Exclusive Interview with Dr. Andrew J. Peterson, President of the Reformed Theological Seminary, Virtual Campus
Dr. Andrew J. Peterson, President, Reformed Theological Seminary, Virtual Campus
You have been involved in instructional design and technology for a long time. Could you tell us how you became involved in the field?
It was in the early 80’s, while working as a psychologist, that I saw the application of computer technology to special education needs. In a new venue and with multimedia feedback, a person could learn certain information much better than in the “schools of failure.” We bought a Texas Instruments PC and a boatload of expensive software for reading and math lessons. It was clear that this was a platform for great creativity and new opportunities for learning, which I have used in a variety of educational and business settings around the country and beyond.
What are the academic goals of the Reformed Theological Seminary?
The purpose of RTS is summed up in its motto: “A mind for truth and a heart for God.” As part of the Reformed tradition, we have a high value to scholarship in biblical, theological and historical studies. At the same time, to quote one of our professors, Dr. John Frame: “All good theology is applied theology.” Rather than limited to the arcane and esoteric studies of dusty journals, we believe that the best academic work in this field is very practical. So, we train our students to be both scholarly and competent to serve people in church and community ministry.
You have been responsible for the distance education program at RTS. Could you tell us how it got started, and how much progress you have made so far?
Dr. Richard Watson, targeting campus ministers, put together in Jackson in 1988, what then was only a “Summer MATS program” in 1988. The Summer MATS degree could be earned by taking courses over 4 summers of one week course modules. But in order to squeeze all the work into four years, Dr. Watson designed the program to also require taking 18 hours of audiotape courses from Institute for Theological Studies in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
At the RTS expansion campus in Orlando, Florida the question was asked, “why use ITS courses when we can develop our own?” RTS/Orlando also saw the potential of the Summer MA program, expanding it to include “winter” courses, making it the “Summer/Winter MA”. Combined with distance ed courses, Orlando marketed the Summer/Winter classes along with residential block courses as “flexible education”. Distance courses became part of the “flexible education” concept, and course use eventually flowed over to residential students.
In the first couple of years of course development, the faculty would not allow any residential student in Orlando to use but a very limited number of distance courses toward their program. In Jackson, students needed course by course approval of the Dean, which was not readily given unless extenuating circumstances called for using this questionable alternate method.
Eventually, it was determined that if the courses were good enough to offer for credit to anyone, then they were good enough for residential students to get credit for and to use in their program, and the distinctions of using residential courses over distance courses began to fade away. A vision for a distance degree program grew as more and more interest developed in our independent study courses. Eventually, DE courses were employed to assist students at the new campus in Orlando to maintain a normal pace to graduation, even if they had to miss an occasional course during the traditional school year.
In 1997, I joined RTS at the newest campus in Charlotte, North Carolina, in order to reorganize the effort as “distance education” and develop a support staff for student services, promotional marketing, course development, and educational technology. A fiscal entity was established at the Virtual Campus and we gained agreement with our accreditors, The Association of Theological Schools, to offer a pilot program that was mostly distance with two weeks on campus, an Orientation Seminar at the beginning and an Integration Seminar at the end of the program. In February 2004, we received “ongoing approval” for this MA/Distance program, which currently has over 300 students enrolled. Finally, we can report the unusual outcome for academe of a profitable income statement with 20% revenue over expenses in the past two fiscal years.
How have you been able to work with faculty and involve them in distance education?
The original design of distance education at RTS began with the British Open University model of the 1980’s. In this approach “the sage on the stage” was captured on audiotape and a notebook was developed with good instructional design for the students. Assignments such as study questions, midterm and final exams, research papers and ministry assignments were proctored and submitted to graders, including some professors and a team of seminary graduates.
In the past two years, RTS/Virtual has begun to use Internet webconferencing applications for live lectures and study sessions that are fully interactive with students and include audio, video and slide presentations. All sessions are recorded for archive and available on playback in an asynchronous mode. To date, the development approach has been unobtrusive for the professor in the regular classroom with the addition of Q & A with Virtual students at the conclusion of lectures or for an entire study session.
What are your future plans for the virtual campus?
Over time, faculty participation will involve more asynchronous faculty-student interaction with our online Faculty and Student Tutorials (FAST) discussion boards as well as lectures and study sessions from the instructors’ campus or home offices for Virtual students only. To date, we have not used an off-the-shelf learning management system (LMS), using an in-house Cold Fusion/SQL Server solution instead. However, we may be adopting a sophisticated back-office product that can be knitted with our webconferencing tool along with its newly developed content management system. This will be apt for our new efforts in course development and conversion of class materials from analog media to digital files using MP3 recordings, PDF e-notebooks and e-textbook versions from the publishers.
Most likely, our greater call as a virtual campus is to serve students internationally, including those with disabilities. Currently, we are working with registered students in 15 to 20 different countries worldwide, including webconferencing sessions. However, in most cases, the local economies cannot afford the tuition rates and materials in our American business model that has worked so well. So outside financial support will be required as investment in RTS and distance education for the benefit of people groups around the world. We expect the content of our message to help and encourage local church leaders to promote authentic and consistent Christian values, regardless of location or time zone.
Thank you for your time and informative remarks.
Dr. Andrew J. Peterson is the President of the Reformed Theological Seminary, Virtual Campus. His main professional focus for the past seven years has been building a “virtual campus” for Reformed Theological Seminary as Senior Vice President, and now as President. To date, RTS/Virtual has over 30 courses, including Online Greek I and II, Online Hebrew, the first fully distance masters degree at an accredited seminary (MA/Distance), and an ever-improving Web site, www.rtsvirtual.org with a Web-based database program for marketing, application, and online portfolios. Now RTS/Virtual is using Centra Symposium to do web conferencing with live, on-campus courses for the Virtual students, www.centra.com . RTS also has some special programs for disabilities and prisoners. As the lead administrator for twenty full-time and part-time, on-site and virtual staff, Dr. Peterson’s oversight includes customer service, promotional marketing, student services, course development, and educational technology. RTS/Virtual is a great team that works hard and enjoys being productive.