"NEGST Takes Hermeneutics Online"

By Richard L. Starcher

Most Africans and expatriates working in and with African Bible colleges and seminaries have heard of the rapid expansion of online course delivery. However, few have had firsthand experience as online learners, teachers or course designers. Many wonder whether true learning is possible using online delivery systems. Others, who may not doubt online learning¹s legitimacy, are skeptical of small African institutions¹ capacity to deliver education via the Internet.

Is it possible for an African seminary to use online delivery systems to achieve the same learning outcomes as in a face-to-face classroom? Do students in Africa have adequate knowledge of and access to information technology to complete successfully an online course? Does an African seminary have the technological capacity to deliver an online course?

What follows is an assessment of the first efforts by the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST) to offer online education. It hopefully allows NEGST to serve as an example of a small school initiating online education in a majority world context.

From January to March 2006 I taught NEGST¹s first ³full-fledged² online course. I specify ³full-fledged² here because, starting in July 2006, three NEGST faculty members already had experimented with email as the primary medium to supervise the field ministries work of non-residential students. I hope to write more about the field ministries experience at a later date. Here I want to discuss and assess the experience of seven distance learners who took an online course in hermeneutics during NEGST¹s regular school term of January 2006.

The Course's Origin

Prior to teaching this course, I had been serving as NEGST¹s Dean of Extension Studies for just over two years. The seminary's extension efforts to date principally involved alternative face-to-face delivery methods (e.g., off-campus sites, on and off campus modular courses). However, top seminary leadership found attractive the potential benefits of online education. Specifically, NEGST could better serve not only working students in Kenya but also students around the continent whose financial or family situations did not permit them to enter a fulltime, residential study program.

I chose to teach hermeneutics as NEGST's first course online for three reasons. First, it was required for all the school's master's degree programs. Hence, there was an ongoing need. Second, several existing extension students had an immediate need for the course to advance their program of study. Third, I had taught NEGST's course in face-to-face settings both on and off campus.

The Students

Eight students registered for the course. Four were Kenyan. Four were expatriate missionaries serving in Kenya (one American, one Brit and two Canadians of Romanian extraction). However, one Kenyan dropped the course before completing any assignments. Online Hermeneutics was the first course at NEGST taken by three of the seven students.

Course Development

I developed the course in close collaboration with the Learning Technologies Division of Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF-LT), now located in Nampa, Idaho. As is common for online courses, all my lessons had to be prepared well in advance of their delivery date. MAF-LT personnel received my work in August 2005. Over the next few months they branded it with NEGST's logo and color scheme, organized it for easy online access and burned it onto a CD for reproduction. One of our biggest challenges was accommodating learners in an environment where Internet connection speeds tend to be slow. One strategy we used was to distribute to students a CD containing all information that could be prepared in advance. Hence, they only had to go online to participate in class discussions and to submit assignments.

Course Delivery

We scheduled Online Hermeneutics during NEGST's regular 12-week January 2006 trimester, which I divided into six, two-week modules. NEGST's trimesters normally included ten weeks of classroom instruction plus one reading week followed by an exam week. However, because my final assessment instrument was an exegetical project rather than an exam, I devoted the last two weeks (module six) to the final assessment project.

I used reading assignments to deliver the bulk of the course content. I supplemented the textbook (Daniel Doriani's Getting the Message) with various articles and book chapters. Each module also contained a brief explanatory lesson and several discussion questions. Apart from the textbook (which students purchased) all needed course materials were found on the CD.

I did not design the course to be an independent study experience for participating students. On the contrary, the" heart and soul" of the course resided in the threaded discussions stemming from the questions I posted for each module. For example, after reading articles by Gordon Fee and James Brownson as well as a chapter in the Doriani text, students answered the following open-ended questions:

1) Do you agree with Brownson that there are "wrong readings" of text? If not, why not? If so, can you give an example of a wrong reading from your own experience? Do you think the sermon on polygamy invented by Dorani resulted from a wrong reading of the Bible? Why or why not?

2) What do you think Brownson means by "spirituality" when it comes to reading a text? Is there a spiritual meaning that is different from the plain meaning? How does his view compare to the apparent dichotomy between the exegetical method and spirituality as described by Fee? How do the views of Brownson and Fee relate to Doriani's exhortation, Only when we join skilful methods to a receptive heart can we expect Bible study to bear fruit in the lives of individuals and the church? Finally, I instructed students to interact with the postings of three other course participants.

