Distance Education & ESR Access

From its very inception, ESR has consistently sought to reach out to Friends, and anyone else interested in deepening their spiritual development, through distance education programs.  In the early years of the School, these programs primarily consisted of a number of short-term workshops offered at a variety of sites throughout Indiana and Ohio.  Between 1960 and 1985, 745 students attended such workshops and received instruction, both theoretical and practical, in topics ranging from: the "Adult and His Church" to "Use of the New Testament in Preaching".  The number of students attending these workshops, by year, is illustrated in the accompanying chart.  When these workshops came to an end in 1985, a noticeable gap was opened in ESR's educational offerings to the wider Quaker community.

A consistently strong recommendation of Friends, as articulated in ESR's 1998 consultation, Among Friends, was to develop new approaches to offering seminary education at distance that took full advantage of the most recent advances in information technology.  ESR acted quickly on this recommendation, as other aspects of its strategic planning processes also pointed to the need for such programs.  Later that year, ESR began the development of a new distance education program, a substantial portion of which would be offered in an on-line format.  Christened "ESR Access," this new distance education program welcomed its first class of students in 2001.  In the initial stages of its development, the operations of the Access program were partially funded through a special repositioning fund, derived from an extra 1% draw on ESR's endowment over four years.

At its present stage of development, ESR's Access program has two interrelated components.  The first is a selection of on-line courses that students may take from home via the internet throughout the year.  The second component is composed of a series of two-week "intensive" courses that ESR offers at various locations across the country.  These intensives were initially offered four times per year, in January, May, August and October.  The August and January intensives were offered in Richmond, while the May and October intensives were offered at four regional sites in: Pasadena, California; Marshalltown, Iowa; Hartford Connecticut; and Greensboro, North Carolina.  Since that time, ESR has consolidated its regional education offerings to three remote sites —Pasadena, Marshalltown and Greensboro —where intensives are offered each January.

It is worth noting that, of the 251 member seminaries of ATS, only 65 (25%) presently offer any form of distance education program.  In 2004, ESR's Access program received another significant distinction —full accreditation from ATS.  In practical terms, this means that ESR Access students are now able to complete their studies leading to an M.A. or M.Div. degree exclusively through on-line courses and intensive courses on site.  (Previously, students could complete some of their course-work through distance education, but had to come to Richmond and attend ESR as a residential student for at least one year in order to receive a graduate degree.)  Even more satisfying than receiving accreditation for ESR Access has been the reception it has received from students.  At first, it was feared that distance education students might not benefit from the sense of community experienced by residential students.  In practice, this fear has proven to be exaggerated.  A rich sense of community does still develop among students and faculty, both in on-line interactions and in face-to-face classes during the two-week intensives.

More importantly, though, ESR has realized an additional benefit through its Access program that was not fully appreciated when it first embarked on offering distance education on-line; that being the benefit of having students live and worship in their own communities while they pursue their seminary studies.  Previously, most ESR students had had to leave behind their worship communities in order to move to Richmond to attend seminary.  Given the exigencies of employment in the ministering professions, graduates often ended up never returning to their home worship communities.  Now, however, students can continue to contribute to their home worship communities while attending ESR.  At the same time, they now stand a better chance of serving that community once they complete their studies.  This arrangement enriches both the education experience of students, by providing them a ready setting in which to practice the ministering skills they develop.  It also benefits the worship communities of which they are a part by allowing them to retain longstanding members who are actively engaged in deepening their call to ministry.

ESR's distance education programs have also been substantially enhanced over the past year by its development of on-line resources relating to Quaker history and theology.  Since the inception of Quakerism in the mid-17th century, Friends have often been referred to as "publishers of the truth."  Because of their theological and organizational dispositions, though, Friends have tended to shy away from systematic presentations of theological subjects.  As a result, the greatest wealth of early Quaker religious thinking is to be found more in primary materials such as journals, epistles, and monographs.  It is there that one discovers the depth of Quaker spirituality, as reflected in epistles about the Light of Christ, inner struggles to discern Truth, or the potentially sacramental nature of all life.  Quaker efforts to abolish slavery, emphasize education, work with the mentally ill, or insist on prison reforms are more often chronicled in personal journals.

Recognizing the predominant means by which Quaker testimonies have been bequeathed to the present generation, ESR has developed its on-line Digital Quaker Collection.  This collection offers free public access, via the internet, to original 17th, 18th and 19th century Quaker texts, now in the public domain.  The digitization of these texts and the expansion of the ESR website to house them was funded, in part, by a $150,000 grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, received in the spring of 2003.  With this grant, ESR proceeded to digitize over 500 individual Quaker works selected from the "Friends Collection" of the Lilly Library at Earlham College.  The original works were digitized in both text and image formats, allowing the reader to see what the book looked like in its original form.  The text versions are also linked to various search engines, which hold out the promise of revolutionizing the process of scholarly research.  The Digital Quaker Collection project supports the School's role both as a distance educator, and as a world-wide resource for Quaker researchers and other people interested in Quaker history and ideas.  In recent months, ESR's Digital Quaker Collection has hosted a little more than 500 separate visits per day.