Growing numbers of people chat, shop, watch movies and get their information online. And over the past two decades, many have been getting their education online, too. Tom Tanner, accreditation and institutional evaluation director at The Association of Theological Schools, reports that the schools that comprise ATS, nearly two-thirds of their member schools have online offerings. Nearly one-third of ATS seminary students have taken at least one online course. If this trend continues, this percentage could reach more than half in the next few years.

Prepared to launch 100 percent online programs in fall 2017, Talbot will extend its local and global accessibility with the release of these four program concentrations: M.A. Bible Exposition, M.A. New Testament and M.A. Theology (Greek and non-Greek track). An online undergraduate Bachelor of Science in Biblical Ministries degree completion program will also be available in fall 2017 to provide Bible and ministry training to an even wider audience. Coinciding with the release of these programs, Open Biola, an online collection of free educational content, will be complemented by an interactive learning system to engage lifelong learning.

The increased adoption of online education stems from the easy accessibility and convenience for the learner. Trading actual seat time in a brick-and-mortar classroom for the ability to learn through digital means has proven overwhelmingly attractive. Students are able to view and re-view teaching videos and set their own pace and rhythm to complete the requirements for a course. Online discussion threads and chat room features are “par” for the course, but what makes an online course or program stand out are the ways that the professor engages with students through features of a learning management system (LMS).

The unique position is found not as a sage on the stage, nor the guide on the side, but rather the sage on the side. Fostering engagement with and among students establishes strong and healthy learning communities.

Cultivating effective pedagogy in an online class is possible. Learning outcomes and expectations need not be compromised. Students can engage in transformational learning that impacts their lives. This type of online class is not only possible but may have experiences superior to those found in on-campus classes.

Here’s an example. In a typical on-campus class, there are times when a professor presents a question for large group discussion. Students who require time to process information and form their own thoughts are conscious of the time constraints. Before their viewpoints are defined clearly enough to articulate — and the risk is low enough to communicate those thoughts out loud — the opportunity to respond has already been seized by other more spontaneous or unreserved students. As a result, the usual handful of regulars contribute to discussions but the majority of students prefer, or feel forced, to remain silent, and thus less involved in the learning process. In an online course, students can take advantage of the time to process their thoughts and reflections before contributing to an online discussion. The professor can then engage with all the responses instead of the few in the traditional residential format. The engagement methods found in online courses are critical for establishing and sustaining learning communities and for the transformation that can result from them.

The Inward Reach: Character Formation

Online education, if it is going to affect character formation, deserves pedagogy that inspires. But, before addressing some aspects of this pedagogy, this little known fact needs to be revealed. The original working title for my book Character Formation in Online Education read “Online Classes.” As I thought more about the contents of the work, I felt so much of it could address the church and other organizations, so the title was changed to Character Formation in Online Education. It’s about teaching that impacts the personal, home, Christian community and marketplace arenas. There are so many aspects of good pedagogy in online education that can impact those we interact with in the relationships and conversations that make up our everyday lives. Don’t be surprised that while reading the rest of this article, adapted from the book, you find yourself thinking of situations or circumstances where these truths presented can be applied.

Character formation is more than an outward, behavioral, or moral change. It deals with who I am now and who I am becoming over the long haul in my life. Whether in the ordinary mundaneness of everyday life or in the challenges and trials that force the true self to emerge, whether in the presence of eyewitnesses or whether in the silent solitude of seeming obscurity, character formation is an ongoing work. God’s Word informs this process and is evidenced by a lifestyle of godliness that has both inward and outward consequences: inward, a growing dependence and trust in God who proves himself worthy of that trust, and outward, reconciled relationships with others who matter a great deal to God. It is developed by what we allow to enter most deeply into our hearts and souls and, is the lifelong response to the grace of God by the power of his Spirit in growing likeness of the Son.

