Many churches today have an online presence. Churches have websites, are involved in social media, and church marketing has reached a new level by applying online marketing standards. An area where many churches have struggled online has been in the arena of eLearning. Many churches are getting frustrated with the lack of congregant engagement with eLearning materials. Or on the other side of the spectrum, many churches are choosing not to partake in eLearning at all and are hearing complaints from their congregation. Here are five ways that churches are missing the boat on eLearning, and how church technology and creative congregation members can help the church get back on track:
- Posting 45-Minute Sermons and Calling It eLearning
Many churches have caught on to the fact that people want to consume content on-line. Churches want to meet people where they live; so naturally, churches want to post content on-line for people to find. The first step for many churches is to offer a recording of the Sunday sermon on-line, either as a podcast or as an .mp3 file posted on the church’s website. Ten years ago, this was a revolutionary idea. Now? It is so easy to post content on-line, my five-year-old sometimes accidentally posts videos to YouTube. Posting a recording of a sermon is not considered revolutionary. In fact, failing to post sermons on-line could easily be viewed as a negative for a church and could turn away congregation members.
Why isn’t this eLearning?
When I interview church leadership, I ask them if they have any on-line learning content posted. More often than not, they say, “Yes, we post our sermons every week.” In their minds, this is eLearning content. There are a few reasons why posting a 45-minute sermon should not fill the eLearning hole in your ministry:
- a one-way video is not an ideal engagement for an on-line learning event. Learners should have the opportunity to interact with the content, meaning a two-way road between the learner and the material.
- 45 minutes is WAY too long for a one-way interaction! Ever wonder why TED talks are 17-minutes or shorter? The average adult will not stay tuned for more than 15 minutes; many will only stay for 10, if that.
- Sunday sermons are good for your congregation, but if your learner is just searching for more information on a topic that you happened to be covering in a sermon, would the entire 45 minutes be the best way to educate the casual searcher? How many of them will stay for the entire message to listen to the 5 minutes they are interested in?
What can you do to solve this?
There are a few options here on how to address the 45-minute sermon issue. First of all, you can review the passage for 5- to 15-minute snippets that could stand on their own and be taken out to make bite-size audio cuts available for the casual searcher. This would require re-organizing your website to allow for an interactive search tool and for each audio cut to be tagged properly, allowing for effective searching. To make it more engaging, accompanying textual elements could be used to give the snippet context and help engage learners in a variety of ways. *Now, I am not saying that there is not a time or a place for the 45-minute posting of the sermon, people travel or have to stay home with a sick child and appreciate being able to keep up the sermons, and curious visitors love to have the chance to listen to sermons before they attend a new church. What I am saying is that this is not eLearning.
- Posting a PDF Question and Answer Sheet and Calling it eLearning
One week, I visited a church and was excited to hear the pastor announce that they would be including an eLearning element to the upcoming message series. Hooray! I was so excited to have a chance to watch an entire congregation have the opportunity to synchronously learn about the Bible and then re-affirm what they have learned through continual eLearning engagement. Boy was I disappointed when I loaded the “eLearning” page the following week to find that it was simply a .pdf file of “Discussion Questions” the learner was expected to print and fill out (by hand! With a pen!) and then discuss with their small group or family. If I had a nickel for every small group curriculum or study guide that claims to include online learning, only to find that said learning is simply a .pdf of the same questions that are in the original book, I would have a whole lot of nickels. Guys! Posting a .pdf of questions that you expect your learner to print and fill out and then discuss with other people is NOT eLearning!
Why isn’t this eLearning?
The whole “.pdf of questions pretending to be eLearning” issue is as old as eLearning itself. In the early days of eLearning in academia, that was the best they could do. Posting .pdfs of questions to accompany studies was cutting edge in the 90s. But there is not a single college campus on this planet or Fortune 500 corporate training department that would dare call a flat file eLearning today. That would be considered mass-distribution of learning materials, but would not meet the required criteria of eLearning. eLearning requires learner engagement beyond printing a file. eLearning requires a thoughtful, intentional use of media and technology to provide the best learning experience possible.
What can you do to solve this?
