Internationally, religious institutions are developing online learning for a variety of reasons and purposes. The overall interaction of religion and the Internet has been varied (Dawson & Cowan, 2004). However, as Christopher Helland (2007) observes, “[By 2006] this medium has been embraced by most of the world religious traditions, to the point that not having Internet representation is a rarity for a religious organization, even if it is luddite in its beliefs and practices” (Introduction ¶4). The religious applications of formal online education comprise three main areas: extending the reach of theological education (primarily for the training of clergy), expanding opportunities for higher education from religious-sponsored universities and colleges, and facilitating other lifelong learning opportunities for members of the laity. It remains the case that “little has been written and published on distance education in North American theological education” (Amos, 1999, p. 126). Despite an expanding usage of online learning by religious institutions, there has been little published on any of these international efforts. Accordingly, this paper is a synthesis of original research, the authors having contacted leaders and academics from international institutions affiliated with major world religions to discover more about their various applications of online learning.
Certainly a shared problem, every major world religion has congregations and adherents in distant or rural areas where they cannot send fully trained graduates from their theological schools as clergy or religious leaders. In order to compensate for this problem, seminaries, or schools of theology, have made efforts to train religious leaders using online education (Reissner, 1999; Patterson, 1996). Those efforts have now expanded beyond the target users of religious leaders for theological education to the entire laity (Cannell, 1999), and the source beyond schools of theology to also include religious-affiliated colleges and universities. For example, even Buddhist organizations in various parts of the world (e.g., Sri Lanka, Thailand) are offering correspondence education courses for lay members to become better educated in and integrated into their faith.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Religious Institutions: organizations, including some universities and colleges, that are affiliated or sponsored by a religious organization.
Seminaries: Schools or colleges created to educate persons for the practice of ministry and/or for teaching and research in the theological disciplines.
Laity: The condition or state of a layman, the body of the people not in orders; as opposed to the clergy.
Piety: The quality or character of being pious; habitual reverence and obedience to God (or the gods); devotion to religious duties; godliness, devoutness, religiousness.
Affective: Domain of learning concerned with inward disposition, feeling, intent, intention, earnest, reality; contrasted with merely cognitive development and/or external manifestation.
Pluralistic: Of or belonging to a pluralist or to pluralism; recognizing more than one ultimate principle in existence or being as contrasted to monism.
Clergy: The clerical order; the body of men and women set apart by ordination for religious service in the Christian church; as opposed to laity.
Collegiate Ministries: Religious administrative structure of a university; ministerial administration of degree-seeking colleges and universities.
Theological Education: Education that is mainly on spiritual topics, preparing persons for the practice of ministry and/or for teaching and research in the theological disciplines.
Correspondence Education: The form of distance education that is paper-based; communication between teacher and students is by correspondence, not face-to-face.