By: Christina Gomez Echavarria

Sydney, Australia

It’s 2016 and technology is changing all areas of life. The Pope and the Queen of England use Twitter and if that’s the case, it’s certainly a viable proposition to use E-Learning to learn about Christianity and spirituality. This is precisely what the Australian College of Ministries aims to do: to teach its students the Christian faith, how to answer difficult questions about God, how to think for themselves about God, how to help their local communities, and how to promote a healthy spirituality through classes like “International and local community development” and “The personal work of Christ.

Even though spirituality is something that has to be practiced in real life, there is no reason why it can’t be taught through reading, through learning how to think, and especially through a willingness to learn and apply it to your community. Religion is not only going to church and praying; it’s about studying the roots, understanding the Bible, theology, and confronting questions that might arise. This is the fundamental goal of the Australian College of Ministries (ACOM).

Foto AFP Wendell Teodoro - Emily Willard Australian College of Ministries (16)ACOM has been a distance school since 1990; before E-Learning was a viable option they would print and mail out course materials to their students. The reasons for choosing to be a mainly distance learning school that doesn’t have a campus are, firstly, it allows them to reach anyone in Australia and around the world who finds the school’s values are in line with their own. The second reason is to align with their slogan: “your church is your campus”; the school encourages its students to help out in their local church, hospital or shelter and thus give back what they have learned. With this in mind, if their courses required classroom attendance, this would create a limitation on students that were not based in Sydney to pass on what they have learned to their communities.

The objective is to establish ministries, which includes activities a student may be involved in that leads to providing a service to a community, for example: a church service, working at a fundraiser or in a community classroom. Ministries are a necessary part of every discipline. It’s very important for ACOM to make sure that the knowledge its students acquires doesn’t only stay in their heads or in their notebooks, but that it makes an impact and difference in how they lead their lives.

ACOM is a member of the Sydney College of Divinity, which is recognised for having some of the highest education standards. Course content and reading matter is uploaded by the teacher to Moodlerooms, then students can complete the class at their own pace. Obviously there are some deadlines they will have to meet, however they can take either one course or six per term and take the time they require to complete their degree. At some point during the trimester, the students and the teacher have a ‘three-day facilitation’. This is a three-day retreat with the entire class and the teacher, where they review various topics seen during the course, go through different terminology, and talk about what they have learned and what it meant to them. The retreat is very popular but attendance can be lower because some students live too far away.

Australia is a very widespread country and as these facilitations have become so popular, Moodlerooms has helped ACOM through its integration with Collaborate Ultra, a communication and video conferencing tool similar to Skype, but better, explains ACOM Learning Systems Manager, Emily Willard. Collaborate helps groups of people get together with their teacher at the same time, no matter where they are in the world, to discuss certain topics and get any help they might need. Moodlerooms was a great acquisition for ACOM, according to Emily, because it has allowed them to reach more students and to find out if any of them are slacking or having trouble with their assignments. As a result, this allows for better communication and enables them to understand what is happening and to offer any help the student might need. Moodlerooms also allows ACOM to keep an online library to store coursework and any additional reading materials that students might be interested in.

Emily explains that majority of students who choose to enrol in ACOM do so because they want to feel a deep and real connection, or find answers to questions they have in order to understand their own spirituality, rather than gain money or status: it’s more of a life choice. Many of their students are fairly young, but there are older students who may have reached a point in their life where they want to understand certain things or learn aspects that they never learned when they were younger.

Moodlerooms also allows ACOM to keep an online library to store coursework and any additional reading materials that students might be interested in.

Students can enrol in four specialisations: Biblical Studies, Christian Life and Ministry, Humanities and the Christian Tradition, and Theology. There are minimum spiritual training requirements that all students are required to take, because this is where ACOM understands how students are responding to what they are learning and if it really affects their lives for the better. Students choose other disciplines depending on their interests, but they also have free credits where, for example, a person who is studying the Bible but is also interested in Leadership can take some related classes. Students also have Learning Support Managers, who help motivate students that fall behind or are not doing well. Learning Support Managers also help guide students to their goals and interests. There are 1,100 students currently enrolled in vocational, undergraduate, and postgraduate courses.

Emily doesn’t believe that there is friction between religion and technology. Dissatisfaction with technology probably has more to do with age or lack of practice rather than any moral reason. Emily says she has a quote on her desk, “Learning requires humans to be curious, to communicate, to interact, to test, to define, to argue, to find hope and to reject. Technology alone cannot do that”, so while it’s an important tool, she says it’s not all they rely on. She states that it is the balancing of both things what matters.

*Emily Willard, Learning Systems Manager, Australian College of Ministries.

*Photo by: AFP Wendell Teodoro