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These days, a significant proportion of the population enjoy the benefits of the internet, whether it’s keeping in touch through blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook or for doing some shopping or using it as a resource for the plethora of information that’s out there. But when it comes to mission training, there’s perhaps a lingering doubt as to its effectiveness, especially when there’s no face-to-face contact. Is that what you think? Can web-based learning create the levels of community widely considered so important for developing the spiritual and personal formation needed for effective Christian ministry? Based on our experiences at All Nations we believe it can! The internet is a powerful tool and there’s a growing sense of ease among users that has opened up a whole new world of communication and sense of community. There is a wealth of opportunities for ‘e-learning’ i.e. distance learning delivered primarily via the internet.

Our first course…

Armed with the theory of what the internet can offer, a small team at All Nations developed a 13-week foundational mission training course to be delivered online. There were many considerations; course content, delivery method, writing style, methods of assessment, potential audience, language and cultural issues, the use of facilitators and tutors, etc. In September 2008 we launched en route explore, our first course.

Emphasising learning that equips the ‘head, heart and hands’, the course comprises 12 weeks of study (divided into four 3-week modules) and requires 5-7 hours study per week. As with all training at All Nations, our aim is to provide exciting learning opportunities through discussion and engagement in community as well as through course material. Our desire is to encourage spiritual growth as well as equip students with a foundation for mission. 

The core components are delivered through a weekly schedule of; devotion, 3-5 online lessons, a discussion forum and a workbook that is submitted each week to an All Nations tutor for feedback and guidance. Writing down thoughts and ideas in the forums and workbooks serve to embed the learning points. Students are not assessed by traditional academic methods but according to their engagement with the material (learning and application) and the ability to share with, and challenge, their peers. The online community is strengthened further by a ‘Prayer forum’ and ‘Virtual Café’ for general chatting. 
 

Students from far and wide

We have now successfully completed four courses with an impressive range of students from the age of 19 to 65 years, based in 12 countries (spanning the continents of Europe, Africa, North & South America & Australia) and falling into the following categories:
• Mission agency personnel.
• Those with no mission experience but wanting to know more and exploring God’s calling.
• Those with short-term experience and looking to serve longer term.
• Partners accepted by mission agencies and preparing for service.
• Those with cross-cultural mission experience who need to process the past and prepare for the future.
• Those wishing to engage in cross-cultural mission in their own country.

The internet has enabled people from around the world to come together without stepping away from their homes or offices; a British lawyer working in Rwanda, a Dutch doctor working in Zambia, a Peruvian working with international students in the UK, a married couple with 5 children. I myself have been facilitating the course and tutoring from Nepal and we now have tutors working from Africa and Asia. Forum discussions are therefore greatly enriched by current, real-life experiences.
 

Our observations so far

The course has been a rich, rewarding experience which God has used in my life. 
 

It works!

There has been much to learn about this new environment and we are continually responding to feedback and comments. It’s already been an extraordinary and exciting journey! Our experience is beyond what we were hoping for. To join with other mission-minded people from around the world is both a joy and a privilege. Interactions are enhanced by a sense of ‘remote closeness’; personal openness and freedom of expression that seems to be encouraged by the physical distance that the internet offers. Despite this distance, which is traditionally seen as a disadvantage compared to face-to-face contact, students are often moved to tears and bless one another with words of love and concern and with their prayers. We have seen that students will use whatever is available to express their thoughts and feelings; the subtle use of ‘smilies’ :-) and other emoticons, carefully chosen words, abbreviations and idioms; a prayer or verse of scripture. 

We conclude that with the right combination of material and delivery method, it IS possible to have deep and meaningful, life-changing interactions online!

In the words of a former student:
"My heart is bursting with thanksgiving, yes my Lord and God has once more been faithful in meeting me where I was... en route has played a big part in this process. I knew from the start that God planned this encounter for me and it was exhilarating meeting Him through all the topics. The course has been a rich, rewarding experience which God has used in my life."
 

