by Kari Aanestad, M.Div. '12
When Luther Seminary offered, with some hesitancy, its first online courses in 1996, no one guessed that more than 15 years later Luther would be leading one of the largest Master of Divinity Distributed Learning program in the country. Much more, it was not anticipated that the success of the M.Div. DL program would actually begin to influence the way in which residential learning is carried out at the seminary.
"The M.Div. DL program is helping us live into a much more radical understanding of how we do seminary, which more effectively supports student learning," said Michael DeLashmutt, associate dean for first theological degree programs. "This program is really a huge resource for us."
Though online course offerings were a crucial first step toward distributed learning, it took four years of faculty-driven research and development with support from the Association of Theological Schools to finally launch a distributed learning M.Div. program.
Two-thirds of learning takes place in rigorous online coursework, allowing students to remain in their homes and ministry contexts across the country.
The tipping point
The first cohort of students in the M.Div. DL program began courses in 2007, and after five years of 20 online courses, 10 two-week, on-campus intensives, 400 hours of hospital chaplaincy and an internship, the ELCA's first nine M.Div. DL students graduated from Luther Seminary on May 20.
"The program has been a wonderful adventure," said Ryan Ray, a 2012 M.Div. DL grad who completed his final year of the degree in Hickory, N.C. "I have made some of my closest friends, done tons of hands-on learning in my context and experienced the Spirit's leading in the most tangible way of my entire life. Through this program, God has made it abundantly clear that I have been called to ministry."
"The Distributed Learning program at Luther has provided me with a wonderful group of colleagues from all over the country," said Paul Shumaker, a 2012 M.Div. grad who completed his final year of the degree in Paynesville, Minn. "Within this program God has provided us with a great education and a glimpse into the greater church body and larger world, which reminds us daily of God's work not just in our little corner of the world but in many parts of God's creation!"
There was some initial reluctance to pioneer online learning for fear it might be an obstacle to the crucial theological formation that takes place in relationships among students. But many have been surprised to discover that the sense of community that has been built among M.Div. DL students not only matches but often surpasses that which exists among residential learners.
A model of learning
"Our M.Div. DL program has been designed in a way that enables communities of learners to form quickly, while also enabling students to engage deeply and seriously with content and context," DeLashmutt said.
"We are discovering that within the M.Div. DL program in particular, formation occurs within the cohorts," DeLashmutt said. Cohorts are groups of students organized according to their enrollment year. The 2012-2013 academic year will welcome the sixth cohort of M.Div. DL students.
"The pattern of cohort may get disrupted as people's lives get complicated, but we have found that the students stay together as extracurricular cohorts and continue their cohort relationships outside of their courses. These groups of people are tied together to support one another in parish ministry anywhere. Residential M.Div. students do not always have that."
Looking to the future
While celebrating the first cohort of graduating M.Div. DL students, the leadership at Luther Seminary is also looking forward to exciting developments in the future of the program. In addition to continuing to find ways to strengthen the program and deepen relationships with ELCA synods and other ecumenical bodies, leadership at Luther Seminary and Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg are eager to continue exploring a developing mutual relationship that supports innovations in distributed and online learning.
Luther Seminary and Gettysburg Seminary began exploring the possibility of sharing work around online and distributed learning last fall. They will work together to support Luther Seminary's existing M.Div. DL program and Gettysburg Seminary's new media and religion concentration for students
earning a Master of Arts in religion.
"This is an exciting development that expands our capacity for creative thinking about how we might best educate leaders for a church on the move in mission for Christ," said Robin Steinke, dean of Gettysburg Seminary. "These two projects ... open concrete ways for us to test out new ideas and build capacity. My hope is that thinking creatively across traditional institutional boundaries may open new ways of serving the theological educational mission needs of the church and be generative for the whole system of theological education."
In a joint statement, Gettysburg Seminary President Michael Cooper-White and Luther Seminary President Richard Bliese wrote, "We are eager to see what emerges from an unexpected exploration on the part of schools from differing heritages and in distinct Eastern and Midwestern contexts. We are committed to sharing our discoveries and exploring broader collaboration with our other partners in the Lutheran network and broader circles of theological education."
"The M.Div. DL program has been on a continuous evolution since it began," said Lynne Ogren, an M.Div. DL student in Cohort 3 from Oak Harbor, Wash. "At each intensive we (as M.Div. DL students) have offered up our suggestions and shared the struggles and joys we have experienced. We feel like we are helping to shape the program for the next cohorts, and it's exciting to see what will happen next."
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