Lessons Learned about Online Learning

Five years ago, I left a residential seminary campus to start a fully online seminary from scratch, known today as Rockbridge. In my travels and discussions with ministers around the world, I discovered many ministers that wanted seminary training but didn’t feel called to leave their ministry fields in order to get it.

Technology now makes it possible to connect to a learning community from your home, office, or coffee shop. I believe there is a place for residential seminaries, and nearly every week I steer a prospect for Rockbridge to a residential seminary program. However, there is also a place for online learning. Most residential programs now offer up to one half of their studies online. You may find the convenience and the type of courses offered online could benefit your learning program.

Here are a few discoveries I have made in my journey:

1. Authentic community can be developed online. Some leaders tout community as a reason to attend a residential program. However, if a student is working full-time, with church and family responsibilities, they often run from classes to work or church and don’t get to know their fellow learners. In a good online course, you will develop meaningful relationships. Because you interact with your colleagues daily, you develop relationships otherwise not experienced in a classroom setting.

2. Online learning is highly interactive. In a typical residential class, 10% of the class will raise questions. In an online environment, everyone participates. Typically, students are required to be online at least 4-5 days a week and post at least 9 times in a forum discussion.

3. Online learning is not easier. Some have the mistaken notion that all you do in an online course is read material on a screen, or view a video, and take a test. Online learning courses are nothing like correspondence courses. While there is flexibility as to when you go online, the class will still demand 10-15 hours of work each week. (That is why at Rockbridge our program is set up so that students only take one course at a time.)

4. Online learning is learner centered, not teacher centered. This doesn’t mean that you do not interact with the professor, or with content, but the real learning takes place in learner forums that are directed by the professor. Students who thrive best in an online environment are self-starters who take responsibility for their learning and see their role as contributing to the learning of the entire group. It is a learning community.

5. Spiritual formation can take place online. The online community allows for the expression of personal issues. Students feel free to share their spiritual journey and they trust their colleagues to hold the online experience as sacred space. Courses have prayer rooms, where prayer concerns can be shared and students will post prayers for one another.

6. Not every teacher is wired to teach online. Some professors think they just have to dump their lectures into a virtual can, and that’s all there is to online learning. The best online teachers are a combination of counselor, mentor, friend, spiritual guide, coach, and facilitator. They excel at asking students questions and redirecting their thinking. They coach from the sidelines. Their best teaching is done by the feedback they give on the assignments. So, check out who is teaching the online course. How long have they taught online? Is this their first course? How do other students rate the online class experience with this teacher? Do your homework before signing up.

Online learning is not for everyone, but if you keep these six things in mind, you can make some wonderful friends and learning colleagues in the process.

Daryl Eldridge is President and Cofounder of Rockbridge Seminary.

2 Replies to “Lessons Learned about Online Learning”

  1. I have been a student of online seminary, including RS, for a couple of years now. I have read several studies on the ever increasing quality of online studies and agree for the most part. It is, in many ways, still a work in progress.

    Dr. Eldredge points out that online learning is highly interactive. While this is true, students are required to post “X” times per week, I found the quality of the interaction to be mostly poor. It appeared some of the posts were nothing more than people getting in their weekly “quota.”

    I went as far to contact my professors/mentors on 2 occasions because the posts were not thought provoking or engaging – most were just agreements with a prior post and didn’t benefit the learning community whatsoever. Some were even completely off the subject and included political views.

    Personally, I gained very little from the online interaction. Obviously I cannot speak to all online studies but QUALITY interaction is an area I believe needs improvement and more closely monitored by the professors.


  2. I response to the entry above by Mark back in 2008, I have to say that my experience has been very different from his.

    I have my MA in Communication from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, but decided to go back and get the MDiv also. I chose Rockbridge for two reasons: I’ve known Dr. Eldridge for 20+ years now and I had to have an online seminary experience, since I am in full time ministry.

    My online interaction has been intense, deep and fulfilling. In some ways more transparent than in the physical seminary. Its much like gathering in the student union after class to discuss what the prof had just talked about. Some of my best learning experiences at SWBTS came in that way.

    If you’re considering online seminary education, I suggest you take the intro course (called the touchstone course at Rockbridge) and see for yourself. I have found it incredibly rewarding and highly conducive to learning, growing and interacting.


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