It’s 2016 and technology is changing all areas of life. Spiritual leaders around the world are using social media to communicate their ideas, and if that’s the case, it’s certainly a viable proposition for institutions to use e-learning to teach about Christianity and spirituality. This is precisely what the Australian College of Ministries aims to do: to educate its students about the Christian faith, how to answer difficult questions about God, how to think for themselves about God, how to help their local communities, and how to promote a healthy spirituality through classes like International and Local Community Development and The Personal Work of Christ.
Even though spirituality is something that has to be practiced in daily life, it first needs to be taught through reading, learning how to think, and especially through a willingness to learn and apply the learnings in your community. Religion is not only about going to church and praying – it’s about studying the roots, understanding the Bible, theology, and confronting the questions that may arise. This is the fundamental goal of the Australian College of Ministries (ACOM).
ACOM has been a distance school since 1990. Before e-learning was a viable option, the college would print and mail out course materials to their students. The two main reasons for choosing to be a mainly distance learning school without a physical campus are that first, it allows them to reach anyone in Australia and around the world who finds the school’s values in line with their own. The second reason is to align with their slogan “Your church is your campus,” as the school encourages its students to serve in their local church, hospital or shelter, and thus give back to the community what they have learned. With this in mind, if their courses required classroom attendance, this would create a limitation for students outside of Sydney.
The institution’s objective is to establish ministries, which includes activities a student may be involved in that lead to providing a service to a community, such as a church service, working at a fundraiser or within a community classroom. Ministries are a necessary part of every discipline, and it’s important for ACOM to make sure that the knowledge their students acquire doesn’t only stay in their heads or in their notebooks, but that it makes an impact and a difference in how they lead their lives.
ACOM is a member of the Sydney College of Divinity, which is recognized for having some of the highest education standards. Teachers upload course content and reading material onto Blackboard Open LMS and students can complete the class at their own pace. As with any course, there are some deadlines students will have to meet, however they can take either take one or six courses per term and take the time needed to complete their degree. At some point during the trimester, the students and the teacher have a three-day facilitation. This three-day retreat with the entire class and the teacher is used to review various topics seen during the course, go through different terminology, and talk about what they have learned and what it meant to them. The retreat is popular but attendance can be lower than expected due to some students living too far away.
As Australia is a widespread country and these facilitations have become so popular, Blackboard Open LMS has helped ACOM through its integration with Collaborate Ultra, a communication and video conferencing tool similar to others in the market, but better, explains ACOM Learning Systems Manager, Emily Willard. Collaborate enables groups of learners to get together with their teacher at the same time, from anywhere in the world with a secure internet connection, to discuss topics and get any help they might need. Blackboard Open LMS was a great addition for ACOM, according to Emily, because it has allowed them to reach more students and to find out if any of them are slacking or having trouble with their assignments. As a result, this allows for better communication and enables visibility to student behavior and to offer timely help. Blackboard Open LMS also allows ACOM to keep an online library to store coursework and any additional reading materials that students might be interested in.
Emily explains that the vast majority of students who choose to enrol in ACOM do so because they want to feel a deep and real connection or find answers to questions they have in order to better understand their own spirituality, rather than gain money or status – it’s more of a life choice. Many of their students are fairly young, but there are more mature students who may have reached a point in their life where they want to understand certain things or learn aspects of life they never learned when they were younger.
Students can enrol in four specialisations: Biblical Studies, Christian Life and Ministry, Humanities and the Christian Tradition, and Theology. There are some minimum spiritual training requirements that all students are required to take, as this is where ACOM understands how students are responding to what they are learning, and whether it’s truly impacting their lives for the better. Students choose other disciplines depending on their interests, but they also have free credits where, for example, a person who is studying the Bible but is also interested in Leadership can take some related classes. There are also Learning Support Managers available who help motivate students that fall behind or are not doing well. They are also there to help guide students towards their goals and interests. There are 1,100 students currently enrolled in vocational, undergraduate, and postgraduate courses.
Emily doesn’t believe there is friction between religion and technology. Dissatisfaction with technology probably has more to do with age or lack of practice, rather than for any moral reason. Emily also shares that she has a quote on her desk that says, “Learning requires humans to be curious, to communicate, to interact, to test, to define, to argue, to find hope and to reject. Technology alone cannot do that.” So, while it’s an important tool, she says it’s not all they rely on. She states that it is the balancing of both things that matters.
* Emily Willard, Learning Systems Manager, Australian College of Ministries.
* AFP Wendell Teodoro.