A simple place to start would be to make the .pdf editable so the learner doesn’t have to waste paper printing and then waste time searching for a pen. Allowing the learner to stay in one application and jot down their ideas as they occur to them will increase the chances that the learner will actually answer all the questions. In order for the learner to be able to do this without having to download plugins or new applications, the best solution would be to post these questions on editable web forms that can be filled out and saved directly from the browser. An added bonus of using a web form is that learners can take part from their mobile phone if they so desire, and fill out the questions while on the move. *There are deeper, more interactive ways to engage a learner beyond the open ended question, but this is a space where churches seem to be really comfortable, so let’s make it better!
- Thinking That eLearning and In-Person Classes Are Mutually Exclusive
Sometimes when I talk to a church leader about eLearning, they tell me that they have not explored the option of eLearning because they want people to keep coming to church on Sundays and show up to the small group meetings throughout the week. Many people worry that if people can access the learning materials online, then they won’t bother to step foot in church and they will not build the relationships required to grow as a Christian. These people worry that by offering eLearning classes to the congregation, a message will be perceived from the congregation that the church doesn’t want people talking to one another anymore.
Why isn’t this eLearning?
Well, obviously this isn’t eLearning because eLearning isn’t even being attempted. However, this “either/or” principle is completely outside common eLearning standards and practices. Blended learning has become an accepted standard for education. By “blended learning,” I mean learning events that include both an online and in-person element. For example, students meet with the professor for an hour once a week, and then post all their homework in an online classroom and collaborate using an online discussion forum throughout the week. Another exciting model that I think lends itself perfectly to small group and discipleship learning is the “flipped classroom.” A flipped classroom is a format where all the learning materials are pre-loaded in an online classroom and the students are expected to complete all the interactions and homework before stepping foot into the face-to-face classroom, where they will go deeper into the learning materials and discuss their take-aways from what they studied.
What can we do to apply this?
The good news here is that a lot of small group and discipleship content is already using the “flipped classroom” model; they just aren’t doing it online or calling it a “flipped classroom.” I have attended and led several small groups that ask the participants to listen to a sermon or watch a video each week, and then complete some reading and questions before coming to the in-person meeting to discuss their findings. This, my friends, is a flipped classroom. Shifting to putting content like the videos or sermons online and building a user interface that allows participants to complete web forms to answer the discussion questions would really bring the content into the new millennium. Taking baby steps like moving the content online without making major changes to the format would help ease the church and Christians into the idea that eLearning is not here to replace the relational learning environment, it is here to enhance that environment and make the best use of the time we have together by setting us up to get all the time-consuming reading, researching, and writing done before we set foot in the classroom. Once this becomes an accepted paradigm for the church, we can begin to carefully shift it to allow for more engaging learning events that include eLearning industry standards like gamification and simulations. (Whoa, I got a little ahead of myself there! Just know that there is a whole world of exciting interaction possibilities and discussion questions are not even the tip of the iceberg.)
- Thinking All Generations Do Not Want eLearning
Oftentimes in the discussion of eLearning in churches, I hear people argue that there is a generational divide and some people will never be willing to take part in online learning events. First of all, I would like to say that I think that Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation get a bad rap here! Yes, eLearning is not the way that they learned in school, but I can say that some of the most enthusiastic adopters of eLearning principles have come from these generations. Ok, sure, some members of these generations do not have computers and will never load a YouTube video, much less log into an online classroom and post their thoughts on Biblical readings. However, many are willing to explore it if we make is accessible and entertaining. There are different personality types in every generation, at every age. Some people just do not like online learning, they need real-time interaction in order to learn and will never be comfortable in an eLearning environment. However, some people hate being in a classroom. They have social anxiety, or they fear public speaking, or they are shy, or they are just super busy and don’t have much free time, and they dread the idea of going into a room with 10 to 20 strangers and opening up to them about their thoughts on the Bible. This is not an age-thing; this is a personality-thing. I refuse to handicap entire generations of people because the technology is new to them!
Why isn’t this eLearning?
There is not a single college campus or corporate training department that puts an age limit on their eLearning content. You will never load a class from Lynda and have a message pop up that says “This class is restricted to students who are 65 or younger.” Limiting eLearning in the church based on the age of the congregation is silly! People who want to learn will learn! People who want to interact will find a way to interact. I have never said that eLearning should replace all in-person learning, or even that every in-person study would benefit from an eLearning element. Some things need to be discussed and studied in real-time, face-to-face. On the other hand, many studies can benefit from adding an eLearning element. Why overlook this enhancement because we are making an assumption about our audience?
