What do you do when your wife is on bed rest in another country because of pregnancy complications and you need to finish your semester of seminary studies in Grand Rapids, Mich.?
Albert and Karissa Postma faced that situation last spring. Medical and insurance considerations meant that Karissa had to stay in Canada while Albert continued his studies at Calvin Theological Seminary.
But thanks to recently installed video capture technology in seminary classrooms, all lectures and discussions can now be videotaped. That enabled Albert to continue his studies and be with his family too.
“The video capture made a huge difference during this difficult time,” he recalls with gratitude. “Thanks to the video capture, the helpfulness of seminary professors, and the support of our parents and friends, I was able to complete my final year at the seminary as scheduled.”
This is just one example of the positive impact technology is having on seminary education today. From a revolution in how students use biblical languages to classroom technology to online courses available anywhere in the world, education at Calvin Seminary is changing in exciting ways.
Libronix and Biblical Studies
Without a doubt, the greatest impact of technology on theological education is in the area of biblical studies.
Though students at Calvin Seminary still study Hebrew and Greek, that learning is greatly assisted by the use of Libronix biblical studies software that not only helps students learn the languages but also enhances their ongoing use of those biblical languages in their ministry.
Chris Cassis, pastor of Calvin Church in Holland, Mich., took a Libronix seminar led by Calvin professor Carl Bosma. Cassis’s reaction was enthusiastic: “Since the seminar, I use Libronix every week as I prepare sermons. I still need to use my creative abilities in crafting the sermon, but Libronix helps me understand the text better and more quickly.”
Pastors across the continent who take the Libronix seminar also appreciate its impact on their preaching. After attending a Libronix seminar in Orange City, Iowa, for pastors in Classes Heartland and Iakota, RCA pastor Jamie Dykstra of Lennox, S.D., wrote, “I especially appreciated the approach that Carl took in teaching us by doing exegesis. It made what could be a tedious task of computer work into a refreshing journey in God’s Word.”
Biblical studies software has removed much of the intimidation of learning biblical languages, especially for those with learning disabilities, a group far larger than most people realize.
“My anxiety prior to attending Calvin Seminary was at epic levels, knowing that Hebrew and Greek were going to be part of my education,” Brian Seifert recalls. “However, Libronix allowed me, a person with learning disabilities, to identify key components in the study of Hebrew and Greek with the simple wave of my computer mouse.
“The program kept me organized and on track. Wonderful color schemes and parsing guides, instant dictionaries, syntactical resources, and theological encyclopedias replaced my fears with confidence.”
Calvin Seminary is a recognized world leader in combining computer-assisted biblical language study, interpretation, and preaching. An extensive manual developed by Bosma has been picked up by the producers of Libronix and hailed as the only resource of its kind that doesn’t just give computer training, but integrates language study, biblical interpretation, and preaching.
CTS also will host a consultation this fall with biblical scholars from around the world interested in enhancing teaching and learning strategies for the use of biblical studies software and the preparation of pastors for gospel ministry.
By the end of this year, more than half of Calvin Seminary’s classrooms will be “smart classrooms” that not only electronically capture the classes held in those rooms, but also link professors and students to the web and to a host of teaching/learning resources.
International students for whom English is a second language have particularly appreciated the option of reviewing classes through video-capture technology.
“In the beginning of my study at Calvin Seminary, it was difficult to follow lectures as I was still learning English,” student Sung-Joon Moon recalls. “But the video capture technology has greatly helped me and many other international students. I regularly use it to go over what I missed in class and increase my English-language skills.”
National studies of schools with “smart classrooms” indicate that all students benefit from and strongly prefer such technology. Making up for a missed class, watching lectures on demand, and improving retention of classroom learning are just three of the benefits students regularly report.
Another area of technological innovation at CTS is online education.
Certain courses are designed to be taken by students at multiple locations across North America and often use online discussion boards, where students are required to discuss with each other the concepts being presented in class that week. Professors monitor the discussion and offer their wisdom and insight at key points throughout the week.
Some people are skeptical about the quality of learning and spiritual formation that can take place in front of a computer screen as opposed to in a classroom. Yet studies show that online courses can be very formative, especially when combined with an in-residence component where students are together for one or two weeks of intensive learning.
Professors who have had the same students in on-site classes and then online often remark how the online courses help quiet students find their voice in the class.
While Calvin Seminary has not gone into online education as extensively as some schools, it sees the value of online education and has been strategic in its use of technology. The best example is Calvin’s EPMC program (Ecclesiastical Program for Ministerial Candidacy), designed for students who have attended other seminaries but who desire to be ministers in the Christian Reformed Church.
When coming to Calvin presents a hardship to such students, the denomination’s Candidacy Committee grants a residency exemption and allows students to take the EPMC courses online wherever they live.
