I've used Blackboard at several institutions and never been overly excited about it. I've developed and taught in a Blackboard environment I don't know how many times, but I always got the impression that it was designed by IT folks instead of educators. That being said, there are some new things that Blackboard has come out with that have impressed me so far. Here are three things that I've liked.
During the first part of this year, one of the institutions I worked at upgraded to a newer version of Blackboard Learn. It was a nice change - both aesthetically and practically. There were some great new features, including a redesign of how discussion boards are done, a persistent profile so that communication can now include a picture of the person (and a link to contact info, which is optional for the user), and new collaboration features, which allows for improved grouping of students and web-based projects that students can work on together and the professor can track who is doing what. Along with those, we had several new apps added. These are third party add-ons to Blackboard. The main one I'd like to mention is the Civitas Student Engagement App. This app allows you to see a visual representation of all of your students. They are color-coded based on the participation in the class. If they log-in multiple days, participate in online discussions, etc. they are ranked higher. While there is no grade attached to one's participation score, it does allow the professor to see if someone is not logging in or perhaps having issues that are preventing them from completing coursework. The professor can then contact the students using the app. There are many factors that you can select from to target specific groups of students. All in all, it has been surprisingly helpful.
Blackboard Learn is the main product put out by the company. When most people talk about Blackboard, that is what they're referencing - the online course system. However, Blackboard has several other products. One that I'm excited about is Blackboard Collaborate. Perhaps you've used WebEx or Adobe Connect as an online collaboration tool or perhaps to stream a lecture or communicate with multiple students at once. Well, Collaborate is Blackboard's entry into this market and has some features that make it attractive. For one, Collaborate has a nice set of features. It can do web conferencing, recording of lectures for later playback, instant messaging (which I don't myself ever using), screen sharing capabilities, and a design that allows mobile devices to be fully utilized. Check out Blackboard's Collaborate website for a demo.
Free MOOC Creator
I was at a demo recently of Blackboard's new MOOC creator. It is called Course Sites and allows the creation and implementation of open enrollment courses. If your institution has Blackboard Learn, it can create several free courses without having to buy the full product. From my understanding, anyone can create up to five courses free and run them through Course Sites too, which I'm sure will be appealing for those that would like to tinker in this arena. If you're interested at all in using or creating open courses, definitely give Course Sites a try.
One of the major trends we've seen at this website in the last several years has been the increase in questions about distance education, specifically doctoral degrees (Ph.D./D.Phil, Th.D., D.Min., etc.). There are actually some good options out there. This post will cover some basic information about UK schools that offer distance options and what they would entail. This list isn't exhaustive, but should help you start your search.
The first thing you should know about doctoral programs in the U.K. concerns the format of the degree. The U.K. usually offers research-based doctorate programs. This means that there is no classwork, like in the U.S., and you undertake your dissertation after the completion of a research proposal. Because of this, you should have an idea of what you want to research topic to be and, because of this, you should have one or two professors in mind at the institution you're applying at that would be suitable mentors during this process. That's what they're supposed to be - mentors. They are helping you through these hoops you have to jump through. A professor/adviser that is distant, too busy, and/or a jerk will not aide you in your quest for a doctoral degree, so, if possible, meet with your potential adviser before or during the application process or, at the least, schedule a time to call them and discuss your possible research.
The other thing you need to be aware of is the cost. In the next two parts we'll discuss doctoral programs in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. Some UK universities will be much more expensive than many of those other programs that we'll discuss. That being said, The British Council has information for U.S. citizens on financial aid options (as well as some great top-notch information on studying in the UK in general). I've included an estimated cost for each of the UK universities listed below. The estimate is based on figures in The Complete University Guide and at the university websites. Always contact the university directly for the most up-to-date figures and keep in mind that prices can be greatly reduced through financial aid options.
Concerning online or distance options, there are a number of universities that you can either fly to a couple of times a year (for research and to participate in seminars) or that you can do completely from where you are in the world. Whatever school you're looking into, make certain they still offer the option that you're looking for and if you don't see it on the website, call and ask someone about it. I've noticed several institutions that sometimes have a distance option or don't advertise that they have a distance option. Below are some key institutions that have theological education of one kind or another, along with an estimate of the cost per year.
