by D. Merrill Ewert
Options for continuing education.
Credit and noncredit. Everyone is familiar with credit courses and degree programs. Schools offer credit, assign grades, maintain records, and grant degrees. Many offer courses through extension. Others have intensive summer programs, "Winter Quarters," or "Inter-term" sessions through which one may earn credit for short courses.
On the other hand, noncredit continuing education is usually done for personal enrichment, involves no grades, and does not count toward degrees. However, some professions use continuing education units (CEUs) to recognize participation in continuing education. A CEU reflects 10 contract hours of participation in an organized continuing education activity under responsible sponsorship and qualified instruction.
Accredited and non-accredited. An accredited school has gone through a review process and is recognized for providing an accepted curriculum and maintaining quality standards. Bible schools, seminaries, colleges, and universities are evaluated by different accrediting associations. Increasingly, schools with several degree programs will be accredited by several different accrediting associations.
Credits usually transfer from one accredited Bible school to another, from one seminary to another, or from one accredited college to another. Since different types of schools have different purposes and goals, they may not necessarily accept each other’s credits. For example, graduates from accredited Bible schools have found that some colleges accept little of their previous course work. Some seminary graduates interested in pursuing university doctorates have been required first to complete another master’s degree. Missionaries anticipating further studies should first make sure that a school can help them to meet their educational goals before enrolling.
TYPES OF SCHOOLS
Bible schools typically emphasize biblical studies and Christian education. Those with accredited programs offer two-year associate degrees and/or four-year bachelor’s degrees. Many also offer diploma and certificate programs. Bible school graduate programs tend to offer master’s of theology, ministry, missions, and Christian education degrees.
Seminaries traditionally offer pre-professional training for pastors through the master of divinity degree (M.Div.), or the master of religious education (M.R.E.). Increasingly, some also offer the master of arts degree in missions, theology, intercultural studies, and counseling. Some now have doctorates as well. These include programs in theology (Th.D.), ministry (D.Min.), missions (D.Miss.), education (Ed.D.), and, in a few cases, the Ph.D.
Liberal arts colleges attempt to integrate the arts, sciences, and humanities through the bachelor of arts (B.A.), science (B.S.), or music (B.Mus.) programs. At the graduate level, they typically offer the master of arts (M.A.) or science (M.S.) in the classic disciplines, in addition to ministry fields such as missions.
Universities usually have the widest range of degree programs. They train undergraduates and offer professional degrees (business, medicine, law, etc.) and graduate programs in many disciplines. University departments are not always sympathetic toward missionaries’ educational goals.
WHERE EDUCATION IS OFFERED
Increasingly, schools are making their programs more accessible. Here is a summary of where education is offered:
Residential programs. Historically, students have gone away for higher education. Residential programs offer face-to-face contact with professors, library facilities, distinguished lecturers, a broad curriculum, and other learning opportunities. Ideally, students study and learn within a community of scholars, with minimal distraction from other responsibilities. However, residential programs are costly, rather inflexible, and oriented toward the schedules of the young. Adults with family and ministry responsibilities often are forced to make major sacrifices in order to participate.
Extension centers. Schools now offer courses on a regular basis at off-campus extension centers. This brings instruction closer to the student and usually at a lower cost. Classes are scheduled with the adult learner in mind. Classes meet weekly in the evenings, or monthly over a weekend, enabling students to learn while living at home and maintaining their normal responsibilities. Professors come to the students, rather than the other way around. Some schools offer entire graduate programs through their centers, while others extend only their most popular courses. These programs offer missionaries, especially overseas people, access to higher education without leaving their places of ministry.
Extension centers, however, provide less opportunity for interaction with other students and professors than do residential programs. The curriculum is more limited, giving students fewer choices. Students miss lectures by distinguished scholars and frequently lack access to good libraries and other learning resources. Many extension center courses are taught by adjunct faculty, not part of the campus community, who cannot fully share the school’s ethos. Extension center courses typically are given lower status in academic circles than residential programs.
Learning at home.Learning at home formerly meant correspondence education with an exchange of books and papers between student and professor. Now, more schools package courses in audio or video tape format, on computer diskette, or laser disk. Many offer classes through cable TV or public broadcasting. Instead of interacting face-to-face with their professors, students study at home and interact with their professors by mail or telephone. Missionaries can select courses from the many on the market and transfer a limited number to the school from which they want a degree. With a learning package, one can begin a course almost anytime, but usually must complete it within six months or a year.
While these programs share the advantages of extension centers (accessibility, low cost, etc.), they also have the same limitations. In addition, the lack of highly structured learning environment and regular face-to-face interaction with their professor means that some students never complete their courses. Independent study programs do not work well for procrastinators, the undisciplined, or less motivated students. Since many of these instructional packages consist of audio or video tapes of lectures recorded in the classroom, the technical quality is often poor. In addition, most schools limit the number of independent study courses that may be accepted into a residential degree program, or transferred in from another institution.
