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.
In Part II we will be discussing options for studying in South Africa. In the last decade South African universities have seen more overseas students applying - many from the U.S. The appeal of these universities is three-fold.
Firstly, and perhaps chiefly, tuition costs in the U.S. and the U.K. can be prohibitive to many and stipends for doctoral work are no longer guaranteed and in many seminaries not available at all. The South African programs tend to be considerably less and allow most from western nations to pay outright without taking out education loans. In the realm of theological education this is attractive because many that enter this field end up working for churches or non-profits that are not near the high-end of the pay scale. For many of the universities, budgeting $2,000 a year would be sufficient. The programs are subsidized, which accounts for the pricing, but combined with them being considered equal to regionally accredited institutions in the U.S. makes them a good option for those that want to marketable in various regions.
The second draw for foreign students in South African universities is the choice of programs. If you want to study, odds are, they have it at one of the universities. The University of South Africa (UNISA) in particular has a massive amount of programs and many of the universities will have programs related to theology, church history, or biblical studies.
The third draw to these universities is the distance options. Being part of the British Commonwealth, South Africa has long followed the British model of higher education, which includes the research-based doctoral programs (and a large number of research-based masters options too). What this means for many students (depending on the school) is that if you have good research libraries near you, you can stay where you are and communicate with your sponsor/mentor through the various technological means we have available to us today. South Africa has been leading the charge in distance doctoral programs and now has several institutions that are able to offer quality programs that would be marketable where ever in the world you find yourself. Below is a list of institutions. I didn't include the estimated cost of attendance, because it is mostly the same for all of these. I'd recommend checking out the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University, as both are usually ranked high among international universities. South African Theological Seminary has a good introduction program that walks you through your research proposal, so that is often useful for those that haven't done that before. University of South Africa (UNISA) has ton of programs and is one of the largest universities in the world. Rhodes University and especially the University of Witwatersrand are both well respected, although the latter is a mouthfull.
South African Theological Seminary
University of Cape Town
University of South Africa
University of Witwatersrand
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)
There are a lot of potentially useful resources out there that don't cost a whole lot and many that are totally free. While this blog is geared towards seminary students, some of this info can be used for just about any student in any discipline.
Resource 1: Seminary Chapels and Other Freebies
Most seminaries have chapel services for their students. At least in my observation, seminaries and Christian colleges that have consistently good chapel speakers will often have a way for the public to listen for free. This is sometimes done through iTunes, but some stream it from their website.
You should also check out Covenant's "Resources for Life" site which houses not only audio on specific subjects, but also has free online lectures and publications.
Resource 2: Cheap Books
One of the "hidden costs" of graduate school in general is books. You'll find that not only do you need textbooks, but it's also really helpful to have additional resources that perhaps aren't part of the actual curriculum. Feel free to mention other good book resources below, but from my experience getting an Amazon Prime account in grad school and buying your books through Amazon is about the easiest and cheapest way to go (you get free 2 day shipping, they usually have the best price for new books, and there is a great used option as well if you don't mind knowing that someone else's sweaty hands once perused the same pages). My favorite low cost book is Henry Bettenson's Documents of the Christian Church. It's only about $12 (USD) and has a great selection of primary source material from the early church up until the late 20th century. I've also used a Kindle to download free or extremely cheap primary sources from Amazon (I really should be getting paid for this endorsement). I was once on a camping trip with my Kindle last year and had it reading me Augustine at night. It was pretty great. Project Gutenberg and the Christian Classics Ethereal Library are also great resources for primary sources that are both free.
Resource 3: Free Seminary Classes
I mentioned Covenant Seminary's "Resources for Life" previously but a couple of other seminaries also offer free, online classes. Keep in mind that these aren't for credit, but they will hone your knowledge in an area that perhaps you're rusty in or even a subject that you just didn't get around to study in college or seminary. Most of these are Reformed in their theology. I don't know why that is. It's probably because those seminaries are part of some global conspiracy to funnel money from the stock markets of the world to fund a great, worldwide government that will teach Reformed theology and, among other things, will offer free seminary classes.
