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Digital Disruption and Opportunities for Theological Educators since COVID-19: A Singaporean Case Study

With the onset of COVID-19, the whole world had stumbled into digital learning. Since then, many seminaries are offering our classes online and asking what opportunities do digital learning pose for theological education? This paper will reflect on the year's developments.

Published onJul 02, 2021
Digital Disruption and Opportunities for Theological Educators since COVID-19: A Singaporean Case Study

Digital Disruptions & Theological Education in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic: A Singaporean Case Study

Lai Pak Wah

Biblical Graduate School of Theology

What does the Digital Learning Got to do with Theological Education?

During the onset of COVID-19, a meme went viral on social media asking, who led the digital transformation of your company: your CEO, CTO or COVID-19? The answer was obvious. In a mere few weeks, the whole world stumbled into working from home and digital learning as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns. For many seminaries, what seemed entirely foreign to or was even resisted by their faculties suddenly became the norm. One year later, in June 2021, many schools are still offering their courses online, including the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST), Singapore. With this en mass adoption of digital learning, seminaries are now rethinking the challenges, opportunities and the roles that digital learning plays in theological education. While some remain sceptical about its viability in the formation of their students, others are more optimistic.

This paradigm shift is occurring within a broader context. Seminaries in the West are experiencing a steady decline in enrolment while the reverse is happening in Asia. Alternatives to seminaries are also emerging rapidly in the form of digital platforms that offers quality training at the fraction of the cost.1 To these, we add the new educational demands presented by Industrial Revolution 4.0 (i.e., Education 4.0), and the disruptive shifts in the geo-political and cultural fronts. Together, these pose significant pressures for seminaries preparing their students to serve in these new norms.

In this paper, I shall survey these significant changes, before examining the merits of digital learning and its role for training adults in seminaries. Thereafter, I shall explore what this may mean for BGST, an Asian theological school located in Singapore.

Shifting Sand in Theological Education

Theological education has always been contextual. The same can be said for the challenges faced by their providers. In what follows, I shall review some of emerging challenges and opportunities in the West, specifically North America, before discussing those unique to Asia and Singapore, in particular.

  1. Enrolment, Finances and Learning Trends

With North America becoming increasingly post-Christian and the costs of education escalating, US seminaries have experienced a steady decline in enrolment.2 Several schools have shut or undergone financial restructuring.3 Others have formed consortiums to collaborate and share their resources.4 Shifts in programme enrolments have also been observed, with a decline in the demand for the Masters of Divinity (MDiv), and more in favour of the shorter Masters of Arts and non-accredited certificates.5 The last, by and large, mirrors the growing popularity of short courses in the educational sphere.6 Distance digital education has also become mainstream with 70% of ATS schools now offering either hybrid or comprehensive online education.7

The picture is quite different in Asia. Here, Christianity has grown rapidly to more than 380 million Christians, far outpacing North America.8 Understandably, the demand for theological education has increased correspondingly. Many countries, however, are challenged by the lack of financial resources and high-quality educators.9 Prior to the pandemic, many seminaries do not offer any form of digital learning. Some are unable to do so due to the limitations of local digital infrastructure.10 Others have avoided it due to their preference for an in-person mode of learning. In Singapore, for example, BGST was the only school that adopted a Blended Learning model to train our students prior to the pandemic.11

With regards to their curriculum and interests, most schools are influenced greatly by their Western counterparts. This is understandable since Asian churches were planted mostly by Western missionaries, and several seminaries are still funded by Western sources.12 Publications by Asian theologians also pale in comparison to their North American peers, though there is a growing interest in contextual theologies.13

  1. Disruptions

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, of course. Almost overnight, seminaries worldwide became online schools. Having discovered the benefits of online or Blended Learning, many have continued to employ these training modes even when pandemic restrictions have eased.14 This presents both opportunities and threats. Theological schools are discovering that their students are no longer just those in their geographic vicinities, but also those in the region, or even globally. The same may be said of competition. A Malaysian seminary recently offered a course on the Bible Lands, only to discover that a similar one was introduced by Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank!

