Time and space no longer separate students from access to theological education
Marilyn Maddox desired to “shore up” her theological studies, but being a wife, mother, and full-time staff member at a large Baptist church in Houston, she was unable to relocate to Fort Worth in order to attend Southwestern Seminary in person. Fortunately, Southwestern provides an option other than the residential program that fits her particular circumstances: a “flexible access” master’s degree.
Flexible, or “flex,” access means that access to seminary courses is flexible between physical presence in the classroom or real-time virtual presence. For students like Maddox, this means live participation in classes is possible through video web conferencing software (such as Zoom or Adobe Connect).
Maddox, therefore, was able to enroll in Southwestern’s 36-credit-hour Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degree without relocating from Houston and yet participate live in classes as they occurred on campus. Though her particular classes are recorded and thus can be viewed at later times, the “flex access” component of the courses means she has the option of being virtually present while the classes are in session in Fort Worth through what is essentially a video conference call. Her professors, then, have physical and virtual students “sitting” in the classroom during lectures.
“I enjoy ‘participating’ in class online with the live link because I can ask questions in real time and feel more of a part of the class,” Maddox says. “I have, thus far, always felt like the professors were both aware of and inclusive of the online students viewing the course via Zoom or Adobe Connect. The professors and their graduate assistants have been attentive to the needs of the online student population.”
Maddox is one of over a thousand students currently benefitting from Southwestern’s flex access program. The program encompasses several areas, including master’s-level courses that students must attend synchronously (that is, while the class is in session), master’s courses that can be attended live or viewed online later, and Southwestern’s entire Ph.D. program, which allows students from across the country and even around the globe access to the seminary’s prestigious doctoral program in a synchronous, participatory manner.
“The possibilities of remote location are earth-wide,” says Craig Blaising, executive vice president and provost at Southwestern. “Wherever, on the face of the planet, there is internet access, a person can be a participant in [Southwestern’s programs].” Blaising has described the advantages of flex access over traditional online courses elsewhere.
Among those participating in the flex access program are pastors, businessmen, doctors, engineers, military personnel, and even professors from other institutions. They come from a range of locations—from Hawaii to New York, Montana to Texas—and such countries as Argentina, Germany, Jordan, Pakistan, Japan, Vietnam, and more.
Jim Wicker, director of web-based education at Southwestern, illustrates the success of the flex access program through its growth in numbers. “Online growth has been flat in most schools for the last five years,” he says. “There had been a lot of growth previously, but it’s leveled off. But we continue to see growth. Between this spring and last spring, [online enrollment] has grown 32 percent. And the number of courses has increased 65 percent.”
Wicker says a benefit of the program is that flex access students receive the most up-to-date information available, because the class is taught in real time. “That’s a big difference in our online education relative to almost anyone else,” he explains. “Because most record classes, and then they’ll use those recordings for 10-15 years. Or they’ll have some doctoral student teach it or even hire actors to ‘teach’ scripted content.
“But the main difference in our flex class is that it is that class taught that semester by that professor. So it’s the most up-to-date, because the professor has added to his course material for that semester the most recent scholarly works, the most recent findings in that field, so students are not hearing old information from old lectures.”
Jerry Vines, pastor emeritus of the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., is currently enrolled in Southwestern’s Ph.D. program via flex access. As he explains, the program gives him the opportunity to pursue the Ph.D. without having to be on campus. Because the program is synchronous, however, “I am in the seminar and can see the professors and other students,” he says. “Also, I can participate in the discussions.”
“Recently, I was traveling in the Carolinas,” he says. “I actually was able to be in the seminar while in a car via my iPad! How cool is that?”
Sean Perron, director of operations for the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), is also enrolled in Southwestern’s flex access Ph.D. program. He explains, “I am married, have a baby on the way, work a full-time job, and have various writing projects I’m involved with. My life is packed, but the flex access program enables me to continue my education. I am able to join the classroom each week and participate fully in the class discussion. The teachers engage me in class discussion and treat me just as if I was sitting right next to them.”
Perron says the flex access program has not hindered his learning experience but rather enhanced it. “One of the main reasons I am at Southwestern is because of this program,” he says. “I’m able to grow in my training, be stretched in my education, and meet new scholars all over the world through this flex program.”
Blaising explains that the “flex access” component of the Ph.D., in particular, is important for its allowance of synchronous participation in seminars. Rather than compress the Ph.D. program into a modular format, as some other seminaries have done, Blaising, when developing the flex access program, recognized the importance of providing a semester-long, collaborative experience for doctoral students.
“One must shape and hone one’s work through continued research so as to make an accurate, interesting and helpful contribution [to a particular field of study],” Blaising says. “This takes time. The traditional semester-long research seminar offers that time; a one- or two-week span of time [in a modular program] does not.”
Wes Miller, Southwestern’s chief information officer, affirms, “We believe the best way to infuse theological knowledge and experience is not in an accelerated time period. The best way to handcraft a theological student is to infuse them with the experience that our professors have over the greatest amount of exposure possible. And with our flex access program, we are able to do that without having to get the student to come here in a modular, shortened program. They’re able to communicate interactively with our professors throughout the semester rather than having to do so in a five- or ten-day seminar.”
Pastor Charles Blansit, who is nearing graduation from the MTS program, says he was initially nervous about taking classes online “but soon discovered that this program was a treasure.” He explains, “Not only could I get the education I was seeking, but the experience has been practically as rewarding as attending a traditional classroom. The available technology allowed me to participate during class with students at the brick and mortar seminary.”
“Additionally,” he says, “the way the curriculum is set up has led to me developing a network of relationships with other pastors and Christian missionaries around the world. The opportunity to be exposed to so many different cultures and ministries is something that cannot be duplicated outside of physical travel.”
Though Blaising says the residential program is still the best way to pursue theological education, he also says the flex access program is the best way to incorporate students who simply cannot relocate to Fort Worth. Echoing the sentiments of her many fellow flex access students, Marilyn Maddox says, “It would be nearly impossible for me, with my work and family situation, to be working on my MTS if it were not for the flex access program.”