Going the Distance: Adapting Full-time Residential Curricula into Distance Format

by Victor Kuligin

How Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary molded its residential programs and curricula into distance format.

Distance education, especially in Southern Africa, is the wave of the future. With colleges and universities competing in the same pool of potential students and the difficulties of traveling in Africa, especially as it relates to costs, earning an educational qualification via distance is becoming more and more the norm. There was a time when the acronym TEE (Theological Education by Extension) was the term of choice for such programs. At least in Southern Africa, however, that term has become less and less acceptable, and the phrase “distance education” has become the norm. The reason is simple. TEE is limited to the theological disciplines, whereas all major universities in South Africa, for example, now have distance education departments which cater to virtually every major offered.

Relative instability in countries such as Angola, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, coupled with the lack of varied educational opportunities and solid infrastructure in lands like Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, has resulted in students flooding the more technologically-advanced countries of South Africa and Namibia. But fears of swelling refugee populations and illegal immigrants have caused South Africa to look for ways to tighten its borders. This, coupled with the high costs of traveling to and living in industrialized nations like South Africa and Namibia, has resulted in many students staying in their homelands, yet looking to gain a quality education via distance. One institution, South Africa Theological Seminary (SATS) in Johannesburg, South Africa, is only a distance education college. SATS has thousands of students not only from Africa, but from Asia, Europe and the Americas. The notion that a distance program only has credibility if it is supported by a solid residential program is disproved by SATS.

Our small seminary, Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary (NETS), is the only evangelical institution of higher learning in the country, and as such, we want to extend our influence as much as possible. Namibia’s population is small (less than two million), yet the country is one of the largest in Africa. Finding students willing and financially able to come to Windhoek, the capital, and spend three or four years in our residential program is often quite difficult. Distance education was recognized as the best way to increase our reach.

With this article, I would like to recount some of the difficulties and issues we encountered with molding our residential programs and curricula into distance format.

The first matter we wrestled with was a fundamental impression that distance education was not as good or as reliable as residential education. At NETS, TEE had always been viewed as a lower-level program, and those who wanted higher-level diplomas and degree programs needed to become full-time, residential students. This notion had to change.
In fact, not only did it have to change, but we had to adopt the understanding that there could be no fundamental difference between distance and residential programs. Everything that was offered residentially in any particular program had to be offered via distance. The number of courses and credits, and the content of those courses, had to be identical. Perhaps the most difficult pill to swallow involved the time it takes to finish a program. A full-time, residential student needs four years to complete our Bachelor in Theology (BTh). Considering the common assumption that distance students work full-time, or in some fashion can only devote part-time to their studies, completing the BTh could potentially take twice the time that it would residentially. Is it really feasible to expect someone to spend eight years on a distance BTh? The temptation then becomes trimming down the residential program to make it “fit” into a distance format.

We strongly resisted this temptation for several reasons. First, the assumption that distance students are only part-time is false. Some see distance as a way to cut costs such as travel and room/board, so they enter distance programs to save money. Second, those students who are part-time are normally people in the workplace, often more mature and possessing a better work ethic than students who, say, come right out of high school into tertiary education. Although it will certainly take them longer than four years to complete the degree, it probably will not stretch out to eight and may only take twelve to eighteen months longer. Third, residential programs are usually more rigid, but distance allows for much greater flexibility. Residential students can only sit for lectures three times a week for a three-credit course, but distance students could potentially cover much more material in the same time frame.

The assumed difficulties related to time constraints were not as viable as at first thought. Not wanting to create the impression that distance education is somehow inferior, we decided to make the curricula exactly the same. However, other problems presented themselves.

At NETS, we have five criteria for graduation: academic, financial, practical ministries, character and work contract. In short, a potential graduate must complete all the academic curriculum at a required level, have no outstanding fees, complete all practical ministry requirements, perform work duties around campus and display a character commensurate with a mature believer planning to serve in the church. Academic and financial requirements are not a problem via distance, but the other three criteria become more difficult to transfer.

For example, there is the possibility that we will rarely see the distance student face to face. We wrestled with the prospect of requiring an annual visit to our campus, much like many institutions do with their distance students, but this seemed to defeat the purpose of distance education. Given the context of Africa and particularly Namibia, costs are a major problem. Could we really require students from the north of Namibia to travel down to Windhoek once a year? And what about students from other countries like Zambia or Angola, where a single trip to Windhoek could take several days one-way?