Fuller Theological Seminary on iTunes - http://www.fuller.edu/about-fuller/news-and-events/fuller-on-itunesu.aspx
Gordon-Conwell's "Dimensions of Faith" program - http://my.gordonconwell.edu/dimensions/
Reformed Theological Seminary on iTunes - http://itunes.rts.edu/
Resource 4: Free Ivy League Classes
You might have heard on the news in the last year that many Ivy League colleges are offering free, online courses. These courses are in diverse fields and are often taught by some great professors. Like the free seminary courses, these are not for credit and please don't state on your resume that you did graduate studies at Harvard based on these courses. Now most of the schools will have their own section of their website or something similar that will house their courses. However, you can also check this website out which is a consortium of many different colleges, including schools like Duke University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, etc. You can search by subject or by school. It's a great resource!
Your Turn . . .
If you use any other free or cheap resource that might be useful to others in grad school or seminary, put the links down in the comments section with a brief description of what it is and how you've used it.
Here's a common problem in some Christian circles: having a degree from an unaccredited institution that you can't do anything with. My goal in this post is to show you that you actually can overcome some of the problems caused by unaccredited degrees.
Let me first say that I do think that unaccredited institutions can play a role in theological education in the U.S. I don't think that they are all of poor quality or that they don't produce effective alumni. However, there are a couple of key reasons that I don't recommend potential students to attend an unaccredited college or seminary.
Reason 1:The Degree Itself - Having a degree from an unaccredited college or seminary can hurt your chances of getting a job in ministry or elsewhere. You can be sure that it will hurt you getting a job teaching or elsewhere in academia (unless you're teaching at another unaccredited school).
Reason 2: Continuing Education - It will severely limit your choices if you want to continue towards a masters or doctoral degree if your education is based solely on education from unaccredited institutions. There are ways around this, as we'll see.
Reason 3: Lack of Transparency/Responsibility - One of the main reasons for accreditation is to ensure that financial statements are in order and that there is a 3rd party reviewing the records. Some unaccredited institutions have good accountability in their finances, but many don't. It's one of those things that costs "extra" money and they're usually strapped for cash as it is. However, having an outside auditor look at your institution's statements makes it safer for the students and employees. While most unaccredited schools are NOT degree mills, some are. Some are scams just waiting to get your money. Knowing that the college or seminary you're giving your personal information to (and your money) is being overseen by outside parties, to me, is very comforting. Despite what some may say, accreditation's oversight is not concerned with what you school believes. The college's doctrinal statement, vision, or mission aren't considered during such evaluations.
Reason 4: You Get What You Pay For - Going to an unaccredited school is CHEAP. That's one reason it is so appealing for many. Some of these schools have high-caliber professors that are academically qualified to teach wherever they wanted. This is generally the exception. Most have all or most of their professors that have their degrees from their own school. I call this academic inbreeding and it is rarely helpful to the students or the organization as a whole. Having spoken with many students from what I would consider the "upper-tier" of unaccredited schools, I can say that there certainly is a difference in the academic rigor and quality of education between a decent accredited school and an unaccredited one.
How to Overcome the Circumstances
Now, onto the part that I hope will be really helpful to you if you've gone to an unaccredited school. I can't really do anything about Reason 4, but we can look at Reasons 1-3 and get some ideas on how to make the best of it.
Overcoming Reason 1: Look for a Degree not Transfer Credits- Let's do a little scenario. Let's say you have a bachelor's degree from a decent unaccredited institution. You are actually more likely to have your degree accepted as a completed Bachelors for admissions into a graduate program than you would be to have those credits transfer in. Whenever I speak to someone from an unaccredited institution that is distraught because they're being denied a job because of their unaccredited degree, I tell them to look at some Master of Arts programs. Most M.A. programs are 36 or so credits and most bachelor programs are 120-130. You would be fortunate to get 1/2 of your credits transferred into a bachelors program, so you do the math - 60 or so credits on the undergrad level to get another bachelors or 36 or so credits on the graduate level to get an accredited masters degree.
Overcoming Reason 2: Look for Affiliations - Although part of the solution to this one was covered above, I think it also crucial to point out that most decent unaccredited institutions will be "feeder schools" for accredited seminaries or graduate schools. An example of this is Pensacola Christian College. Although they are seeking accreditation currently, they've been around a while without any accreditation and they've done well for themselves in terms of number of students and programs. What they've done (or perhaps their alumni have done) is to develop informal relationships with other graduate schools and seminaries. While this is sometimes done through formal articulation agreements, more often it is a game of "Well we've accepted 20 students from here in the past, so we better consider this one too." Registrars don't want to get in trouble any more than the rest of us. Therefore, if you know going in of a person or two that they've excepted from your school, it probably will help your situation to mention that. Just like judges look at past cases to determine the outcome of the present one, Registrars look at both what they've done in the past and what their colleagues have done. Getting a list from your unaccredited school of accredited institutions their graduates have attended is along those same lines and makes the Registrar feel like he/she is in good company.
