An article by the Rev. Dr. Leander Harding

During my recent sabbatical, one of my projects was to research innovation in higher education to see what implications there might be for seminary education. Along the way I encountered the work of Harvard Business School professor, Clay Christensen. Professor Christensen was a successful entrepreneur before selling his company and doing Ph.D. work. As an entrepreneur he was interested in how innovation disrupts established businesses and how some enterprises adapt and thrive while others do not. In, The Innovative University, (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2011) Christensen has applied his work to higher education.

Christensen tells the story of the collapse of the great American steel companies as a parable of what may be going on in higher education. In the 1970s a new technology was developed for making steel called the electric mini-mill. Before the invention of the mini-mill it took billions of dollars to build and operate a steel plant. Mini-mills could be built and operated at a fraction of the cost of the traditional process. Initially these mills could make only the cheapest steel, the rebar used to reinforce concrete. The big established steel companies were happy to relinquish this market which was not very profitable. The managers of these established companies consoled themselves that the mini-mills would never be able to produce high quality steel. The mini-mills took over the rebar market at a 20% cost advantage. Soon the mini-mill producers improved their technology and were able to make angle iron with some cost advantage. The established companies relinquished that market without seeing the need to invest in the new technology. Soon the mini-mill technology was able to produce structural steel of the best quality and then the top of the line sheet steel used in automobile manufacturing and the large companies were no longer able to compete and declared bankruptcy in large numbers. The greater Pittsburgh area, where Trinity is located, lost half of its population in the 1980s as the steel industry collapsed due in part to an inability by established companies to adapt to a new technology that fundamentally changed the way steel was made.

According to Christensen, higher education has been immune from this kind of disruptive innovation. There hasn’t been in the world of education a technology that had the same kind of both creative and destructive potential represented by the mini-mills. With the advent of online education this has changed. Online education delivers all or part of the educational experience via the Internet. According to a recent report sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and their research partners, there were 6.7 million online students in the 2800 reporting institutions. In 2003 57.2% of the chief academic officers of these institutions rated learning outcomes for online education as good as or better than face to face instruction. In the 2012 survey that number was 77%.

As the online experience has improved it has also generated innovative approaches to learning that can be brought back to the campus to enhance the face to face experience. One of these techniques is the “flipped classroom.” For many of us from elementary school through college and into graduate school we were accustomed to lecture based classes supplemented by exercises which we did as home work. In the flipped classroom the lectures are online in a digital format in fifteen to twenty minute segments which now can be accessed anytime and anywhere using mobile technology, including tablets and smartphones. In the flipped classroom the lecture becomes the homework and the class time can be fully devoted to discussion, exercises, and experiential learning that puts information and concepts into practice. Our Bible teachers have had some initial experience with this approach and the early evidence is that being able to devote the majority of the class to interacting with the professors about information that has already been presented online may produce faster progress for students. Students report greater engagement and retention with this more interactive approach.

Trinity has been offering online education for over 10 years. We were early adopters of this new technology, and with the advent of our new Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) online degree we are well positioned to lead the way among theological educators in the digital age. Because of the new technology no school has an inherent advantage over us. Older and more established educational institutions may have the same difficulty adapting to the new technology that the big steel companies did.

…with the advent of our new Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) online degree we are well positioned to lead the way among theological educators in the digital age.

While we continue to believe that residential preparation for ministry is the best alternative, we know that there are thousands of potential students both in this country and in the global Anglican world who need the preparation and who simply cannot relocate. We believe that through online and hybrid programs working with local churches and judicatories we can come very close to the on campus experience. In addition, we believe that we can learn things about instructional design and the use of technology through our online teaching that will improve the quality of the educational experience both in person and online.
Our vision now is to have scores of students in residence for a premier face to face experience, hundreds enrolled in online graduate level programs, thousands in online diploma and certificate programs, and tens of thousands using the catechetical material of the Robert E. Webber Center. Innovation and technology are making it possible for the school to expand and improve our educational mission as never before.

Leander Harding is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Trinity School for Ministry. He lives in Sewickley, PA with his wife Claudia.