Effective teaching moves beyond a truncated understanding of the heart to incorporating the entire heart. In Proverbs 4:23, believers are warned: “Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.” Mentioned nearly 1,000 times in God’s Word, it is clear that the heart is of importance to God. Discovering more about the heart helps us understand why it is of primary interest to him. John Coe, in the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, describes the heart as, “the core of human personality and is the nexus of human will, affect, and intellect.” The intellect, or mind, the thinking function of the heart, is where our thoughts are received, processed and formed. Affect, or emotion, is tied to thoughts as we have feelings about all thoughts. The will is an expression of what we actually do (or do not do) with our thoughts. Components of the heart — mind, emotion and will — are often examined separately but they function together. They make up who we are. Our lives are our hearts in motion.

An approach to online teaching that focuses only on acquiring information focuses on the mind while marginalizing the emotions and will. The ability to affect change toward character formation is dependent upon whether thoughts reach the level of emotion in the heart and involve the will. Formational learning requires emotions to be involved, bringing greater value to what we understand, which prompts change.

Knowing about the soul is important to learning as well. The soul is often understood to be the non-material essence of who we are. Unfortunately, that is only partially correct. Scripture does not support the bifurcation between “soul” and body. Jesus speaks of a separation of soul and body in Matthew 10:28, but he is addressing what happens at death when the soul or person is separated from the body, resulting in a disembodied soul. In Revelation 6:9, the apostle John identifies the disembodied souls of those persons who were martyred. These disembodied souls would be incomplete souls because though the soul remains the real person with or without being embodied, it is designed for embodiment. For Christians, this will happen at Christ’s second coming, when believers receive new, resurrected bodies.

The two words that are translated “soul” in the Bible, nephesh in the Old Testament and psuche in the New Testament, describe living beings or human beings, not just the immaterial aspect of a person. Early in Genesis (2:7) we are told that the union of our body (the material substance) with our spirit (the immaterial substance) forms a living soul (nephesh). The soul, which includes the body, comes to mean “the whole person,” all of what makes up the “self.” All human beings are souls.

Considering the soul as only its immaterial aspect marginalizes the impact the body and its actions have on character formation in online education. When the body is excluded from an understanding of the soul, we ignore an important part of the soul: we unintentionally disregard the impact physical actions and behaviors can have. In an organic and dynamic way, matters that impact one’s heart and soul manifest in how we live and the actions and behaviors of our lives impact our soul and heart.

Practical Applications

Purposefully incorporating prompts and questions in an online course that engage the heart and soul have potentially the greatest impact on learning. Well-framed questions reveal something about the questioner; the answers reveal something about the respondent. Jesus asked questions but not for the sake of asking questions. His questions were clear, brief and practical, yet stimulating, personal and adapted to the individual. They were always intended to reach the heart of a matter, causing people to think and feel. He sought to elicit a response that stemmed from thoughtful consideration. Reflecting on a matter is the brain’s way of making connections toward grasping a concept or truth, helping connect thoughts with emotions. As Robert Saucy states in Minding the Heart, “The deeper something is in our heart, the more it influences our life.”

Questions that impact character formation are those whose answers tighten the connection between the subject matter and human emotion. Well-framed questions force students to wrestle with or meditate on the information presented. The inclusion of the word “soul” in some questions and conversations is helpful. Christian conversations are mostly devoid of the use of this word, yet every human being is a soul that requires attentive care, which ultimately means the heart receives attending as well.

Here are a couple questions designed to elicit meaningful meditation:

  1. Paul states in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily (with the soul), as for the Lord.” In light of the biblical understanding of the soul, what challenges do you face in being obedient to God?

  2. Consider Psalm 119:11, 13. “I have treasured Your word in my heart so that I may not sin against You.” “With my lips I proclaim all the judgments from Your mouth.” Which is more difficult for you, to get the Word into your heart and soul or to speak having been impacted by God’s Word? Explain.

The individualism and isolationism, with its emphases on self, is pervasive in our culture. Such autonomy is a constant temptation in contemporary society. Cultural anthropology professor Michael Wesch observes that students are fluent with entertaining self, not with educating self. They may be digitally adept but not adept at educating themselves. The ease and ability of accessing information is not equated with acquiring knowledge. As educators, we have been placed in the unique position to impact not only what students learn but also how they mature in their learning, critical thinking and discernment of the information to which they are exposed. The training in, and for, our various disciplines taught us to ask defining questions, think broadly for resources, pursue answers, wrestle with apparent contradictions, press through when we have “hit a wall” and to discover deep within us the motivation that what we are learning will indeed make a difference in our world. As we bring these to our students, they are taking notice of what education looks like.