Bristol Baptist College (UK/EU Students - £8000, unclear on their website) (Non-UK/EU Students - £8000)
Highland Theological College (UK/EU Students - £3900) (Non-UK/EU Students - £11042)
University of Aberdeen (UK/EU Students - £3400) (Non-UK/EU Students - £12000)
University of Birmingham (UK/EU Students - £5135) (Non-UK/EU Students - £13200)
University of Bristol (UK/EU Students - £7200) (Non-UK/EU Students - £14000)
University of Cambridge (UK/EU Students - £6065) (Non-UK/EU Students - £13662)
University of Durham (UK/EU Students - £5400) (Non-UK/EU Students - £13300)
University of Kent (UK/EU Students - £4950) (Non-UK/EU Students - £12030)
University of Leicester (UK/EU Students - £2078) (Non-UK/EU Students - £5083)
University of Oxford (UK/EU Students - £5900) (Non-UK/EU Students - £15900)
University of St. Andrews (UK/EU Students - £3900-8900) (Non-UK/EU Students - £14000)
University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (UK/EU Students - £3750) (Non-UK/EU Students - £11000)
Wales Evangelical School of Theology (UK/EU Students - £4900) (Non-UK/EU Students - £9455)
I've had the opportunity to attend several secular universities, a Bible College, and a Seminary. Very different experiences. You can't paint any category of college with a broad brush, but there are some characteristics that differentiate the categories. These differences really don't make one better or worse - it really depends on what you're studying and what type of environment you prefer. These differences, though, come from the different purposes that each was originally created to address. Here is a (very) brief outline of the uniqueness of each type of institution with a bit of historical background.
Colleges and Universities
Traditionally, universities have consisted of several colleges that often share resources and are often guided by shared or affiliated administration. In the United States, things are a bit different in that many colleges aren't affiliated with a university and we often use the term 'college' to mean a smaller school. Colleges and universities have a long history of liberal arts education. ("Liberal Arts" just refers to the wide range of subject matter that one learns as an undergraduate - history, math, grammar/composition, fine arts, etc. It makes one "well rounded.")
Seminaries derive from the inherent necessity of the clergy to be able to read the Bible and Church Fathers (and by the Bible, I mean the Latin Vulgate). After the Reformation, education slowly became more systematized, and eventually what we think of as seminaries emerge. Seminaries today offer graduate-level degrees in biblical studies, theological studies, and ministry. Non-Roman Catholic Seminaries developed in the U.S. to meet the need for theological education of pastors, missionaries, and evangelists in the mostly non-Catholic nation. There was probably also some concern that the universities (esp. in the latter half of the 19th century) were becoming less orthodox (due at least partially to the higher criticism and other challenges to orthodoxy originating from Europe). The U.S. seminaries produced some great theologians in the 19th and early 20th century, but eventually the seminaries themselves were seen by many to be succumbing to unorthodox tendencies. A look at Princeton Theological Seminary really tells the story of this era. Princeton had produced men like Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield, but later became the center of controversy surrounding liberal theology ('liberal' in this case refers to a philosophical shift, specifically in interpreting the Bible not as inherent, but as any other ancient document). There were many "tentacles" of this philosophy that touched many doctrinal convictions, none of which is the point of this article. Some of the Princeton faculty wouldn't affiliate itself with this shift and so formed Westminster Theological Seminary. Similar shifts happened in most seminaries at the time and really changed the overall theology of the larger American denominations.
Independent schools that only train people for ministry had been around for a very, very long time. However, in the middle part of the 20th century, as men were coming back from World War II, Bible Colleges began appearing to train many of the men for ministry. Most Bible Colleges were relatively small and connected to independent and/or theologically conservative churches. Their main goal was to train students for ministry in an environment that was more practical than what they saw in many of the seminaries. By offering their programs to people with little or no previous college experience they were able to train someone in four or five years for a ministry position rather than the student get a four year degree and then go to seminary for three years. The emphasis on undergraduate theological education didn't really catch on in the main denominations, but, I think, has been fairly common in independent churches since then. What made the Bible College concept truly unique, though, was its heavy emphasis on training in the Biblical text. You would think that any academic program preparing someone for ministry would have many courses dealing with the actual text of the Bible - since that's the basis of Christian faith. That's often not the case, though. Actually, as someone that has looked over a lot of seminary and Christian college transcripts, let me say that it is rarely the case. Curriculum from many theological programs involve a couple of survey courses of the Old and New Testament, perhaps some Biblical Languages, some theology, and a lot of ministry-oriented courses. Bible Colleges, on the other hand, usually will have many courses in the Bible itself (traditionally ensuring that each 4-year graduate would have a "major" in Bible even if they were in a different program). That's a huge curriculum shift from most seminaries. I did most of my undergrad at a Bible College and I certainly got a lot of Bible training. I found it was a foundational necessity and I can't even comprehend where I'd be theologically if it wasn't for this emphasis on the text as well as hermeneutics. I was fortunate enough to go to one that was also great at teaching their liberal arts core as well. That's not always the case, though, and Bible Colleges today can run the gamut from regionally accredited institutions to "colleges" that meet in a church basement. Many are unaccredited and so I would have to caution students that were considering attending. However, some offer a full liberal arts education on top of a full Bible program and can be a great foundational option.
