The book of Acts calls on believers to witness “to the ends of the earth.”  With a new digital platform, Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University (SMU) aims to go even further: bringing that witness to and from the ends of the earth.

The Global Theological Education Virtual Visiting Professor project is helping to create a fully accessible and continually growing library of short classes coming from scholars world-wide and available around the globe.

“It’s creating resources from the entire world, to be available to the entire world for theological education, not only in seminaries but also in Sunday school classes and other groups,” said Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education (GTE) at Perkins.

To launch the first phase of the project, Hunt traveled in June to the campus of Wesleyan College of Manila in the Philippines, where he collaborated with Filipino scholars to record the first batch of classes for online sharing. Among the institutions represented were Bishop Han Theological Seminary; Union Theological Seminary in Cavite, Philippines; Wesleyan College of Manila; Wesleyan University-Philippines and its theology school, Wesley Divinity School; and Harris Memorial College, a deaconess institute in Taytay outside of Manila.

Before the recording sessions, SMU’s Jennifer Culver led a seminar on online learning, which received an enthusiastic reception from the 60 faculty and staff from educational institutions in the Philippines.

“You call it hybrid education, here we call it blended learning,” said Dr. Florita V. Miranda, president of Wesleyan College of Manila. “We have a Google classroom and we had a great need for our faculty to be skilled along these lines. We have more than 300 students in our graduate program benefitting from blended learning.”

Next, Hunt and SMU Journalism School videographer Robert Emery recorded about 10 hours of presentations with seven Filipino resource scholars, who covered a range of topics, including culture, social justice, theology and the environment and critical thinking in ministry.

“Some of these scholars are working in rural areas with the rural poor in cultural contexts quite different from those in the U.S.,” Hunt said. “Their presentations give us perspectives we just don’t get here.”

The videotaping session was scheduled in tandem with a conference at the university on the 4th Industrial Revolution, in which Hunt presented a lecture on the need for collaboration and resource sharing among educational institutions.  In addition, the team recorded interviews with Dr. Miranda and with retired Bishop Emerito Nacpil.

‘Magic’ Device

To make these resources available worldwide, including remote areas, the GTE program will disseminate the material via the internet and custom-built intra-net devices that require no internet access. Participants in the Philippines were particularly impressed with the potential of the intra-net devices for inexpensively reaching people in areas where Internet access is limited.

“We thought it would be very expensive to do this, but Robert and his team showed us how we can do this effectively and efficiently through this ‘magic’ device,” Dr. Miranda said. “We hope we can use this in far flung area in the Philippines in the future.”

The project began with a conversation between Perkins and leaders of the Theological Education Endowment Fund for the Central Conferences of the United Methodist Church, which includes Africa, the Philippines and Europe, as well as representatives of the denomination’s General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM). That led to a commitment by Perkins to help develop resources to benefit theological schools in the Central Conferences.

“We wanted to develop resources that come from outside the U.S., from scholars in Africa, the Philippines and Latin America, and make them available on a platform that will be available to everyone, and we have moved quickly in that direction,” Hunt said.

The project launched a pilot website last fall, and seminary leaders in Africa, the Philippines and Latin America reviewed the pilot website and provided feedback on the approach. In addition to the event in the Philippines, similar resource creation seminars will be also held in Africa and Latin America later in the year.

The program is also partnering with the American Society of Missiology and the International Association of Mission Studies to produce short “master classes” with important missiological thinkers from around the globe. And it hopes to take advantage of upcoming meetings of women in theological leadership to integrate their perspectives into the available resources.

“Immediately the plan is to have 15 to 25 short courses on the website and the intra-net devices by the end of 2019,” Hunt said. “As we move forward, we will work with local institutions to develop appropriate methods of resource creation. Our seminars will train leaders in online pedagogical methods so that they can adapt available technology to continue to produce new courses from scholars in those countries.” The program will also partner with the Hunt Institute of Engineering and the Humanities at SMU to develop courses for pastors related to leadership in community development. (The Hunt Institute was founded by Hunter and Stephanie, no relation to Robert Hunt.)

In developing the online platform, Hunt drew on expertise in online teaching from SMU’s Annette Simmons School of Education & Human Development. A typical course will feature multiple modules, each with a video lecture of 8-12 minutes in length, as well as assigned readings and accompanying materials (such as illustrations, charts and data), discussion questions and an online discussion forum.

“Typical online courses based on hour long video lectures are neither pedagogically effective nor technologically advisable. The lectures take too long to download and can rarely keep a student’s interest.” Hunt said.

The project aims to meet a need for theological education outside the U.S., particularly in areas where church membership is growing rapidly and the pipeline for educating pastors can’t keep pace, said Andrew Harper, head of Global Partnerships at Cliff College.

“In Africa, education is very expensive, there’s a shortage of funding and a lack of expertise in particular areas, such as pastoral care and counseling,” he said. “The church in Africa is seeing a great need to equip pastors and theology students, but the expertise has been largely centralized in the global north. We have an immense opportunity to provide a platform to share that knowledge.”

Ultimately, each Central Conference theological school will determine how the online resources are used – whether for distance learning, as part of a hybrid curriculum, or as material for classroom teaching or as homework assignments.  Because the courses are presented in short segments, the material will also be ideal for Sunday School classes and other informal learning settings.

Initial funding for these efforts comes from the Perkins School of Theology Global Theological Education Fund, a grant from the Association of Boards in Theological Education’s In-Trust Center for Theological Schools, and the Woodworth Estate in Oklahoma.

Dr. Miranda noted that Wesleyan has already benefited from participating in the June recording session. Wesleyan was recently licensed and accredited by the Philippine Regulation Commission to conduct training, workshops and research programs for professional development and upgrading. She believes that Wesleyan’s participation in the Global eLearning effort helped obtain the licensing.

“The experience made educators, students and entrepreneurs in Manila realize how Methodist education truly makes a difference in the lives of people for the transformation of the world,” she said.

Ultimately, the Virtual Visiting Professor project will give western theology students and scholars access to the perspectives of scholars in developing nations.

“By gathering resources from around the globe for use around the globe we hope to create a truly global theological education for students around the world.” said Hunt. “An education for students anywhere, accessible both in the classroom and beyond.”

Both previously created short courses and those recently created in the Philippines and from the ASM will be available on the Virtual Visiting Professor website, which is currently under construction; visit virtualvisitingprofessor.com.

Read more about the Perkins-SMU’s partnership in this initiative:  SMU Instructional Technology Spreads Digital Tools in Asia