The start of the 2018-19 school year marks the 20th anniversary for me as a theology professor. Prior to teaching I had served for 15 years as a pastor. In the last couple of posts Penny and I have reminisced about some of the changes that move has meant for us. In this post I want to briefly discuss what I perceive as the biggest changes during my 20 years as a teacher. Without a doubt the biggest change has been the effect of “disruptive technologies.”

A disruptive technology is a new product or process that either eliminates or changes existing jobs, or creates completely new ones. The way that most people are familiar with disrupter technologies is when their own jobs have been affected or through the impact these technologies have had on highly visible professions or businesses. Probably the clearest high-visibility examples are those in the entertainment industry. A generation ago stores like Tower Records and Blockbuster Video acted as “gatekeepers” to entertainment products. The Internet and smartphones changed all that. Therefore the domination of record and video rental stores is a thing of the past. I could give many more examples. What may come as a surprise to some is the impact disrupter technologies have had on higher education. Online education has been a game-changer.

For many years colleges and universities have also employed a gatekeeper model. When a person wanted to enter a certain profession–accountant, engineer, or nurse (the list goes on)–then that person had to earn a degree at an accredited school which offered the appropriate program. This model usually required moving to wherever the campus was located. Institutions of higher learning served as repositories of knowledge, and gaining access to that knowledge required attending that school. The access provided by the online revolution has in many cases turned this model on its head.

Perhaps the most extreme example of these changes are MOOCs. MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. Schools offer MOOC courses online to anyone at no cost. Southeastern presently offers 11 such online courses. Other examples abound. Want to listen to lectures given at Ivy League schools? Take your pick. Need a refresher in some math or science area? Then Michel van Biezen has got you covered. Archives that use to be available only to select scholars are now digitally offered to all. Only about 1/6 of Southeastern’s students are fully online, but on-campus students typically take online courses to augment their on-campus schedules.

Many smaller schools have not been able to keep up with these changes. This is especially true of some that served geographical regions that were relatively remote or disadvantaged. Many students, who might have attended a small college perhaps 100 miles away, now opt to take online courses from a university halfway across the country. Penny and I graduated from a small Christian college in Tennessee. When we attended in the late 1970s, it was a vibrant campus. About five years ago the school closed it doors. There were a number of factors that caused its demise, but the changes brought on by online education was one of the biggest.

Southern Baptist seminaries have never been simply “gatekeepers.” We have been and will remain places where one can receive special training and gain access to accumulated knowledge. But SBC schools never have and do not operate as tourniquets to the gospel. We’ve always been about disseminating biblical truth far and wide. I regularly receive emails from students requesting permission to use my class notes in their preaching and teaching opportunities. It’s not just okay for them to use the materials–that is precisely the idea!

What we teach is available to all. Our very goal is providing theological education to the nations.  In that sense, SBC seminaries were MOOC before MOOC was cool.