Overcoming Reason 3: Get Me a Pen - This one is tricky. Most won't ever have a problem with this, but I know from experience that some of you will. Due to possible inconsistencies in policy or the very real possibility of the school closing its doors for good, you have to have the important stuff in writing. It's not rude to ask for your graduation plan in writing and signed by the Registrar of Academic Dean - it's being responsible. Getting and keeping correspondence or signed & dated degree check sheets is a good idea. It's a good idea at any institution but especially at an unaccredited one. I dealt with one particular student several years ago that stated that even though the transcript stated that it was a 0 hour class, it was actually a 3 hour one (this was based on a conversation they had with the unaccredited institution's President). Obviously, I can't just go by what a student tells me. I called the school only to find out that they had closed. The student was out of luck. I believed what she was telling me, but I have to have documentation so that I and the institution I work for doesn't get in trouble.
Like I said at the beginning of the article, I'm not against unaccredited institutions playing a role in theological education, but we all need to be aware of the potential pit falls. I'd love to hear your own experiences and thoughts - good or bad - concerning unaccredited education.
Master of Arts in Religion at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary at Liberty University: A Current Student's Prospective
This student perspective is from Austin McCann. Austin just finished his B.A. at Piedmont International University. He is currently working on his Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary while starting in full-time student ministry. You can find more of Austin’s thoughts on his website. Here are his thoughts on that particular school and program:
During my last few semesters at Piedmont International University, I started to think about seminary. I thought, "Do I even want to spend a few more years in school? Or, if I do attend seminary, do I want to work on a M. Div. or shorter Master’s program?" Eventually, after a lot of thought, prayer, and wise counsel I decided to attend Liberty Baptist Theological Baptist Seminary and decided to work on a Master’s of Arts in Religion with a specialization in Christian Leadership online. I wanted to take a few moments and explain how I decided the seminary track I am on and hopefully help you if your on the fence about seminary. Before I share my thoughts, I want to make one thing clear. I do not believe the way I am doing seminary is the only way to go about doing seminary work. There are many options and ways to go about it, but here is why I chose what I am doing.
Master’s of Arts in Religion. As much as I respect the M. Div. program and the practical, pastoral education it gives you, I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend that many more years in school and if seminary was even going to be a good fit for me. So I decided to start a MAR that is somewhat smaller than the M. Div. If you want a good, professional seminary degree that is not an M. Div., go for the MAR. One of the reasons I chose this route is because at most school’s the MAR can roll into an M. Div. that you can finish in another year or two. The MAR is a great degree because it allows you to continue in seminary if you’re financially and willing to do so.
Christian Leadership. Like the M. Div., when you take the MAR, you get to choose a particular specialization. I decided to specialize in Christian Leadership because I believe leadership is an extremely important part of church ministry that we do not focus on a lot. If you’re planning on being in local church ministry in a pastoral role you need to focus on leadership. Our churches need people who are trained leaders. Even if you’re not going into church ministry, leadership is an important aspect in business and family. I am going into full-time student ministry. Part of having an effective student ministry is building a team of leaders to help you serve students. Studying leadership in seminary is helping me become a better team builder, how to handle conflict in leadership, and how to be the right kind of leader in a local church.
Liberty Theological Baptist Seminary. There are so many good seminaries and graduate schools to choose from these days. I decided to go with Liberty for a few reasons. First, I love the legacy of Jerry Falwell and what he did with Liberty University. I respect the school and what the school has and continues to stand for. Second, they are extremely well-known. I went to a relatively unknown school for my undergrad. I wanted to go somewhere more well-known for seminary. I know we shouldn’t judge people by where they went to seminary, but a lot of churches will look for candidates that are from particular schools or schools that are more popular. Third, I went with Liberty because of their great online education.
