Learning design for holistic student formation in online and distance theological education
This design-based research project explored how student formation could be effectively fostered in online and distance theological higher education contexts. Formation can be understood as a holistic transformative educational process relating to identity, personal spiritual growth, character and capacity for lifelong Christian ministry. However, theological educators have questioned the suitability of online and distance modes of study and the capacities of educational technologies to enable the kind of holistic student formation envisioned in theological education.
In this study, the researcher and participating educators developed, iteratively implemented and evaluated a design solution that aimed to foster formation of students in fully online asynchronous theological degree programs at a theological college in Melbourne, Australia. The Activity-Centred Analysis and Design (ACAD) framework (Carvalho & Goodyear, 2014) was applied in design and analysis to identify specific sorts of learning tasks as well as social and spatial contextual factors that can be employed to foster student formation. The iterative evaluation of the implemented learning designs over three cycles drew on multiple sources of data collected from 101 student and eight educator participants, including questionnaires, interviews and records of design practice. Thematic analysis of the data was used to examine which design elements and pedagogies were effective in fostering student formation. Formation was operationalised in terms of five indicators: growth in aspects of theological understanding, personal dispositions, ministry dispositions, ministry skills and identity.
A high percentage of student participants reported formational growth and change and were able to explain how this emerged from their online study experience. Over the three cycles, students consistently attributed formational impact primarily to task design elements, followed by elements relating to social context or structures, with structures of place having little direct reported contribution to formation. Tasks reported to contribute to formation involved the following: authentic application of learning and skills practice; open-endedness; engagement in spiritual practices; interaction with a range of people and with differing perspectives; and using frameworks that scaffolded theological understanding and reflective practice. Social structures with reported formational impact included categories of peers, teachers, mentors/supervisors and students’ existing Christian community and were found to be particularly supported through non-task-oriented interactions and establishing relational connections. Virtual and physical spaces appeared to have little direct contribution to formation, though can be employed to support student engagement and design elements that contribute to student formation.
The findings of this study enabled the development of a design framework and design principles, which can be applied in the design of online and distance courses to support and enable holistic student formation. The study also found differential impact of online pedagogical strategies and design elements on particular aspects of formational development, which implies that subtle differences in learning designs can be used to target different aspects of formation. It is intended these findings of this study will extend theological educators’ pedagogical and design capacity in addressing student formation and may be applicable in other discipline areas with comparable formational goals.