Facilitation and tutoring

The role of a course facilitator is crucial in maintaining appropriate levels of communication. Without the normal cues of a classroom setting, the facilitator has to be able to interpret the nuances of written communication or lack of it. If someone doesn’t respond to a post, what does it mean? Are they ill, away, sulking or just overwhelmed by work? A facilitator who can build and maintain a functional online community is fundamental to the learning experience. Every student also has a personal tutor who accompanies them through the course. 
 

Motivation

Self-motivation and self-discipline are often a challenge to students, and this is particularly so with e-learning due to the lack of a classroom and physical presence of the participants, facilitator and tutors. Students may enjoy the ease of working from home, or while travelling, but these can be full of distractions. 

We have experienced a high level of compliance with the course requirements. This is partly due to the attitudes of those who take the course, but also the way the course is delivered. The pace is maintained by a strict weekly schedule and we require 80% attendance/completion of tasks in order to pass the course. Peer review and the knowledge that the facilitator/tutor will read and comment on the workbook and discussion posts are strong motivators. We have seen that swift and appropriate responses from the facilitator/tutor are incredibly encouraging. Students are prayed for and given advice where needed - being shown genuine love and concern is a blessing. In a world where busyness has become the norm, spending time on someone can make all the difference.
 

Content

The ability to engage the student in the learning process is strongly influenced by the style of writing. Our lessons are not chapters of a book; they are the tutor speaking to the student – leading them through the material. The use of audio sound-bites and PowerPoint presentations increase interest and connection.
 

Application

It is often assumed that mission training is solely for those going overseas but, these days, many already live and work in a cross-cultural context. Mission is on our doorsteps like never before. A different culture doesn’t just refer to different nationalities; it can be different social groups or different generations. Wherever we are, we will benefit from the ability to relate and integrate; to understand others and ‘speak their language’. Taking a course online enables a student to study while ‘in situ’ with immediate opportunities to put the learning into practice.
 

Who is e-learning for?

Anyone! A range of personality types benefit from e-learning; we’ve had extroverts and introverts, activists and reflectors. Those who already spend a lot of time on the computer generally find the course easier as they are used to reading on a computer screen and typing on a keyboard. Those who already ‘chat’ through email and instant messaging (e.g. MSN, Skype) probably find it easier to communicate in the Virtual Café and Prayer Forum. We are cautious about making generalisations as there is significant variation between students, for example, the range of study time for one of the topics has been 4 – 12 hours. Time taken is affected by a number of factors (e.g. time available, ability to adjust to the site and online material, ability to write responses and answer workbook questions), however, some students choose to dig deeper and spend longer and we do encourage students to consider further study.
Lives can be transformed through e-learning but… there are some caveats. Students who are motivated to learn will grow but, as with all forms of education, it’s important to acknowledge that this medium is not for all. Those who are not used to exploring their thoughts and feelings and sharing them with others may struggle with the reflective nature of the course. Some people are not comfortable sharing with people they don’t know and miss the dynamics of the face-to-face setting. Also, studying online should not be seen as the easy option. It may be more accessible, flexible and comfortable, but it requires time and self-discipline – and it’s a learning environment that is unfamiliar to most people.

The students who gain most are those who make the time to engage fully in the course material and the discussions. They are comfortable in a virtual environment and can express themselves through writing. 
 

Summary

There is still more to learn, and changes to be made, but we are greatly encouraged by the way God is using this medium and are excited about what the future holds.

Andrea Thomas has been working in Nepal with INF since 1995. Trained as a microbiologist she initially worked as a consultant for the Leprosy Mission hospital in Kathmandu. For six years she developed and ran a new on-field cross-cultural orientation training programme for new members of INF and latterly has taken the role of Expatriate Personnel Administrator. Alongside her work with INF, she is developing online courses at All Nations as well as contributing to the en route training programme.

This article was first published on the OSCAR website in February 2010

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