Yet without adequate face-to-face contact, certain graduation criteria became problematic. How could we determine whether a student possessed the necessary character and spiritual qualities if we never met that student? Here it became evident that we needed a strict policy in terms of finding mentors or guides for each student, someone on that end willing to work with the student in terms of character development and practical ministry experience. We also determined to make one visit to NETS mandatory during the duration of the student’s studies. That would also help with certain subjects which become difficult to evaluate via distance, as I will discuss later.

All of our residential students are required to complete practical ministry requirements during their first three years at NETS. These requirements are quite involved and cover the spectrum of children, youth and adult ministries. Students are required to do these during each semester as well as during holidays and semester breaks.

It is already expected that local pastors or church leaders will help the students become involved in ministry in their church, so expecting this to be the case concerning distance students was not an unreasonable expectation. However, as I will note below, finding such a person who is willing and able to do it may be difficult. Still, it was a requirement we were unwilling to forgo. Fortunately, many of our distance students come with ministry experience already in hand, thus allowing for credit to be granted for some practical ministry requirements.

As for the work around campus we commonly required of our students (normally justified on the basis of development of a servant attitude), we had already made a distinction between residential students living on campus and those living elsewhere in Windhoek, either at home or with their family. The latter normally have other responsibilities (caring for spouse and children, helping their parents, etc.) that should be considered in any work arrangement for the seminary. This being the case, we dropped the requirement altogether for distance students.

One big problem at any educational institution is cheating. Even seminaries and Bible colleges are not immune to this problem. So how could we possibly avoid this with distance students? For example, if I recognize that the handwriting on a paper mailed in by a distance student changes midway through the assignment, can I assume that something fishy is occurring? And if so, how do I enforce it? This is complicated by the issue of fraud. Students are required to provide us with accurate information concerning their matriculation qualifications, their involvement in their local church and so on. How do we know that a distance student did not invent the pastor of his or her church (complete with CV or resume) who is meant to serve as overseer of his or her studies? We decided to take the precautionary step of requiring the potential overseer to also “apply” with NETS. This person must provide enough information in order to make us feel comfortable about his or her qualifications for oversight of various requirements for the student. We also felt that a phone call from the person was not out of line with keeping costs low, and it further serves the purpose of showing us that this potential overseer is serious about the role.

As for cheating, short of hiring a professional handwriting expert, we were left to trust the students. Unless clear clues presented themselves, such as perfect English on a written assignment from students not coming from English-speaking communities, or near-perfect scores from students whose prior educational credentials display average or below average performance, we had to assume the best and move on.

We work on the general principle that what we teach in the classroom must all be transferred to the distance material. Ideally, every joke, every example, everything you write on the board, or use in visuals, should be conveyed in the distance material. Granted, certain teaching methods, such as small group discussions and class presentations, could not be incorporated. But concerning the specific content of the course, lecturers needed to adapt everything they spent time on in the classroom into distance format. Access to study materials is a major problem with distance offerings. Our residential students have the benefit of our campus library, but many distance students do not live near a library, let alone an evangelical one. The limitations of finances already meant that as a seminary we could not have a textbook for each course, and lecturers normally produced their own handbooks coupled with required reading from books in the library.

For distance students, we wanted to offer a similar situation, but copyright issues can become a problem. In Southern Africa, the general rule is to allow ten percent of a book to be copied without infringing on copyright law. We included required reading material with course handbooks, or required the purchase of a textbook which can cover several courses (such as a systematic theology book) to alleviate the problem of lack of resources.

Lecturers are responsible for the content of each handbook, but for the actual formatting of the handbooks into distance quality, we are fortunate enough to have skilled people in Namibia and South Africa who can help us. The typical theology professor will have no clue how to do this properly, and the cost of hiring outside professionals is well worth it in the long run. Most of us at NETS had no idea how long a “unit” should be for distance students or how precisely to arrange a distance handbook for readability and ease of understanding. In terms of cost, we determined to make distance tuition comparable per credit to that of residential.

Preparing certain courses for distance format can be a major headache, especially ones which normally rely on face-to-face contact or group activities. For example, we offer several homiletics courses to our seminarians. Obviously, we want to train the students to become good public speakers and teachers in their congregations. Face-to-face evaluations are an integral part of this process, but with that prospect eliminated, we needed other viable options.

