By Sam Hodges

The Rev. Judy Swarts has done youth and children’s ministry in United Methodist churches for years, but this summer marked her first appointment to lead a church as pastor.

She was OK with being away from First United Methodist in Menard, in west Texas, for a week to take Course of Study classes at Perkins.

But if it had been two weeks ….

“There would have been a disconnect with the congregation,” she said.

Thanks to a new hybrid approach, combining in-class and online instruction, Perkins is offering licensed local pastors a more flexible, affordable approach to completing the Course of Study required by the United Methodist Church.

A summer ago, Swarts would have had to spend two weeks per session on campus. This time, she and other students spent a week in class followed by two weeks of online instruction. Those who did both sessions repeated the schedule.

Swarts was able to return more quickly to Menard, where she dug into her new job while also studying at home online.

“Especially being in a new congregation, I liked being able to come back,” she said.

Course of Study is the first Perkins program to go hybrid – the Houston/Galveston extension program has begun this term – and a large enrollment jump accompanied the change.

Last year, there were 83 students for both the English and Spanish language sections. This summer enrollment was 103.

“Even more significantly, our enrollment in Spanish was just 14 last year, and this year it was 24. So the percentage of increase was even greater among Spanish-speaking students,” said the Rev. Dr. Paul Barton, who directs the program.

Before, students spent 20 hours in class for each course. Now it’s 10 hours in class and 10 hours online, with most of the online time allowing for flexible scheduling for students. (If they need to listen to a lecture, for example, it will be taped and they choose when to view it.)

The cost advantage comes primarily for students who travel to study at Perkins and must pay for room and board either on or off campus.

“We were missing students because they couldn’t afford it,” Barton said.

Even for local students, the hybrid approach proved appealing in its flexibility.

“I had never done online courses before and I was excited to know that I could be a mom, be a pastor and still get an affordable education from Perkins,” said the Rev. Jamie Nelson, pastor at Agape Memorial United Methodist Church in Dallas.

The transition to hybrid was not without its challenges and tradeoffs.

A third of the faculty didn’t return, some of that owing to instructors who didn’t want to teach online. For those who did, and for newcomers, Barton required taking a course in online teaching offered by SMU’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

There also was special instruction in Canvas, the online learning management system used by the program. And a $17,000 grant from the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (for which Perkins runs the Course of Study program) allowed six faculty members and one Perkins student to serve as consultants for COSS faculty.

Students got training and ongoing technical support, too.

“I was afraid that the transition and technology would be particularly difficult for our older students,” said Dr. Lindsey Trozzo of Princeton Theological Seminary, who taught Bible II and Bible III in Course of Study at Perkins this summer. “That was the case, but there were many resources for training. Those who sought them out found it to be much more intuitive than they at first thought.”

Barton credits James Pan, academic technology services director for Perkins and SMU’s Dedman School of Law, with easing the transition for faculty and students.

“He’s provided wonderful expertise and support,” Barton said.

Trozzo is experienced in online instruction, but she acknowledged missing having more time in person with students. Her conversational approach to teaching lends itself to the classroom.

As for students, she said online education requires them to exert self-discipline to get to the computer and complete assignments – a challenge for those living busy work and family lives.

But Trozzo also saw the advantages of hybrid for those serving a church.

“Even during the one week of in-person classes, I had two students who had to miss a day to go back and do a funeral,” Trozzo said. “When we are working with pastors who are the single staff member at a church – sometimes multiple churches – it’s really tough for them to be gone two to four weeks at a time.”

The Rev. David Danilo Diaz Rivas returned from his country of Colombia to continue taking Course of Study classes at Perkins this summer.

He, like Trozzo, had experience with online education – and he’s aware of the pros and cons. But Rivas, a pastor with the Colombian Methodist Church, also sees the potential.

“Perkins …. is on the path to offering quality education and easy access, transcending barriers and bringing knowledge to many pastors in different countries,” Rivas said.

 

Sam Hodges is a Dallas-based reporter for United Methodist News Service and a freelance writer.