Technology and Theological Education

Presented to School of Theology and Ministry, Seattle University

The professional model of education: 1940's to today

Currently theological educators use strategies that have changed very little since the late 1940's when a commitment was made to professionalize theological education. Prior to that time theological educators came both from the academy and from successful church occupations. Today theological education is primarily guided by the professional model in its internal organization and in its objectives of producing competent graduates who have skills in thinking reflectively and who have ability to work as professionals.

What is important to note is that the current strategies used by theological educators were developed in the context of an American culture that was moving toward professionalization. Today technology is transforming American (and global) culture so that expertise plays a very different role than it did in the 1940s. Cultural changes related to technology are also changing the way that people experience the world and form their own identity including their religious identity. For example, in the 1940s movies supported and reflected the cultural values of a print oriented culture that were present in the churches and universities. Today the print oriented culture is being replaced by an electronic oriented culture. Electronic media provide the environment (just as books and printed material did before) where people experience communities of meaning, form their own identity, and mature spiritually.

Obviously every person and every institution does not experience the impact of technology in exactly the same way. Theological education was not professionalized in the 1940 immediately or painlessly. However, there is a sense in which theological educators cannot avoid the challenge presented by the changes in American culture caused by the adoption of electronic media any more than the challenges of professionalism could have been ignored.

Instrumental Use of Technology

There are three specific areas where steps can be taken to move theological education into the future so graduates are prepared to minister effectively in the emerging electronic culture. The first is appropriating the instrumental use of communication and administrative technology to improve quality and efficiency. Using word processors, making bibliographies available on the Internet, communicating with students using email are all examples of using the technology in an instrumental way. Improving communication and making the administration of theological education more efficient takes time, energy and commitment, but the rewards are that quality improves and/or productivity is increased. There is no way to avoid some initial investment of time to learn the potential and appropriate use of new electronic communication and administrative tools, but with careful planning they quickly become indispensable.

Electronic teaching tools

The second area is teaching. There are two reasons that it is important for theological educators to begin using electronic tools in teaching. The first reason is that the use of visuals in the classroom and electronic tools to supplement classroom activities facilitates student learning. The second reason is that when students leave school they will be working in ministry situations where the people they work with are completely immersed in electronic culture. If the only models of teaching what they have learned are from print rather than electronic culture, they will not be equipped to support the growth and development of the people they work with. While it might be argued that many theological students are already enculturated into the academic environment of books and lectures, the people to whom they will be ministering live in a Sesame Street environment that is rich in imagery from TV, movies and popular music. It is only fair to the students for theological educators to struggle with the issues of how the content of theological education can be taught in electronic culture.

This might begin with using computers to project images on screens in the classroom. It could include using computerized tools for students to cooperate in producing visual or printed materials, using video from popular culture to illustrate points in the syllabus, encouraging students to use video or audio rather than written papers to demonstrate their mastery of course material.

Technology as a theological teaching tool

The third area is religious formation and the content of theological education. While most theological educators continue to have their own faith deepened and developed in the environment of books and print culture, increasingly individual and corporate identity is being formed in an electronic environment. It does not serve theological students for theological educators to ignore the implications of this cultural transformation. Particularly since some students may feel comfortable in the world of books and lectures, it is important that they be given the cultural analysis tools and a sensitivity in all theological disciplines to help them make sense out of the culture they will be ministering in. This is not as simple as adding to the curriculum instruction in cultural analysis with an emphasis on interpreting electronic culture. All academic disciplines are impacted by the implications of electronic culture. Understanding changing communication technologies is essential in understanding Christian history. Students should be exposed to theories about the relationship between Biblical interpretation in oral, manuscript, print and electronic culture. Postmodern philosophies present challenges that need to be addressed from a theological perspective. Practical theology is completely defined by the realities of electronic culture from the computer becoming the dominant image in American society for the human mind to the role of television in legitimizing violence. But most importantly, because increasingly Americans are being formed spiritually in an electronic environment, it is essential for theological educators to bring the benefit of their training and research to the task of interpreting their academic disciplines in electronic culture.