All these being said, the real disruptors of theological seminaries are unlikely to be their traditional peers. Rather, they are the alternative modes of training delivered through digital platforms. Over the last 3-4 years, many have emerged in North America, such as FaithlifeTV, SeminaryNow, TheosU, NTWright Online and Life.Church Open Networks.15 These are significant game changers as they offer condensed forms of seminary training anytime, anywhere at a fraction of the cost of seminary tuition. SeminaryNow, for example, provides more than 20 micro-courses and 3 micro-certificates at an affordable price of US$180 p.a. This is merely 15% of a 3-credit course in a typical North American seminary.

Traditional seminaries are heavily invested in fixed assets and their faculty. Besides the need to maintain these resources, they must also justify their return on investments. These ‘architectural’ commitments make it hard for seminaries to match the disruptive prices of the new platforms.16 This problem is not unique to seminaries, of course. Scott Galloway, Clayton Christensen and others have predicted a similar disruption for Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), with up to 25% of US colleges and universities going out of business in the near future.17

What about theological schools in Asia? How would they be affected? For seminaries using English as a medium of instruction, these new digital platforms, I believe, pose a real and present threat. In most seminaries, audit prices for a 3-credit postgraduate course is about US$180. This still cannot compete against SeminaryNow which offers a plethora of courses taught by renowned lecturers at the same price.18 The situation is more complex for seminaries which do not use English as the medium of instruction. In this case, the North American platforms offer little competition, while the missional opportunities presented by such online learning platforms are immense. Previously, only Christians living in large urban cities, like Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, and Singapore, have access a wide range of quality theological training. If similar platforms are introduced in Asia, Christians in rural towns or developing countries can potentially benefit from the same at affordable cost.

  1. Education 4.0

These digital platforms are only one facet of the broader impact that digital disruptions are making on theological education. The advent of Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4) in the last decade has heralded a rapid merging of the “physical, digital and biological worlds” that will fundamentally change the way we work and live.19 To help future generations flourish in this new environment, IHLs must embrace, what is called, Education 4.0 to transform themselves into nimble institutes of lifelong learning that can help students pick up new IR4 competencies to retool themselves regularly.20 The challenge for churches, and, therefore, seminaries are two-fold. Firstly, how do we prepare Christians to engage the new ways of living and the ethical challenges that IR4 inadvertently poses? Secondly, how might the emerging educational technologies inform the way we educate and disciple Christians? There are no easy answers to these questions, but more will be said about the latter when we examine the role of digital learning in theological education.

  1. Contextualised Christianities

In 1978, the Lausanne Movement published the Willowbank Report on Gospel and Culture to underscore the importance of contextualising the Gospel as it is propagated globally.21 Although much has been achieved since then, the hegemony of Western Christianity, particularly North American, remains deeply rooted. This is due in no small measure to the global proliferation of theological content afforded to Western Christians by their advanced digital economies. All these is further complicated by the recent shifts in geo-political structures, where the value of globalisation is now questioned, and the widening rift between the West and China is imposing greater pressures upon countries caught between the animosity of these political giants.22

While acknowledging their indebtedness to Western Christianity, Asian seminaries must forge their own paths in contextualising the Gospel and equipping their constituencies to navigate these new geopolitical realities. Developing inter-disciplinary skills to engage both concerns is now urgent and necessary. At the same time, the pervasiveness of social media, and the rapid development of affordable educational technologies present much opportunity for how seminaries can accomplish this task. As to what this may entail, we shall now turn to the potential of digital learning, and the role it can play in theological education. Given the broad scope of our subject, our discussion will focus primarily on the impact of educational technologies on adult learning in seminaries.

Digital Learning and Theological Education

  1. Adult Learning

While interest in adult learning, or andragogy, began as early as the 1920s, it was Malcolm Knowles who first distinguished it from pedagogy and articulated its characteristics from the 1980s onwards. Adult learning, he explains, is more self-directed, leverages on the learner’s wealth of experience, and is “closely related to the developmental tasks of his or her social role.” The learning is often problem centred with a focus on applying the knowledge immediately. Most adult learners are “driven by internal motivation, rather than external motivators,” and value the reasons for learning any subject. While andragogy has been criticised for being too individualistic and ignoring the social cultural context of learning, it remains an important model for “understanding and planning instruction for adult learners.” Recent research has attested to its applicability to different settings from agriculture, engineering and nursing, to management, human resource development and e-learning.23 For this reason, its insights for seminaries must be taken seriously as we explore how to better equip our students for the new norms.