Using the Internet was a possibility, but given the limited infrastructure in many parts of Namibia, it was not a feasible option yet. Audio and/or visual presentations were an obvious solution, but in many parts of Africa, access to the necessary equipment is less than adequate. To make it a requirement again brings up the issue of prohibitive costs. Options available included: (1) making a visual presentation required, regardless of the cost issue; (2) limiting it to an audio requirement (which brings up the matter of fraud and whose voice it is); or (3) finding someone on the student’s end who could serve as an evaluator, most likely a local pastor.
Option 3 seemed preferable, but it was a far cry from having one of our own lecturers evaluating the student’s message. Quality control became the issue. Did we first need to appraise the preaching skills of the evaluator before we could allow him or her to assess the preaching skills of the student? In the final analysis, a combination of the last two options was more workable, with a reliance more on option 2. The on-campus visit was another opportunity to evaluate this area.

We also instituted the practice of sending the student audios of sermons for the student to evaluate, ones that the lecturer had already heard him or herself (such as in our campus devotions or downloaded from the Internet), so that the lecturer could already have a good idea of the pros and cons of the sermon to be evaluated. The hope was that the more a student critiqued other sermons, the more the student’s own sermons would improve accordingly.

Other courses were also problematic. Our courses on counseling and ethics rely heavily on group activities, class interaction and discussions. One-on-one practice and testing of counseling skills is a must for the lecturer to evaluate the student’s progress; but once again, short of relying on someone else to do this with the distance student, we had to be content with preparing material that utilized worksheets and exercises that helped the student work through the course. Theory is one thing in counseling; practicum is something else. Actual mock counseling sessions, complete with evaluation forms for the counselees (whom we insist are not the same person as the overseer), help to increase the practical aspect of the course.

Last, much of the content of our residential courses is Namibia-specific, with many cultural issues coming up in theology and practical courses which address Namibian issues. In developing their courses for distance, lecturers needed to keep this in mind and tended toward more African-centered issues than specifically Namibian. Even a course like Namibian Church history had to be reconsidered. A student in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, could hardly be required to take this course. We were again faced with several options:

1. Drop the course altogether (but this would jeopardize the integrity of the distance program);

2. Allow the student to replace it with something comparable from his or her country, such as history of Christianity in the DRC (but this could be difficult for students who come from countries with little material to work with, let alone the potential administrative nightmare for us in trying to determine how equitable these courses are to our program); or

3. Create something different for these students, which is comparable to a three-credit course.

We opted for the last option. These were directed self-study assignments meant to get the student to dig deeper into the history of Christianity in his or her homeland.

As can be easily realized, more and more is expected of the overseer. We could quickly get to the point that for each distance student, we needed someone who could spend numerous hours—in essence, working for NETS for free—overseeing that student’s various needs. This could become too much to ask.

The students themselves may also have problems finding a willing invigilator, evaluator or overseer. Incredibly, some pastors do not want to do this because they view the student as a potential threat to their career. Others may simply be overwhelmed by the time required. The bottom line, though, is that without such a person, we simply cannot assure the quality of our distance program. As noted earlier, we decided to create an “application” process for such third-party people, which will hopefully weed out those overseers who are not willing to do the necessary work. Also, in requiring one visit to the NETS campus, we were able to greatly decrease the work placed upon such third-party people, as noted above.

There are few things better than having a lecturer who teaches you face to face. Someone who has the opportunity to sit in a classroom, ask questions which can be immediately answered and listen to the questions and comments of other students experiences a great way to obtain an education. As much as you try, it is tricky to get all these benefits into a distance course. Mailing students course material via distance and expecting them to get as much out of their educational experience as a residential student is nearly impossible.

As much as we tried, we could never make the distance programs identical to the residential. There are too many other factors at play when a student is residential. Distance students miss daily or weekly student devotions, growth groups (each residential student at NETS is placed in a growth group headed by a lecturer), special classes, seminars, workshops on campus, student trips and outings, student meetings, participation in the student representative council and sporting activities. The residential experience has much to offer that can never be transferred to the distance students.

Lectures are also affected. We can see how students are relating to other students and faculty, and regularly provide feedback and advice. Our ability to evaluate each student is enhanced by this almost constant contact. We are not ones to “reinvent the wheel,” but finding other institutions willing to provide guidance for us has been difficult. Many other Southern African institutions view us as a potential competitor, and when it comes to distance, any institution can be a competitor, even ones on different continents. We welcome suggestions from others who have gone through similar transitions, and we offer our experiences above as a help to those considering doing so.


Rev. Victor Kuligin is a missionary with Africa Inland Mission, lecturing in systematic theology and church history and serving as academic dean at Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary. He and his wife Rachel have served in Namibia since 1994.

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