Online. If you enjoy the classroom setting and learning in person from a professor, than make sure you attend a seminary on campus. Online education is not for everyone. If you can learn well and stay motivated by online work, than look into doing seminary online. Doing seminary online through Liberty is the most affordable seminary you will find. I went with online for two main reasons. First, it was cheaper and I didn’t want to spend too much on seminary. Second, I wanted to get into full-time ministry. If you want to jump straight into full-time ministry after undergrad, than do seminary online. It allows you to work on your education while doing what you love, ministry!
It's not shocking to say that we live in a different mindset than even 20 years ago. Let's think about this, though. 20 years ago there was no widespread use of the internet, cordless phones were popular, but cellphone usage was at a minimum. Today's world allows us to have amazing access to an abundance of information. The repercussions of this mindset have led to some terrible distance education programs and some truly great ones. For those looking into distance education options it can be difficult to tell the better ones from the not-so-great ones. Here are four tips that help you pick out a good program.
1. Accreditation, Accreditation, Accreditation -If real estate evaluation begins with location, then looking for a good online degree programs needs to begin with a look at the school's accreditation. You want to see a link (usually in their About section of the website) that takes you to their accreditation statement. It should read "Such-and-Such College is accredited by the This-and-That Accrediting Body. The This and That Accrediting Body is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation."
So, it's really a two-part thing. Is the school accredited? If yes, then is the accrediting body one that is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation? The reason this last part has become important is that some colleges have created their own accrediting bodies . . . and accredit themselves . . . which is legal, but unethical. That is for institutions in the United States. For non-U.S. institutions you would just make certain that they are authorized by their government's education ministry (or equivalent), since accreditation is a mostly American phenomenon. When in doubt check with an agency like the World Education Services which can provide information about an overseas schools and tell you if their program is equivalent to regional accreditation in the U.S.
2. Delivery Format - Degrees by correspondence never really gained widespread acceptance the way online education has. A good online program is going to take you away from the "complete this at your own pace and mail it back" format to "take this course in this many weeks and complete the weekly assignments" format. The latter format is used by most of the preferred online programs. An online environment generally allows for discussion (by way of discussion forums and chat rooms), timed exams, and access to online lectures or lectures on DVD. This provides the structure that most need to be successful in this type of endeavor. It also allows for interaction with other students, which still isn't as nice as sitting in a classroom with them, but infinitely better than the old correspondence method. Some programs, especially graduate and doctoral programs, may be geared to be hybrids of some sort. By this I mean that you come to class for a week and complete assignments online when you get home. It's kind of the best of both worlds, but I realize that it's not always a possibility.
3. Faculty - Before applying to any program, check out who will be teaching you. I tend to shy away from places that have most of the professors that have ALL of their degrees from the same place. It's common for someone to have a degree or two from the place they're teaching. It is also common to have faculty members at great schools that received all of their degrees from the school they're teaching in. That's not a bad thing. What does make me cautious is when just about everyone has their every one of their degrees from that institution. That is academic inbreeding and a subject for another post.
4. Cost - Sometimes it just comes down to this. "I like this program better, but this other program is cheaper . . . " We can talk about all the rest of the stuff to consider, but without a way to pay for it, then it's not going to do you much good. College or Seminary can be more affordable than you think - and even more affordable than the tuition you see on a school's website. Every school that accepts federal financial aid (which is pretty much all of them) has to have on their website a "cost of attendance calculator." This will allow you to find out what the base cost for you completing your degree will be. This isn't the end of the road, though. Take this figure and talk to the institution's financial aid office. They will be able to tell you what scholarships and grants you apply for. One of the schools that I teach at offers scholarships that take 1/3 off of tuition for several categories. Southern Baptist seminaries offer considerable discounts for members of Southern Baptist churches. Also, many Christian universities and seminaries will offer tuition discounts for those already in ministry. Once your hear back from them about what you are eligible for, this should give you an idea of the real cost of attendance. While some disagree, I also suggest loans for some students. This approach allows you to not have to work full time and go to school (although you still can if you need the money to live on). I find that sometimes using loans for a couple of semester just to "finish up" can relieve a lot of stress for a student. Ideally you would want to not use loans and pay as you go, but it's not the end of the world if you need to take out a loan or two.
Most of this info can apply to any degree program, online or otherwise. However, it's particularly relevant to evaluating online programs. I would love to hear your first-hand accounts of online education and, of course, if you have any questions, feel free to ask those too!
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.