  1. Technology and Theological Education

The fact that technology can revolutionise education is clear from how the Gutenberg press catalysed the modern scientific revolution by making available a wide range of knowledge at affordable cost.24 It is not surprisingly then when computers became popular from the late 1970s onwards, many were optimistic that these machines could do the same to transform modern education. Up until the 1990s, however, the impact of computing on classroom learning has been marginal. As Larry Cuban puts it, “computer meets classroom, classroom wins.”25

This being said, educational technology did contribute to the progress of one sphere of higher education: distance education. The concept of distance education started in 1892, when the University of Chicago introduced its first correspondence course, and Moody Bible Institute following suit just a few years later.26 Since then, theological colleges have mostly kept pace with their secular counterparts in this arena. In his analysis of theological education by distance, Timothy Jones divides these developments into four phases:27

Phase 1: Through Print and Postal Service (1770s -1990s)

Phase 2: Through Print supplemented by multimedia (1920s-2000s).28

Phase 3: Through online learning supplemented by other media (1980s – 2010s)

Phase 4: Multiple media delivered online (1990s – present).

Phase 4 is now the norm for many seminaries, where “every aspect of the course—videos and syllabi from the faculty, finished assignments from the students, discussions and group projects shared among students—[are now] online.”29 As for Moody’s original vision for distance education – to train laypeople and church leaders “who have not the time or means to take a college or seminary education,” it is even more crucial now and is clearly here to stay.30

  1. New Voices and the Limits of Educational Technologies

Traditional discourse about the role of technology in education has been largely the domain of educators. The last decade, however, has seen a new voice entering the fold: the developers of new educational technologies or business models, from Khan Academy, AltSchool, and Google, to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) platforms such as edX, Coursera and Udemy. These make claims ranging from the modest – how digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) can enable or improve learning, to manifestly bold ones – how technology will disrupt or even revolutionise higher education.

On first glance, these new players offer much promise for transforming the face of education. Khan Academy, for example, provides a whole suite of digital learning tools to enable schools to adopt flipped classroom teaching.31 edX not only delivers more than 2,800 courses to 34 million students worldwide but also enables these students to learn collaboratively.32 Previously, such courses would be available only to the privileged few enrolled physically in edX’s partner universities.33

These being said, Neil Selwyn is concerned that most of these newcomers have very little understanding of the nature of education itself. More seriously, there is also significant conflict of interest between their commercial goals and those of public education.34 In any case, empirical research validating the benefits of these new platforms is still at its infancy.35 These call into question the real benefit that these new players bring to education. Nonetheless, Selwyn recognises that these technologies are here to stay and much reflection is needed on how human teachers can partner them. Notwithstanding this, he believes that some aspects of human teachers are important and irreplaceable, which, I believe, are equally relevant for theological education. Human teachers, he explains,


  1. Provide students with access to not just their knowledge, but also their experience of learning the subject themselves.


  2. They are able to assess the students’ cognitive learning process and adapt their teaching to improve the students’ cognitive connections.


  3. They can connect socially with their students, thereby motivating them to learn.


  4. They can think out loud and, in this way, provide students with a “real-time, unfolding connection with knowledge.”


  5. They can use their bodies to convey abstract thought, and also “to energise, orchestrate and anchor the performance of teaching.”


  6. They can ‘make do’ or improvise creatively to adapt to the dynamic situations that may evolve in class.36

  1. Additional Concerns in Theological Education

Besides Selwyn’s pedagogical concerns, many theological educators also reject digital learning on theological grounds. As they see it, “the fact that Christ took on human flesh indicates that theological education, too, should take place in the flesh, in a face-to-face environment.” Jones et al, however, have pointed out that much of the Apostle Paul’s teachings were actually conveyed through his epistles. No doubt, the apostle did not regard the written word as “a primary medium of his apostleship.” Nevertheless, like his Greco-Roman intellectual peers, he did assume that his letters can not only convey his teachings but also mediate his social presence and authority to his readers.37 Charolette N Gunawardena’s studies on online learning arrived at a similar conclusion. While acknowledging the difficulty of building social presence in online formats, she observes that online courses that manage to provide students with a “heightened sense of the social presence with their instructors and peers tend to report greater satisfaction with their online coursework.” 38

Theological education, however, is not just about helping students acquire cognitive content. It is also about the discipleship and formation of the students. For this reason, Jones et al stress the importance of recruiting online faculty who are not only theologically competent, but are also spiritually mature so that they can become a model for the students and play an active role in forming them.39

How these manifold elements of formal and informal education pan out depends largely on the context of the seminaries. For example, whether the schools are training mostly full-time or part-time students, or do they employ distance education, or primarily an in-person mode of teaching. For the rest of this paper, I will be sharing from the experience of BGST, and how we have integrated digital and adult learning to serve our students.