The term threaded discussion refers to the online presentation of students written contributions to an informed conversation. Many excellent course management software programs exist today to facilitate threaded online discussions. However, we judged the all to be too bandwidth intensive for use with students in the Kenya context. We started the course using Gmail, a free, web-based email system, to manage student input. However, when we discovered it could not display discussion participation in a tree format, we switched to using a similar product called SquirrelMail. The downside to this interface was it (like Gmail) required participants to stay online while reading and responding to other students postings (unless they copied the postings onto a disk to read and respond at their leisure.) At least one participant's only Internet access was via a cybercafé.

Course evaluation

I sought to assess the success of NEGST's first online course using student's input (their course evaluations) as well as their output (the assignments they submitted). Students were given two opportunities to evaluate the course:

1) NEGST's standard, anonymous course evaluation form

2) comments I solicited via email. The standard evaluation form contained many questions not pertinent to an online course (e.g., Instructor's voice is clear and audible).

Further, only three of the seven students submitted evaluation forms. Hence, this input was of limited value. Nevertheless, the overall composite score of evaluation forms received was 8/10. The teaching process received the highest marks, a composite score of 9/10. The teacher received the lowest, a composite score of 6.8/10. Students rated course content at 7.4/10 and grading at 7.3/10. All three students rated the priority of the course as very high or high. To help put these numbers in perspective, the range of my overall composite score on course evaluations for the previous five years was 8.49 to 9.96, with an average of over 9. However, with only three of seven students submitting the standard course evaluation form (which was not designed to evaluate an online course), data gathered from students¹ emails appeared more indicative of the perceptions of the entire class.

Six of seven students emailed comments on the course. All but one of them, including the student limited to a cybercafé connection, mentioned interacting with other students as the most enjoyable aspect of the course. However, two of six desired more regular input from the instructor. Another judged fellow-students writing unclear and wished his colleagues had been encouraged to do richer commenting on colleagues work. Several participants criticized the software used to manage the course. The confusion caused by switching software interfaces early in the course no doubt contributed to students perception of awkwardness. Nevertheless, two major criticisms emerged as noteworthy. First, the length of time students had to spend on online handicapped some. Second, SquirrelMail proved clumsy for use as course management software. Unfortunately, less clumsy management software generally increases students¹ time online in a low-tech environment. All seven participants indicated they would seek out another experience in online learning. However, two appeared to have significant reservations.

Prior to teaching this online section of hermeneutics, I had taught the course in face-to-face settings at least twice using practically the same readings and syllabus. The final assessment assignment was identical for all three sections. When I graded online students final project, I found no significant difference between the quality of their work and that presented by students in the face-to-face sections. All appeared capable of applying the hermeneutical principles studied to the exegesis of a biblical text.

Recommendations

Despite some first-time glitches, NEGST's pilot online course demonstrated the seminary was capable of delivering quality online education and students in Africa could succeed as online learners. Nevertheless, I would make at least four suggestions for improving students online experience.

First, NEGST should do a better job of orienting students to online learning. I believe one or two students might have opted not to study online if they had known better what it entailed. One balked at the time required to interact with other learners online. The other struggled more generally with the technical aspects of online learning.

Second, the instructor should interact copiously with students, particularly when teaching first-time online learners. There is a delicate balance between the instructor stifling a conversation by intervening too often and the students feeling abandoned because the instructor intervenes too seldom. Students¹ comments appear to indicate I erred on the side of silence.

Third, perhaps the most awkward aspect of NEGST's first online course was its software interface. It is important to use software that can be configured to allow students working from their own computers to download to their hard drives others contributions. This process allows them to read and respond at their leisure without having to camp online. The software also should display participants contributions to the threaded conversation in a tree format that makes it clear who said what to whom. The interface also must allow students working in a cybercafé to see the threaded conversation and participate in it wholly online. Mozilla's (free) Thurderbird email system may satisfy the needs of those with their own computers. Nevertheless, those confined to web-based email (as in a cybercafé) will need to continue using an interface like Squirrel Mail.

Fourth, NEGST should consider experimenting with a learning center approach to online education. The learning center approach uses a computer lab maintained by the institution to which students come (all together or at their leisure) to participate in online courses. Naturally, this approach deprives students of a measure of their freedom, but it offers the advantage of onsite technical and pedagogical assistance and permits the school to utilize a more sophisticated software interface. Learning center participation need not be obligatory for all students taking the same section of a given course, but could be a viable alternative for those with inadequate Internet access.

Conclusion

It is unlikely online learning will replace its face-to-face counterpart anywhere any time in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, it is proving to be a valuable arrow in the quiver of educational institutions all around the globe. Theological colleges in majority world contexts should not fear experimenting with this alternative delivery system. Majority world institutions can successfully deliver online education, and majority world students in low to mid-tech environments can learn effectively online. Further, online courses promise to attract some students for whom attending face-to-face classes is problematic.