Southwestern Seminary’s flexible access Ph.D. allows students to enroll in the seminary’s prestigious doctoral program without relocating to Fort Worth. Below is an interview with Executive Vice President and Provost Craig Blaising in which he answers questions about this three-year experimental initiative.

Q: What is flex access?

A: Flex access means that one can participate in a class or seminar either through “real” or “virtual” attendance. The student is “in the room” participating in the same education experience at the same time with other students whether by live physical presence or by live virtual presence.

Q: What is the difference between virtual flex access and traditional online education?

A: Virtual flex access takes place online, but it is different from traditional online education.  This is because traditional online education is an asynchronous learning experience. This means that learning content and learning experiences are placed online for students to access later. However, the learning experience is basically static—reading and viewing materials that have been posted for that class. A student may pose questions on a discussion board or by email but will have to wait until a professor or other students log in and post responses. The interaction does not take place in real time. It is not the same thing as a live classroom experience.

On the other hand, virtual flex access is synchronous participation in a live classroom experience. The virtual student is “present” audibly and visually in the classroom with students who are physically present. The educational experience—in both presentation and discussion—takes place in real time.

Q: Why is synchronous virtual flex access better for Ph.D. seminars than traditional asynchronous online methods?

A: Ph.D. seminars are not the same as traditional classes. They are live interactive sessions in which research is brought to the seminar and discussed by all participants. The professor gives guidance throughout the discussion. The benefit of the seminar is not only one’s own presentation of research materials but the feedback from the professor and fellow students that will then guide the student in the next phase of research. This kind of discussion and feedback requires a conference setting in which all participants are present.  Trying to do this in an asynchronous format would be too drawn out and tedious and would not achieve the same result as live dynamic interaction. Synchronous virtual presence allows a student to be a full participant in the actual dynamics of a live Ph.D. seminar.

Q: Some seminaries have modular Ph.D. programs. What is a modular program?

A: Modular programs compress the “seat time” of a course into a shorter time span. For example, a typical semester course will meet for two to three hours per week spread over 14-15 weeks. In a modular format, the same number of hours is compressed into a one- or two-week time frame in which the students meet for four to eight hours per day. This is marketed to non-residential students as a way to get a class “on campus” without having to relocate one’s residence. One simply comes for a week or two, takes one or two classes in a modular format, and then returns home. If one has the stamina to endure it, the modular class offers all the presentational materials—lectures and other course content—in a concentrated time.

Q:  Why does a modular format not work well for Ph.D. studies?

A: The modular format does not work well for research seminars, which are the heart of a Ph.D. program. The simple reason is that a Ph.D. seminar is not a lecture course. In a research seminar, topics are typically posted at the beginning of a semester. Students undertake guided research on those topics through the course of the semester. This research simply cannot be done in the one-week or two-week format of a modular course.  Time is needed to locate, read, analyze and evaluate large quantities of scholarly material.  Seminar discussion of that material in weekly intervals through the semester helps in the analysis and evaluation of that material and the discovery of new directions for the research project that only comes through such analysis and evaluation. Initial research ideas inevitably must be shaped through the ongoing research process. Research ideas that seem promising at first sometimes turn out not to be so promising. One must shape and hone one’s work through continued research so as to make an accurate, interesting and helpful contribution. This takes time. The traditional semester-long research seminar offers that time; a one- or two-week span of time does not.

On the other hand, a flex access Ph.D. program does allow the non-resident student the same quality of education as the on-campus doctoral student. Why? Because the virtual student undertakes the same research process and participates “live” in the same research seminar experience as those who are physically present. In the flex access program, a virtual student keeps the same weekly seminar schedule as the other Ph.D. students and “meets together” with those students and the professor for live presentations and discussion of weekly research findings. The virtual student is a live participant, presenting material and discussing research findings with the other students.

Q: The flex access program actually appears to be more convenient for a distance student than a modular program. Is this true?

A: Yes. Besides the fact that the modular format does not work well for a guided research seminar, the distance student does not need to plan one- or two-week trips to campus for each seminar in the program. Rather, all seminars in the flex program are accessible from the student’s own location.

Q: Are there any on-campus experiences that are required for flex access Ph.D. students at Southwestern?

A: There are two three-day orientation sessions on campus that are scheduled: one at the beginning of the program, generally at the start of Reading Seminars, and the other at the beginning of the second year, or generally at the start of Research Seminars. These two three-day orientation sessions accomplish many things. They provide the opportunity for all students to meet each other and to meet their professors in person. There is hands-on training in the technical aspects of virtual access. Instruction is given in the methods of doctoral research, and students have the opportunity to meet the librarians with whom they will be working in doing research.

Q: How does a virtual student obtain library access in the flex access program?

A: All students will get to know Southwestern’s librarians, who are accessible to them both in-person and electronically. Much research material is accessible in digital form, and print material is available for checkout at a distance for any Ph.D. student.

Q: What if a virtual student in Southwestern’s flex access program would like to be physically present in some seminar sessions? Is it possible to switch between virtual and physical presence at seminar sessions through the course of one’s program?

A: Yes, that is the nature of flex access. Access is flexible between physical and virtual presence. So, for example, a virtual student might like to come and be physically present in the seminar on the day that papers are presented and discussed. Or, a student in a seminar may be traveling one week and would like to attend the seminar session “virtually.” It is also possible that someone might attend some seminars in one mode and others in another. I think that some who might be debating about moving to campus might begin their programs through virtual access and then decide later to come for the completion of their work.

Q: Are there still some reasons why a student might choose to move to Fort Worth rather than pursue the Ph.D. program through virtual access?

A: The flex access virtual student can participate live in the seminar experience. However, the student who is able to be physically present on campus has a broader range of access outside the seminar experience. While it is possible for the virtual student to communicate with a professor outside the seminar, being physically present on campus allows for a greater scope of contact beyond the intentional appointment.