Digital Learning for Adult Theological Education: The Case of BGST

Founded in 1989, BGST’s educational vision is to equip the whole people of God – those in church ministry and also the laity. With more than 90% of our students working full time in the marketplace, BGST has been structured, from the onset, to provide a conducive environment for part-time studies. Besides offering all our classes through in-person evening and weekend classes, we also provide self-paced learning using multi-media formats. This two-prong approach not only offered greater flexibility for our students but maintained a high degree of in-person contact between lecturers and students.

In 2013, BGST adopted Blended Learning for most of the core courses in our flagship programmes – the Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies and Masters of Christian Studies.40 By providing the lectures online for self-paced learning, we were able to not only reduce the number of in-person sessions needed to complete a course, but also devote more time to higher order learning activities during the tutorials, such as case discussions, debates or project presentations. Besides introducing more flexibility and autonomy to our students’ learning schedule, this approach also creates more opportunities for collaborative and group learning which is much welcomed by our students. Supplementary self-paced learning continued to be offered, now entirely online through the Moodle Learning Management system.

In April 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in Singapore, leading to a 2-month lockdown. Like most seminaries, BGST repivoted to Zoom based online learning. Due to our Blended Learning experience and the extensive digital resources we built up, the switch to Zoom training was relatively seamlessly. Although restrictions eased since July 2020, the uncertainties that still prevailed compelled us to deliver most of our classes online via Zoom classrooms. This will remain the case in the near future. The only exceptions being courses that, we believe, will benefit far more from an in-person learning experience. This include courses in counselling and spiritual direction.

As we see it, the pandemic presents much opportunities for extending BGST’s educational ministry to the laity. With the global adoption of digital learning, there is now less resistance from Christians to learn digitally. As long as the restrictions for group gatherings continue, this will be a preferred mode of learning for many. More importantly, many churches are awakening to the potential of becoming decentralised micro churches. That is, to meet physically in small groups that are held together virtually through social media and other technological platforms. If these churches are to maintain a consistently level of quality teaching, they must leverage inevitably on digital training to serve all their micro communities.

For BGST, these present three areas of development:

  1. We must no longer think of ourselves as a local seminary but one whose ministry extends regionally or even globally. This is because, through the means of Zoom and partnerships with churches and parachurches, we can potentially reach students in other countries who, otherwise, may not have time or resources to undertake theological education.

  2. While educational technologies can extend the geographic reach of BGST, this alone will not advance our mission of training the laity. To do so, we must adapt our training further to cater to the learning needs of adults, as outlined by Knowles. An important aspect is to enable our students to make sense of the manifold social, political, cultural and technological shifts mentioned earlier. One way we have done so is to introduce a compulsory course in our Masters degrees called Christians in a Disruptive and Digital World. Another is to develop shorter non-graduate hybrid programmes that integrate contextual theology with the interdisciplinary frameworks, spiritual formation practices and management skills necessary to help students to contribute effectively at work or ministry.

  3. A final area we are exploring is how educational platforms can bring together collaborators to train the laity in Asia. The missional potential of this is exciting. Currently, rural towns, like those in East Malaysia, have little access to good quality training in their native languages, such as Bahasa Melayu. All these can change if courses can be developed for them and delivered on a collaborative platform.

Conclusion

As I write this paper (June 2021), Singapore has entered into yet another phase of social restrictions due to the rise of our COVID-19 cases. The same is observed in other countries which have likewise oscillated between lockdowns and the easing of restrictions over the past year. Unfortunately, this phenomenon will be the norm for the next few years. No matter our level of enthusiasm for digital learning, this mode of training is here to stay. What seminaries need to do is not so much lament for the loss of a golden age of in-person learning, but to reflect critically and discern how digital learning can be incorporated meaningfully to serve our diverse demographic and cultural contexts. If done well, God can use it as an effective means of taking our educational ministry beyond the shores of our imagination.


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