Students are coming from across the country to the University of Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary.

But for a few years now they have come to the seminary in a new way — through the Internet.

According to the seminary’s website, it is the first seminary of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to offer a Master of Divinity distance education program. Accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, the distance degree program enables students to take the majority of their classes from home.

What happened before the distance program?

“We told [prospective students] we’ve got this wonderful M.Div. program. You have to give up your job, your house and move to Dubuque,” said Melinda “Mindi” Thompson, the seminary’s director of distance learning and assistant professor of Old Testament and biblical languages.

Next year UDTS will graduate its first cohort in the distance M.Div. program, a program that now enrolls 52 students from across the country.

Thompson spoke Jan. 26 during the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ COM/CPM Leadership Training Event here at Christ the King Retreat Center.

“Technology is neither toy nor tyrant; technology is a tool,” Thompson said. “It’s not the savior and it’s not Armageddon. We do this for the sake of the ministry, to help us do that better.”

The curriculum and faculty for the online program are the same as those in the seminary’s residential program. When students take online classes interaction among students and faculty takes place through email and discussion boards.

While the majority of classes are offered online, semesters begin with a two-week residential session on the Dubuque campus. The residential sessions feature intensive coursework, but they also build cohesion among students within a cohort.

“They’re building community,” Thompson said, “building that sense of shared purpose.” The sense of community continues as the students move through the program.

“People give up their vacations and their day-to-day life to be together” for those two weeks, Thompson said. “Once they’re on campus it’s like old-home week.”

A typical residential Master of Divinity program requires three to four years. The online program offered through UDTS is scheduled over a five-year period, but the requirements to complete the degree are the same.

The seminary began offering its first online master’s-level online classes in 2004. It wasn’t done just to try something new.

“We were asking, who can we serve that we couldn’t serve before,” Thompson said. “It’s not just technology for the sake of technology.”

The seminary’s online degree program has had a positive impact on its faculty. “We look at classes and ask what would it take to put that class online,” Thompson said.

The seminary has an effective course management system that enables conversation among students and faculty. For office hours faculty use a variety of methods to communicate with the dispersed students, including Skype, a software program that allows video calls over the Internet.

“Once faculty have taught online, it affects their residential classes in a positive way,” Thompson said, noting that online classes produce significant interaction between faculty and students. “They go from being the sage on stage to a guide on the side,” she said.

In addition to its online Master of Divinity program, UDTS also offers its Commissioned Lay Pastor Program online. The online CLP classes began in 2000 and today the seminary’s CLP database contains 1,500 students.

Speaking of the enrollment growth in the seminary’s distance programs, Thompson said, “God is continuing to bring more students to us.”

Duane Sweep is associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. He is a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.