Upon leaving Bible College in 1991, some of my classmates moved to various locations to attend seminary. I went to San Antonio, TX as a youth pastor. Fast forward fifteen years when God started directing me to seminary education. There were no evangelical seminaries in Milwaukee and I was in a ministry position and unable to move. The year was 2005. By that time, I did what most people my age did. Google directed me to solutions. A fully online seminary caught my attention for many reasons, starting with “learn while you serve, where you serve.” In 2006, I started a graduate degree online through message board-style curriculum.
Five years and a few advanced degrees later (both online and in-person), I started teaching online. The program used teleconference software, still so much in infancy that there were continuous connection issues and a lag time that beat English versions of old Chinese movies. Yet the accessibility factor made it convenient for everyone. Again, I was not ready to move from the Midwest, yet I could teach for a college in California with students across the country, and eventually around the world. Theological education had become accessible on all continents through online learning.
In 2000, roughly 8% of all students in the USA were enrolled in at least one distance education course. By 2008 that percentage had grown to 20%. The number continues to climb, reaching 31% in 2016. The educational world is moving online because of increased accessibility for students (especially at the graduate level) and decreased overhead expense for institutions.
In the fall of 2019, Winebrenner Theological Seminary will offer its first fully online degree, the Master of Arts in Practical Theology. The mission of equipping men and women for service in God’s Kingdom is enhanced by offering the degree to people who can learn in the convenience of their current ministry location. All they need is a computer and internet access!
One of the many strengths of online theological education happens when students in ministry discuss things that happened within the last month. By shortening the distance between the classroom and ministry context, sharper learning takes place. The ideas become lived rather than just learned, moving from the hypothetical to the contextual. Because online faculty are not just in one location, many are involved in local ministry, teaching one or two classes in a term. For such an instructor, the theology taught on Monday has to work Sunday in the pulpit also! Numerous studies report that online learning is as rigorous as in-person education. Students are asked to think before they type and to contribute throughout the week. The pace is crisp and theological learning takes on a different flavor.
Winebrenner Theological Seminary is committed to making theological education accessible to students in broad contexts! We desire to collaborate with local ministries to build communities of learning in many contexts.
By Dr. Bruce Coats
Winebrenner Theological Seminary
Photo by Jaye Haych, Unsplash on Adobe Spark.
 National Center for Educational Statistics. “Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2006–07.” Accessed May 28, 2019. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012154.pdf. No language differentiated other models of distance education from online learning in the early days of online education.
 Doug Lederman “Who Is Studying Online (and Where).” Inside Higher Education. Accessed on May 28, 2019. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2018/01/05/new-us-data-show-continued-growth-college-students-studying.