Iranian-born Ladan Jennings was grateful for the online program as she worked to become a pastor in Mill Creek, Wash. “God used technology to answer my prayers,” she said. “It was almost impossible to leave the ministry, my husband, and our two children for 12 weeks. But the greatest challenge was to leave my elderly mother, who does not speak English. She needed medical attention, and I was the only one who could speak her language.
“If I were not allowed to do the EPMC courses online, I would have had to set aside the call to be an ordained pastor in our denomination. God opened a way for me through technology to do what he had called me to do. I came to appreciate technology as a great tool for advancing God’s kingdom.”
Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants
The many technological changes noted in this article are not without their challenges. Along with virtually every other educational institution, Calvin Seminary faces the daunting but delightful challenge of bridging the chasm between “digital natives”—students who have grown up with videogames and the Internet—and “digital immigrants”—their teachers who may use technology effectively but for whom it is not their native language.
Students who are in their mid-20s have spent their entire lives surrounded by computers, videogames, digital music players, videocams, and cell phones. Today’s average college grads have spent fewer than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but more than 10,000 hours playing videogames (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV). Computer games, the Internet, and electronic social networking are integral parts of their lives.
In an article titled “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” educational expert Marc Prensky makes this unsettling pronouncement about the entire education enterprise in North America: “Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.”
Virtually every pastor and teacher can relate to the challenge of teaching students who often seem to be wired differently and who learn differently.
Observers of these massive changes in society tend to be either overly optimistic or overly pessimistic about their impact on people in general and on learning in particular. Faculty and staff at Calvin Seminary try not to underestimate the challenge of teaching and learning in a “digital natives/digital immigrants” world. But neither are they prone to despair.
The image of God is an enduring feature of all human beings, and students’ hunger for learning, truth and beauty, and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit cuts across divides of culture, language, education, class, and political and economic systems. Pastors and teachers have good reason to believe that the iPod will neither cripple the Evil One nor stymie the Spirit’s ongoing work, whether through us or in spite of us.
Technology and Spiritual Formation
By now, readers may be wondering exactly where God is in all this talk. Does all this fancy technology make us more Christlike? How does Calvin Seminary’s commitment to the holistic spiritual formation of pastors—heads, hearts, and hands—fit with all this technological innovation?
Church members ask the same questions after the church installs expensive technology in the sanctuary: “But does it make us more Christlike?” Absolutely not. Whether in sanctuaries or classrooms, technology at best offers the church tools that can help the church in its ministry. But they are only tools, means to a greater end, not the end in itself.
Calvin Seminary is well aware that the obstacles to effective ministry are not outdated computers. Our battle is against flesh and blood and the principalities and powers of the age, and seminary education is always centrally about forming students into the image of Christ through the transformation of mind, heart, and will.
Only the Spirit of God in and through a community of learners committed to Christ and to formation in him can effect that transformation.
CTS at a Glance
Calvin Theological Seminary
- is offering a revised Master of Divinity (M.Div.) curriculum beginning this fall.
- is switching to a two-semester schedule (with January and May interims) this fall.
- offers advanced-standing opportunities to incoming students with Bible and theology degrees.
- offers Master of Arts (M.A.) degrees in Educational Ministries, Evangelism and Missions, New Church Development, Pastoral Care, Worship, and Youth and Family Ministries.
- offers a one-year M.A. degree in Bible and Theology for persons with sufficient college Bible and theology courses.
- offers certificate programs in Church Planting, Educational Ministries, English Bible, Ministry, Missions and Evangelism, Pastoral Care, Theology, Worship, and Youth Ministry.
- offers master (M.T.S. and Th.M.) and doctoral (Ph.D.) degree programs for those interested in teaching Bible and theology.
- has approximately 300 students, representing more than 40 different denominations around the world.
- is a leader in the innovative use of technology in biblical studies courses.
Other Benefits of Technology
Here are a few other areas where technology is having an impact at Calvin Seminary:
The seminary is currently negotiating an arrangement whereby all alumni will have free electronic access to more than 140 major religion and theology journals selected by leading scholars, theologians, and clergy.
The days of the seminary catalog are over. Websites not only carry all vital institutional and academic information; they communicate the school’s ethos and values. Since most students decide for or against a seminary based on the initial impressions of the seminary they gain online, CTS has recently refreshed its website.
CTS has always had many international students. The process of recruiting, communicating with, and matriculating international students has been vastly simplified by the instant communication of the Internet and by online application forms.
Financial constraints at the seminary last year led to the first-ever webinar board meeting, where trustees from across North America were connected by phone and computer. While such web-based meetings won’t replace all face-to-face meetings, the board was pleased by how effectively it could conduct its business using a webinar. Because travel can sometimes be treacherous depending on the severity of winter weather, the board discussed the option of an annual web-based February board meeting at a considerable savings in money and travel time.