Celebrating Distance Education at Calvin Seminary

Date Published

May 1, 2020

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Published by Calvin Seminary

Kurtis Ritsema, a full-time Calvin Seminary student, shows up for class every day. Sometimes with his baby by his side.

Though Ritsema lives in West Michigan, you won’t find him on campus, but completing courses remotely from his home.

A father of four, Ritsema spends his days caring for his youngest child, an 11-month old daughter, and working as a youth pastor at his church in Holland, Michigan. Thanks to the seminary’s distance education program, he is also able to maintain his course load in pursuit of a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree.

Even while living relatively close to campus, Ritsema has found that completing courses online—with just one weeklong on-campus session per semester—allows him to best balance his role as a seminary student with his commitments as a husband, father, and youth pastor.

“The Master of Divinity program is currently teaching and equipping me for pastoral and preaching ministry,” Ritsema says. “The distance program allows for me to continue my education without having to travel to campus to attend classes.”

The seminary’s hybrid distance education program, launched in 2012, has been filling a gap for busy seminarians, like Ritsema, for a decade.


Setting the table

Around the time the seminary first expanded its offerings through distance education, Educational Technologist Nathan Bierma came on staff, designing online courses and teaching strategies for successful online learning methods. Today, Bierma is also the seminary’s Associate Director of Distance Education.

“Online learning is ideally more participative and interactive for students than traditional classroom learning, as learners engage in discussions and applied tasks in collaboration with the professor and other students,” Bierma explains. “It takes intentional and imaginative pedagogical thinking to make that happen well.”

For Bierma’s colleague, Director of Distance Education Robert Keeley, it’s all about “setting the table” for teaching and learning to fit the needs of a variety of learners.

“It is a thrill to be a part of a program that allows people from all over the world to take advantage of a Calvin Seminary education,” Keeley says.

Where there once was a sense of wariness at the seminary about adopting this particular form of course delivery, Keeley notes, there is now a sense of enthusiasm. In its ten years of existence, the Distance Education program has proven its impact.

One thing Bierma and Keeley hear often from students is: “If it weren’t for distance learning, I wouldn’t be at Calvin Seminary.”

And, with this accessibility to new populations, new connections can form.


Forming one community, from many

“A major goal [of distance education] is to learn from the communities and contexts where our students are rooted,” Bierma says. “They bring values, experiences, and wisdom from all different walks of life to their learning, enriching and deepening that learning for everyone.”

Aleah Marsden, a California-based student halfway through the five-year MDiv program, is one such student who brings her own ideas and experience, while learning from the perspective of others in the program who are joining her from across the country and around the world.

“The interactions between students and professors regarding the coursework, especially during our intensive week on campus, showcase the depth and formation gained through bringing together a community of students who already have a wealth of life and ministry experience,” Marsden says. “It makes for a powerful learning and relationship-building experience.”

Marsden, a church staff member and freelance writer for several different Christian publications, says her desire to begin seminary was fueled by a love for her church family and to be better equipped to serve them.

“I can already see how this education is equipping me to better serve others through my work,” she says. “I see the MDiv as the next small, faithful step on this journey; being open to receive whatever God would give.”


More to come

Besides the MDiv program, the seminary’s Distance Education offerings have already expanded to include the Master of Theological Studies, Master of Arts, the Certificate in Bible Instruction programs, and Certificate in Ministry Leadership—and there may be additional degrees and certificates to come.

“For the next ten years,” Bierma says, “we are asking, what will it look like for hybrid teaching and learning to become more mainstream for us and for seminaries everywhere? How do we harvest the fruits of all these contexts where our students live and serve?”

“Where is God leading us next?”


For more on Distance Education at Calvin Seminary, visit: https://calvinseminary.edu/academics/distance-learning


By Amanda Greenhoe


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