External degree programs. Some schools now offer degree programs with little or no time required in residence. These external degrees, as they are called, have the same advantages and limitations of other extension programs. Although they give unique opportunities for people in ministry, they are perceived to be of lesser quality and get lower status than campus programs. Some schools will not even recognize external degrees. Students who have earned master’s degrees in this way sometimes have been required to complete another master’s before embarking on doctoral studies.
HOW EDUCATION IS OFFERED
Just as continuing education may occur in different places, it may happen in different ways.
Traditional classroom courses. Professors typically lecture students in regular, face-to-face meetings once or more each week. Usually an expert in the subject, an instructor shares information, guides the student, synthesizes material, and evaluates learning performance. This teaching-learning process can be dynamic and interactive, or deadly dull, depending on the professor. To accommodate people in the ministry, many schools now offer campus courses in the evenings, or on weekends in longer blocks, similar to extension courses. These courses can usually be taken for personal enrichment and learning for those not interested in credit.
Intensive seminars. Many schools offer short, one-week intensive seminars for people too busy to enroll in residential courses. The teaching methods tend to be more interactive and participatory, and the content more closely related to life experience. The instructor’s role usually shifts from that of content expert to facilitator of learning, drawing on the knowledge and experience of the learners. Originally designed for personal enrichment, these courses now offer earned credits for many workshops and seminars. The disadvantage is that the teaching-learning process is compressed, giving students less time to read, reflect, synthesize, and complete assignments.
Many schools jointly sponsor courses and seminars with missions and parachurch agencies, to give missionaries on the field more access to continuing education. Schools also collaborate on such courses. Missionaries may sometimes enroll in a course taught by the professor of one school and receive credit toward degrees in another. With declining enrollments in some cases, schools are becoming more responsive to learners’ needs.
Media packages. Media packages cannot replace the dynamics of a seminar, but they are getting better. Good manuals that facilitate reflection compensate for the lack of classroom interaction. Some schools are improving the technical quality by recording courses in the studio.
Teleconferences. Some institutions offer courses through telephone or television conferences to small groups of students in off-campus locations. Instruction begins with a teleconference lecture. Learning groups at each site then interact with each other and ask questions of the professor.
Credit for life experience. A few schools offer credit for life experience through student-prepared portfolios that demonstrate competency in content areas covered in traditional degree programs. This is usually an undergraduate phenomenon for mature students who can’t spend four years in baccalaureate programs, and have already gained some of the knowledge and skills one expects to learn.
Self-directed learning. Much of what people learn is self-directed. People decide what they want to know, identify appropriate resources (programs, people, activities), develop a learning plan which they carry out, and then evaluate what they have learned. Although usually associated with noncredit learning, independent projects can earn credits at many schools.
Mentoring. Mentoring is the new name for the ancient art of discipleship, and people increasingly are turning to mentors for instruction. From medical schools to indigenous societies, seasoned practitioners teach their art, craft, or skills to others in systematic, organized ways. Recognizing this, schools often accept mentor-ship as part of independent study, if someone proposes a good program.
More loans, grants, and scholarships than ever before are available to missionaries pursuing further education. However, people must apply early to be considered, since schools dispense financial aid months before the school year begins.
CHOOSING A PROGRAM
Missionaries considering further education need to remember several things:
1. Begin with goals. One’s personal ministry and career goals should affect the choice of a school. Not all schools will fit these goals, so choose carefully.
2. Think long-term. The decision to pursue a particular degree at a school may affect one’s education and career options later on.
3. Flexible programs require self-motivated learners. Flexible programs that allow learners to create and follow their own schedules can be disastrous for people expecting to be motivated by their professor.
4. Start early. Missionaries often underestimate the time required to process applications and requests for financial aid. Many missionaries, particularly those in remote areas with poor mail service, miss financial assistance because they apply far too late.
5. Take initiative. Most professors will help motivated learners to design independent study programs, research projects, tutorials, etc. Students only have to know what they want and ask for help.
6. Rapid advancement of technology. The growth of communications technology is making education more accessible. Be alert for the latest developments in education.
7. You get what you pay for. Continuing education is now a buyer’s market. The old adage that things sounding too good to be true usually are applies to continuing education. Beware of programs that promise much for little time and effort. Good education is still hard work.
THE NEXT STEP
Carefully examine the profiles of schools in this issue of Evangelical Missions Quarterly. Compare programs and course offerings. Read their advertisements to see what schools say about themselves. List those that seem to offer programs appropriate to your interests. Write the directors of admissions for information and application forms. Find out if they are accredited and whether other institutions accept transfer credits from them. Write the financial aid offices for information about scholarships, loans, grants, and other types of assistance. Ask about deadlines. Write department chairpersons for more specific information about their programs.
When considering extension courses, write the deans or directors of extension or continuing education for details about their programs. Ask about the technical quality of courses – if they were recorded in the classroom or studio – and when they were last revised. Find out who will be grading your papers and responding to your letters and questions. The professor whose name is on the course? A graduate assistant? Someone else?
Some information received from different sources at the same school may be redundant. Taken together, however, it will provide a better picture of the school and its ability to meet your learning goals.
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