How can you solve this?
When I think of this issue, it reminds me of a conversation I had with another eLearning designer once. We were designing courses for a for-profit eLearning website and there was a real problem with courses being pirated and posted on torrent websites for free. I was feeling incredibly frustrated by this issue and considering pulling my content from this website. Then the other instructor said something incredibly profound. He said, “I don’t worry about the pirates because the people that take my content and torrent it for free never would have paid for it anyways, so I am not losing students.” That was a lightbulb moment for me. In a church, when I am discussing the idea of including eLearning content with church leadership and they say to me, “This group of people will never accept eLearning as a forum for learning about the Bible or Christianity,” I tell them that those people will come to the face-to-face events anyways, so they are not losing students. As long as churches accommodate both online and face-to-face small group and discipleship events, they will get students who want to learn in both formats. By failing to offer one option, they will lose one set of students. I don’t worry about the students who won’t take any classes online because they aren’t going to change their mind for my small group curriculum. But there are so many possible students who are so frustrated because the current model is not meeting their needs, and I worry about them.
- Ignoring eLearning Altogether
A startling number of churches seem surprised to hear from me when I show up to ask them about their eLearning plans. Many churches have never even considered the idea that they should post their content online, much less that the materials they produce as a church could be presented in an eLearning format. They do not perceive their content to be eLearning materials and have never considered building an audience by presenting their material in such a way. With that being said, I have rarely come across a church that does not have at least a percentage of their weekly study material that could be posted as eLearning content. Pastors do an unbelievable amount of research preparing for their weekly message; just capturing that research would be a huge benefit for other pastors, or seminary students. Taking the final product of that research and presenting it in an engaging, palatable eLearning format would give that content legs that the pastor had never even thought of.
How can this become eLearning?
Since these churches are not even looking at eLearning, it is obvious that eLearning content is not being generated. To start, it is important to establish the definition of eLearning materials for these churches and their leadership. It is almost easier to start at ground zero with these churches than to go into a church that believes that they are posting eLearning materials and show them that they can do so much more. Churches that have ignored eLearning up to this point are a blank slate; I can start them off with creating the 10-minute eLearning snippets that are universally more acceptable than the heavy-duty 45-minute content batches other churches are putting out. Many times these churches have not considered eLearning because it never occurred to them, not because they have anything against the idea.
How can you solve this?
I associate these churches to churches that didn’t have a website five years ago. (I realize that there are still churches out there that do not have websites, these churches will not be in the realm of considering eLearning for at least another five years, so I will start with the base of churches that at least have a website…) When these churches decided to go ahead and establish their website, it is unlikely that the senior pastor took on the job of creating the website himself. Most likely, he combed the congregation for a member who was tech savvy and had set up websites before, or if the church was blessed with the budget to allow for it, they hired a web designer to put their website together for them. Very few churches take the same attitude with developing their learning materials, and therefore, the learning materials come out looking amateurish and confusing, especially eLearning materials. Pastors and church leadership know that they can teach, so they assume that they can write learning materials. There are a few reasons why this is a mistake:
- People tend to write for the way that they learn themselves; if they are a visual learner, they include lots of pictures and media; if they are an active learner, they include lots of activities; if they are a textual learner, they include reams of text.
- Many people do not understand how adults learn, especially online. There is a huge difference between engagement levels and comprehension when learning face-to-face versus learning online.
Churches can put out good eLearning content, if they are given the proper tools to understand the best-practices and principles of eLearning. Further, if an expert is brought in and allowed to use eLearning development tools and learning management systems, the final product would completely eclipse where the church is today. Churches and church leadership are ignoring the hard-learned lessons of academia and corporate training departments in the arena of eLearning, and are now making the same costly mistakes that academia and training departments know how to avoid. By circumventing these five pitfalls, churches can move on the road towards robust eLearning catalogues and curriculum that could benefit their congregants as well as other churches looking to put out similar messages. As a community, eLearning could enable a new level of learning and engagement among fellow believers. Church technology and creatives have always been at the forefront of bringing churches into the new millennium, and we are not done yet!