Does it Matter Whether Seminary Education is In-Person or Online?

A Case for the Power of Presence in Theological Education

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

May 6, 2024

Ever since I became the president of the Charlotte campus of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS)—now more than a decade ago—I’ve been committed to a basic practice. It might not seem like much. It’s not anything extraordinary. But I think it has proven to be one of the most meaningful things I do.

Here’s my practice: I have a sit-down, face-to-face meeting with every single prospective student that visits our campus.

Sure, there are more efficient ways to connect with prospective students. I could dash off an email, or send them a form letter, or point them to the website to learn more. And given the number of student visitors we have every year, I admit that a little efficiency in my crazy schedule sounds pretty good.

But even with all the inconveniences, there’s a fundamental reason I’ve stuck with this practice: The personal availability of the campus president demonstrates how much we want to stress the power of presence in seminary education.

Blessing of Online Seminary Education

I realize how countercultural this conviction is in our current climate. A number of seminaries have now gone 100 percent online. Some have sold their primary residential campuses. Even those seminaries that have stayed residential are seeing online students making up an ever-increasing percentage of their total credit hours (some as high as 70 percent).

And there are valid, understandable reasons for this trend. Relocating can be incredibly expensive for students. They may want to stay close to their families and involved in their local churches. Some students are from other countries or are missionaries who cannot leave the field. In-person education isn’t an option for a lot of people. And that’s perfectly fine. In such cases, online seminary education can be a great blessing.

Indeed, it’s for these reasons that RTS was one of the first seminaries in America to offer accredited distance theological education. Back in the 1980s, we would mail cassette tapes to students. (Not sure my kids even know what a cassette tape is!) And now, our global campus has a developed and technologically sophisticated online platform. It can be an enormous blessing in the lives of many people around the world. And we’ve seen that blessing firsthand.

Even so, we have maintained a determined and intentional focus on residential, face-to-face education. This conviction lies behind our eight residential campuses in Jackson, Orlando, Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, New York, and Washington, DC. Basically, over the last 30-plus years, we’ve literally brought campuses to the students.

Such a strategy probably looks crazy in our current digital climate. So why do we do it? Does a residential experience really still matter?

Power of Presence in Residential Seminary Education

Let me lay out a few reasons why we shouldn’t give up on the residential seminary experience just yet.

  1. Basic Pedagogy

If we learned anything from online schooling during the COVID pandemic, it’s this: students learn better when sitting in a classroom with other students. Why? Because we live in a world filled with distractions—cell phones, family conversations, the dog barking, someone knocking at the door—many of which are mitigated when someone is gathered with other students listening to a professor teach face-to-face.

The Brookings Institute examined multiple studies on college-level student performance during the pandemic and concluded, “Virtually all of these studies found that online instruction resulted in lower student performance relative to in-person instruction.”

  1. Graduation Rates

What effect does online learning have on whether (or how quickly) students finish their programs? This is a particularly important issue for seminaries because we want students to get out into full-time ministry as soon as possible. We want the students’ education to lead to kingdom influence.

We absorb more and focus better when education involves personal presence.

A recent study from Inside Higher Ed concluded students at online colleges “graduate at sharply lower rates than do those at institutions where in-person and blended modes of learning dominate.”

Being present and on-site (at least to some degree) is typically associated with a deeper commitment and greater motivation toward learning—often because the student has sacrificed so much to be there. In addition, students are motivated by their fellow students as they spur one another on.

  1. Horizontal Learning

One of the most overlooked aspects of residential seminary education is the blessing of what I call “horizontal learning.” While most learning is from the professor (“vertical learning”)—which can be achieved, to a degree, through online education—an enormous amount of seminary education involves conversations and interactions with fellow students after class, in the bookstore, or over meals.

This matters so much because it’s the processing of what a student is learning, in community, that’s often so formative. Students discover not everyone shares the professor’s view. They learn how to debate and disagree in (hopefully) good and healthy ways. They’re forced to articulate themselves and defend their conclusions.

For distance students, some of these same things can happen in the local church—maybe with a pastor or elder. And a number of online platforms allow for some level of digital interaction between students. But it’s difficult to replace the real-time student-to-student interaction that residential education provides.

  1. Relational Ballast

One of my greatest joys over the last 22 years as a seminary professor has been seeing former students at alumni gatherings. In addition to old friendships rekindled and funny stories told, I get to hear about how my former students are doing in ministry. Why are such times so special? Because I actually knew these students and they knew me. There was a relationship. I wasn’t merely a voice in their headphones but a part of their lives.

The friendships students build with one another provide much-needed relational ballast for long-term success in ministry. Our alums frequently say a big reason they’ve stayed in ministry (as opposed to dropping out) is the support they have from the friendships they built in seminary.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Does this mean we should abandon online education and move solely to residential? As Paul would say, “By no means!” Online education is essential—and a real blessing to many people. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t make the opposite mistake and give up on residential seminary education. Personal presence is more powerful than we think.

At RTS, here’s what we have learned. It’s the combination of both residential and online education that seems to work best. While we have intentionally placed the priority on residential, the online courses provide a wonderful supplement. In other words, the online program is not replacing our residential degree but enhancing it.

Of course, some students are 100 percent online and may never take a residential course. And, we are delighted to serve them too. But it is worth noting that our fully online students make up only about 9 percent of our total credit hours. The vast majority of our students are still in person.

By God’s grace, this “residential focus with a robust online supplement” has been effective. While most seminaries in North America have seen notable enrollment declines over the last several years, we just reached an all-time record enrollment in 2022.

In the end, it’s a reminder of the power of presence in ministry. And this principle extends well beyond seminary education. It was modeled by the apostle Paul himself: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 2:8, NIV).

Yes, our ministries are to be centered on teaching the gospel. But that gospel is best taught when we do more than teach it. We should also live it. Together.

(Note: A version of this article previously appeared on The Gospel Coalition)

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