Derek. Make sure he understands that he can't fall in love with the Internet. I'm worried he might try publishing his work to the Web. And that would bring him grief come tenure time."

"We are complaining precisely because his new and different course is new and different."

"This conversation concerns me," Alicia Valencia said shaking her head. "I am not sure what we are talking about. Are we hoping to help our new colleague improve a course that he has in good faith submitted to us? Or, are we arguing about computers in the classroom? We already decided as a faculty to encourage experiments with classroom technology. We had good reason when we made the decision and I think we still stand behind it. We listen over and over to our student interns complain when a church tells them to 'try new things, but don't change anything.' Aren't we saying the same thing to Derek. He took a lot of time to put together exactly the kind of new and different course that we as a faculty requested. And now we are complaining precisely because it is new and different. I say let him go for it."

"A simple 'Yes' from us is as useless to him as a scowling 'No.'"

"I too support Derek's efforts," Dr. Bruno said slowly, "But I do think we might be able to spot a few rough patches in the syllabus. A simple 'Yes' from us along with a pat on the head is as useless to him as a scowling 'No.' What can we do to help him improve this draft of the course? For example, there are a few questions he might consider. Like..Does he have a mechanism for sifting through the morass of newspaper articles that students will encounter? Is he going to help students make sense of the conflicting opinions and indeed the crackpot ideas that students will encounter if they spend much time wandering through cyberspace? What I mean is, will his students know how to separate the wheat from the chaff?"

"I'm not yet forty, but he is from a different generation than I am."

"There is something else I particularly like about the course," Alicia Valencia responded. "It appeals to both first-career and second-career students. It takes older students seriously as adults, while at the same time bringing in new media that would presumably appeal to students fresh out of college. His is a new generational voice. I mean, I'm not yet forty, but Derek is from a different generation than I am."

" People's lives are at stake - no less for our students than for medical school students."

"Let me try again," Michael Lancaster said quietly, almost humbly. "I want to be understood. I hold no grudge against Derek although I admit I did not initially support his appointment. I hope you know me better than think I am that petty. But I remain concerned about the rigor of his work. Alicia, you mentioned a Niebur-ish quality to his work. So let's start there. When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, H. Richard Niebuhr was the ethics professor. His classes were hard. They stretched you. He made you think about the serious implications of your work. People's lives are at stake - no less for our students than for medical school students. Look at the issues he takes up: economics, euthanasia, poverty. These are life and death issues for very real people. We can't afford to play games in class. We can't wait for students to magically understand. We may have to take them places they don't want to go. But we have to teach them. It's our responsibility to make them learn."

"I can't make anyone learn anything."

"Thank you Michael," Alicia said. "That helps me understand why you push students so hard. You feel a tremendous responsibility." She continued as Lancaster nodded his agreement. "But I wonder if you can really accept all the responsibility. I can't make anyone learn anything. I can only put them in a position to learn. They have to take the step for themselves. They..."

"His methodology is not designed to produce rigorous thinking."

"Wait. Wait. Wait." Professor Lancaster interjected before Alicia could finish. "I know where this is going. We have this conversation all the time around here. And I think it is a cop out. No one wants to admit that good teaching produces good learning and bad teaching yields bad learning. It's as simple as that. An on-line discussion group is tantamount to a cocktail conversation at a party. There is no forethought, no detailed footnoting or careful argumentation. We have to face up to the fact that his methodology is not designed to produce rigorous thinking. What's he have them doing for research? Newspaper articles and Barbara Walters on 20/20? Preaching should be informed by the best thinkers available -- not the most 'accessible.' I'm sorry if this offends people, but I don't think this course measures up."

"Students come to our school to learn how to make spiritual sense of life's issues and questions."

"According to what standards is the course so lacking?" Professor Valencia responded. "It seems to be teaching students to do the very thing that they came to seminary to learn -- namely, to make spiritual sense out of life's issues and questions. Whenever we hear back from churches and from our graduates, they tell us that this kind of very practical course is the most useful thing that seminary can provide. Now, Michael, I am not denigrating the work you do in theology (nor the work I do in biblical studies). But I do think that by whatever standards our students use to judge our courses, this one does indeed measure up -- and it measures up in ways that your course and mine do not." Then she paused and looked around the room. Michael Lancaster was shaking his head with a professorly look of disappointment. No one spoke for a moment. Then the dean stepped in.

What are the strengths of the syllabus?

How could Derek improve it?

"It seems that two of the three of you support the syllabus that is before us, as do I," Kitty Blackburn said with a tone of finality. "We are not going to vote because Derek does not need our approval to re-write a course. But I would like to take up Tom's suggestion that we spend a couple of minutes looking for ways the course could improve. I'd suggest we adopt the course goals that Derek defines -- but feel free to critique those as well. Michael has suggested that he add some more 'scholarly' readings. Tom asks how students will sift through the massive amount of material. And I did hear the word about talking to Derek regarding tenure implications. What are some of your other ideas?" Alicia asked a few questions about adding diverse voices and Tom wondered about contemporary topics that might have been omitted. Michael simply scowled. The dean drew the conversation to a close. And the committee moved on to other business.

Reflections from the dean

Theological Education
Educational Technology
Computers and
Religious Instruction
Learning on
the Web
Model Uses of Technology in Learning
Distance Learning