I don't have a crystal ball . . . well, actually I do have a crystal ball . . . it was a gift, but it doesn't really work. If it did, I'd love to look into the future of higher education in the U.S. Specifically, I'd be interested in the future of training pastors, missionaries, educators, and others in ministry. There are no large Bible Colleges and as smaller institutions they face many financial troubles. What compounds their woes is that their alumni usually are in independent churches that don't pay them a lot and so they, in turn, don't contribute back to their institution like the alumni from law schools or medical schools or even typical universities. All that being said, I don't see them going away. I see them splitting into three groups. One group will stay between the 500-1000 student range, be innovative in their approach to education, keep their focus on their Bible-heavy curriculum, and do a great job at training men and women for Christian ministry. The other group will go the route of offering free courses, but not for credit. Many universities have already provided a lot of their courses free of charge this way and for those people that want to contribute to training others but don't want to start an accredited school, this option will be much more attractive in the next 10 years than opening up another unaccredited school. I think these will also have to be innovative, will have to have good, useful content, and will also do a good job of training men and women for Christian ministry. The third group are basically the other schools that don't adapt to the situations around them and that don't have (or want) the technology required to operate in a technological world (I personally hate that technology is a requirement now, but that is reality). These institutions won't train anyone for ministry when they go under - which happens all too frequently. I think too the differences between seminaries and Bible colleges will blur even more than they already have. Many of the seminaries also have an undergraduate option now, although it is far from their main focus.
I'm actually very excited about the future of theological education and am looking forward to see exactly how it will play out - especially as quality education becomes available online to so many overseas and as free education becomes available (although not for credit) through more and more institutions.
In the following clip, Sir Ken Robinson gives a brilliant lecture on the most fundamental aspects of the American education system. He speaks of not only the students, the role of teachers, but also about changing the way we view public education in America.
University of California, Berkeley
The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a short article in April 2012 that featured the University of California - Berkeley's digital badges. These badges "are icons that individuals can display on their website, blog, or social media profile to get recognition for informal and formal learning outside of school" (see quoted article). Despite the title of this blog, I actually don't have a problem with this concept. Essentially, the idea is that students will be able to build an online portfolio, specifically geared for social media, that will allow others to see qualifications or achievements that have come apart from (or perhaps in conjunction with) a traditional college setting.
There are three issues that may arise from this trend that could amplify problems that Christian colleges and seminaries already face. The first is that, for those training for ministry, preparation can't be linked solely to a checklist, like the checklists that go with completing many of the digital badges. For many Christian colleges this a big struggle as it is - how does one quantify spiritual qualifications?
The second problem that could be amplified by this trend is a false sense of education. Currently there are schools that give "theological degrees." These schools produce graduates that think they are qualified for ministry or education or whatever the schools have claimed to train them for, but in reality, with no accreditation backing them up and not receiving training from credible educators, it becomes a frustration for the graduate. With no regulation in place to determine how one gets a badge, it becomes up to the issuing institution how a student can earn one. Unfortunately, there are a lot of unaccredited Christian colleges that would love to make some money by offering badges, as people have sued schools over unaccredited degrees, but so far not for badges.
The third problem digital badges may contribute to is a bit more philosophical than the other two. We live in an interconnected, global community. What has happened, almost solely through social media, is that truth for many has become based on the community. It isn't what God said is true or even what I believe is true, but it has increasingly been what the community says is true. Digital badges are a direct result of this philosophy. I can easily conceive of someone in the near future being considered for a ministry position not based on their own beliefs or work ethic, but on community-based badges. It can easily become not if what you believe is true, but if what you believe is corroborated by the rest of the community. See, I told you this part was more philosophical. That being said, I'm no philosopher and, like I said in the beginning, I'm actually not against the badges - if used wisely. The philosophy behind them, though, needs to be understood and I believe that a correct understanding will lead to correct usage. Now, I suppose it's time for the community to agree or disagree . . . the irony!
Digital Merit Badges: Recognition for 21st Century Skills at http://courses.ischool.berkeley.edu/i202/f11/node/738
Carey, Kevin; "A Future Full of Badges" from The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/A-Future-Full-of-Badges/131455/)
For more information on post-post-modernism/meta-modernism check out:
There are ongoing articles that span academic realms at http://www.metamodernism.com/
Metamodernism Manifesto at http://www.metamodernism.org/
Kirby, Alan; "The Death of Post-Modernism" at http://philosophynow.org/issues/58/The_Death_of_Postmodernism_And_Beyond
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.