Yet, a Christian education has always been more than content delivery or information transfer. It is committed to both academic excellence and spiritual transformation. Educators care about their academic discipline and Christian fidelity as they equip their students through an academic subject. They understand that knowledge without character formation limits true impact on students, their community and the world. Students learn more when they believe their professors care about their learning, and students are more engaged in their own spiritual transformation when they believe their professors value transformation. The goal is character formation, and educators can provide opportunities for students to change something about their self and grow as a person. This can best be accomplished in a community that values knowing and being known. Learning together influences a deeper level of engagement.

The Outward reach: Cultivating a Learning Community

Human beings have a fundamentally insatiable need for relationship. We are undeniably relational because we are made in the image of God. No matter what the technology, it will be used by people to connect with others. Being relational is in our nature. The community aspect conveys the value and role of each member in spiritually formative relationships. In an online learning community, this includes relationships with both professors and peers. Community makes possible a powerful structure for shaping and bringing about individual and corporate change. In community, the emotional activation is added to the shared experience. Having others present changes behavior and adds emotional engagement to the process.

Creating an effective communal environment for learning can be challenging. Technology used well, however, has proven instrumental in addressing and accomplishing these tasks. Cultivating a presence in an online course community is critical. The professor who cultivates interaction with and between students breeds a “classroom away from the classroom” that is healthy enough to minimize the disadvantages of being geographically distant, while maximizing the advantages of engaged learning and having profound experiences of authentic Christian community.

An important step toward developing a learning community involves developing small groups in online classes. Professors can prayerfully consider if these groups should be gender specific discipline specific, or intentionally mixed, as there is great freedom and strategy in forming appropriate groups. Collaboration in small groups facilitates communication between members and with the professor. Students are likely to feel more comfortable getting to know a few others in a group. Interacting with a whole classroom of students can be intimidating and can foster more isolation and separation. Small groups allow students to ask questions and find answers in a safe environment.

The small group format can be particularly effective when using certain features of an LMS: discussion prompts, collaborative documents and video conferences. Students do not live in a vacuum, so take the opportunity to step into their lives. How is the truth of what they are learning getting expressed in their lives? This can be approached with questions such as, “What does this truth look like in your life?” Or “What God-given opportunities might be clothed in this challenge?” Or by commenting on how you observe God working in an individual’s life. Press students to be specific while avoiding superficial, cliché-ish answers. Take advantage of the opportunities to leave either a written or media comment for students. These validate their efforts; the encouragement can be deeply received.

Through discussion responses, professors can contribute to individuals or to the group as a whole. Exercise discernment when electing to send a comment to a group versus an individual. A personalized comment can be sent to a student or a more general one to a group. Meaningful comments made on these and other assignments give evidence of the professor’s involvement with student learning while validating their contributions and thought processes. Additionally, the professor can effectively use collaborative documents to collect student comments, reflections or contributions in either an asynchronous online format or synchronous hybrid course setting. Initial posts can be anonymous but often lend themselves to later posts where students freely identify themselves.

A growing number of professors are using video conferences in their online courses and finding this feature less intimidating than they had feared. As part of every good LMS, video conferences reveal the professor’s desire to build and support a healthy learning community. These opportunities are valuable times to connect with students in an informal yet informative, user-friendly way. At the same time, video conferences help keep the professor alert, aware and humble.

When features of an LMS are purposefully and creatively used, both students and professors enjoy the best that pedagogy and technology have to offer. The importance of being present and conversant with students cannot be over-emphasized. Professors have a tremendous opportunity to help awaken and inspire faith in their students. They have been given the essential responsibility of equipping students with knowledge, but that knowledge is not merely intellectual. It applies to the skill of living life as one is transformed.

Tanner states that “seminary graduates who study mostly online feel better about their own spiritual formation and abilities than do traditional graduates who study mostly onsite.”As online courses become even more the norm for education, this pedagogy is proving effective in affecting spiritual transformation. It is a calling fulfilled and rewarded as professors recognize and accept the task of integrating faith and learning, especially, and expectantly, in online education.