Healthy Leaders


Jumpstart on Online Academic Programs?

Dr. Jessy ThomasDr. Jessy Thomas

Thinking About the Direction of Seminaries in the Post-COVID Scenario in India

Years ago, while attending a well-designed “online session” on the prospects of Online Theological Education, I kept wondering why on earth I should be watching these videos and listening to this lady who was passionately and creatively talking about something that had absolutely no relevance in my context. My disposition was purely one of disinterest and restlessness, obviously due to the perception that this would never work in my context ‒ at least in my lifetime!

Now, things have changed. We are all probably looking at things through the new COVID-19 lens that has changed the entire momentum of our big world and our little worlds irrespective of where we are.

COVID-19 has presented to us a dilemma that is unparalleled and seemingly unresolvable anywhere in the near future. Its impacts are far-reaching and we are still unable to estimate what’s next for the churches, missions and theological institutions. The abrupt lockdown announcement has forced some of our seminaries or Bible schools to suspend final examinations and even well-planned graduation services. Not only that, a number of students are still stranded ‒ either on the seminary campuses or in their summer internship locations ‒ but also denied re-entry to their own towns and villages for fear of the deadly virus infection. Life has changed in ways we could never have imagined. Some seminaries ended up providing food and shelter to quite a large group of students in the summer months, not really knowing how long it might go like this, adding enormous economic and safety pressures on the schools.

Even more alarming to many is looking ahead to the upcoming academic year. Usual calendars may not work, yet the system must go on. Faculty and staff need to survive; new models of training need to be explored and plans put in place for new skills-development programs. Students’ travel plans may be hindered by the national safety policies, curfews and interstate travel restrictions. Extreme economic crises instigated by the extensive lockdown might provoke second thoughts in students regarding their return to studies. New admissions are at stake as the date of schools reopening appears unpredictable. In summary, we are at a halt on many fronts.

At this juncture of unprecedented chaos, the “buzz” is mostly on online programs, contemplated as one of the most relevant ways to keep us going.

Taking a look at the possibilities is our intent ‒ by no means in the form of ultimate resolutions, which we don’t have anyway ‒ but rather as honest sharing of concerns and queries. What are the pertinent challenges with regard to this novel idea, at least for some of us? Compared to the large number of theological institutions in India, only a handful may be well-versed in offering professionally advanced online programs. Scarce technical platforms, lack of funding in establishing media rooms, poor bandwidth, unfamiliarity of students and faculty in the use of online resources, confusion regarding the validity of online programs, village-based students’ inaccessibility to online classes, and ‒ maybe above all ‒ ignorance about designing online courses are just a few of our reservations.

We have four categories of theology schools: first, the ones that have always followed the conventional residential training where everything maintains the status quo; second, those that are familiar with online educational patterns and may be informally or occasionally applying their techniques; third, the ones that have started an online education track in recent years and are now ready to switch entirely to it or run it parallel with the regular modes; and fourth, the ones that are fully competent and approved in running online courses and programs.

Let’s ponder briefly the first category for now ‒ the schools that have never had online exposure and have never pursued a move in that direction. Obviously, when admissions and functioning of sessions encounter enormous holdups, starting an online program may not be the only forward trajectory. The current crisis might be inviting theology schools to take up the challenge to be more indigenous, native-vernacular, church-based and non-formal in their training outlook. This too would doubtlessly be a tremendously hard shift for conventional seminaries. Getting back to the question of an online jumpstart while still running the residential programs, one might consider a parallel online track, initially making small-scale, affordable trials. These trials would give us clarity about the feasibility of the direction in terms of students’ pursuit of it, faculty’s interest and competence in it, the program’s transformative impact and the input in terms of human resources and funds required for implementation. There are no hard and fast rules about it. It is need-based, institutional goal-oriented and context-driven. Surely the results will depend on responsiveness, creativity and innovation.

Institutions that express outright reluctance ask questions like, “Will it work at all if our student constituency hails from rural, village settings?” “How can we ever advance students’ spiritual formation through online courses?” “How can we make learning and examinations credible?” “What are the many things we will miss out on here in the absence of a teacher in person and when learning is entirely virtual?” “Who will train the faculty to develop and write online courses and facilitate them with all the rigor needed?” And of course, many more questions ‒ more questions than answers! This is fine. Let’s keep on thinking; there’s no harm in doing that. Let’s keep looking at our own specific contexts and see what’s best in terms of viability, consistency and impact.

It seems too early to settle on something; the new jigsaw box is yet to open and we realize that the demands will be revolutionary on our systems that have been so firmly entrenched for decades. We are left to keep searching and acting in the blur of the intensity of COVID-19 spreading and the subsequent crises in and around our world. There is no question that we are in a time that is different from the pre-corona context where at any point of need we could reach out to others and get help in no time. Now, waiting has become our discipline, not knowing how long the wait will be. Yet we know that waiting does not restrict our thinking and learning; in fact, it should be the opposite. God has wired us with intrinsic power to explore new avenues and to venture out, trusting Him who alone is omniscient and omnipresent. Perhaps we should reach out beyond the closed walls and the locked screens and start sharing our questions and hopes freely with those who journey along with us. With God we will make it through these dire uncertainties for His Kingdom’s sake.

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