An African Seminary Goes Online

Seven students participated in NEGST's first
completely online course.

Online learning is all the rage in many Western countries. Most instructors in African Bible colleges and seminaries are aware of its existence, but 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 learning’s legitimacy, are skeptical of a small African institution’s 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 setting? Do students in Africa have adequate knowledge of and access to information technology to complete an online course? Do small African schools have the technological capacity to deliver online courses?

What follows is an assessment of the first efforts by the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST) to offer online education. NEGST can serve as an example of a small school in a Majority World context offering online education.

The Course’s Origin
The online course was first taught January to March 2006. Seminary leadership approved this “experiment” with a view to 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.

Hermeneutics was chosen as the first online course for three reasons. First, it was required for all NEGST masters degree programs. Hence, there was an ongoing need for the course. Second, several existing extension students had an immediate need for the course to advance their program of study. Third, as the instructor, I had previously taught hermeneutics for NEGST both on-campus and at an off-campus site.

The Students
Seven students completed the course: three Kenyans and four expatriate missionaries serving in Kenya (one American, one Brit and two Canadians of Romanian extraction). For three of the seven students, “Online Hermeneutics” was the first course they had taken from NEGST.

Course Development
The course was developed in close collaboration with the Learning Technologies Division of Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF-LT). As is common for online courses, all the lessons had to be prepared well in advance of their delivery date. After receiving my work in August 2005, MAF-LT personnel “branded” it with NEGST’s logo and color scheme, organized it for easy online access and burned it onto a CD for reproduction. To accommodate learners in a low to mid-tech environment, we provided students with 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 to be delivered 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 the final assessment instrument in Online Hermeneutics 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 the students were expected to purchase), students could access all needed course materials on the CD.

Online education is dramatically different from face-to-face
classroom participation.

The course was not designed 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 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?
  2. Do you think the “sermon” on polygamy invented by Dorani resulted from a “wrong reading” of the Bible? Why or why not?
  3. 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?
  4. How do the views of Brownson and Fee relate to Doriani's exhortation, “Only when we join skillful methods to a receptive heart can we expect Bible study to bear fruit in the lives of individuals and the church?”

Finally, the students were instructed to interact with the postings of three other course participants.

The term “threaded discussion” refers to the online presentation of students’ written contributions to a conversation. Many excellent course management software programs exist today to facilitate threaded online discussions. However, we judged all of them to be too “bandwidth intensive” for use with students in the Kenya context. Instead, we used a free, web-based email system called SquirrelMail, which displayed students’ discussion participation in a “tree” format that clearly showed who said what to whom. The downside to this interface was that it 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 to at their leisure). At least one participant could only access the Internet at a local 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 teaching evaluation form and (2) comments 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 past five years was 8.49 to 9.96, with an average of over 9. However, with less than half of the online class participating in the standard course evaluation exercise, the more helpful data were gathered from emails sent by students.

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. Two of six desired more regular input from the instructor. Another judged fellow students’ writing as unclear and wished [the instructor] had encouraged “richer commenting on colleagues’ work.” Several participants criticized the software interface used to manage the course. Two major criticisms emerged as noteworthy. First, the time online required to interact handicapped some. Second, the course management software was clumsy. I should mention here we switched software interfaces after week one of the course because the first interface could not display students’ contributions in tree form. However, SquirrelMail still proved less than ideal. Unfortunately, less clumsy course management software generally increases students’ time online in a low-tech environment.

It is unlikely online learning will completely replace its face-to-face counterpart 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.

The final assessment assignment for the course was identical to that submitted by students in face-to-face sections of hermeneutics I had taught previously. There was no significant difference between the quality of the final work submitted by online and face-to-face students. All appeared capable of applying the hermeneutical principles studied to the exegesis of a biblical text.

Despite some expected “first-time” glitches, I definitely would call NEGST’s first online course a success. Clearly, the institution is capable of delivering quality online education, and students in Africa can succeed as online learners. Nevertheless, I would make at least four suggestions for improving students’ online experience:

  1. The students needed a better orientation to online learning. Perhaps one or two students might have opted not to study online if they had known better what it entailed. One in particular complained of the time required to interact with other learners. Another struggled more generally with the technical aspects of online learning.
  2. The students desired more comments from the instructor. There is a delicate balance between the instructor stifling a conversation by intervening too often and the students feeling neglected because the instructor intervenes too seldom.
  3. The students found the software interface awkward. We chose SquirrelMail because it displayed participants’ contributions to the threaded discussion in a “tree” format that made it clear who said what to whom. However, it was clumsy and did not allow students working from their own computers easily to download the threaded discussion to their hard drives. Hence, they had to “camp” online to read and respond. Mozilla’s (free) Thunderbird email system might better satisfy the needs of those with their own computers. Nevertheless, those confined to web-based email (as in a cybercafé) would need to continue using an interface like SquirrelMail.
  4. Some students might be helped by a “learning center” approach to online education. The learning center approach uses a computer lab maintained by the institution to which students come (together or at their leisure) to participate in online courses. Naturally, this approach deprives students of a measure of freedom; however, 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.

NEGST’s pilot online course demonstrated the feasibility of virtual education in a Majority World context. All enrolled students demonstrated a firm grasp of course content. All managed to cope with technical difficulties. Despite reservations on the part of two students, all seven participants indicated they would seek out another experience in online learning. Further, NEGST’s first online course attracted three new students who otherwise might not have matriculated.

It is unlikely online learning will completely replace its face-to-face counterpart 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. Small, Majority World institutions should not fear experimenting with this alternative delivery system because they can successfully deliver online education, and their students can learn effectively online.

Rich Starcher has served for over twenty years in three African countries under the auspices of the Evangelical Free Church of America. Most recently he was dean of extension studies at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.