E-mailing it in at EMS

More students taking courses at the seminary from afar

By Tom Mitchell, Daily News-Record

Harrisonburg resident and EMS student Charlene Davis
Harrisonburg resident Charlene Davis, who works full time, is taking an online class in Mennonite history at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Photo by Michael Reilly

Charlene Davis is e-mailing her way to a degree in pastoral care at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

“I work full time and wasn’t able to take courses in the classroom,” said Davis, 55, who works at Eastern Mennonite University as an assistant for advancement and takes an online class in Mennonite history. “I love the flexibility of my course.”

Davis is among a growing number of students whose academic needs are being met by a modern approach to teaching at EMS: making education at the seminary available to people besides on-campus students.

Recent figures at EMS show a sizable portion of students who are enrolled in EMS courses away from the seminary.

More than half of the pupils enrolled in courses at EMS for the first time this fall study from afar, according to numbers released by the seminary. Of the 33 new students currently taking classes at EMS, 18 are enrolled in what officials at EMS call “distance learning” courses.

The total enrollment at EMS this fall is 130 students. EMS’ distance-learning program consists of 10 pupils who are taking online courses and eight more who signed up for classes at EMS’ satellite campus in Lancaster, Pa.

EMS professor Lonnie Yoder
Lonnie Yoder, director of online studies and professor of pastoral care at EMS

Distance learning has been part of the EMS program for 11 years, said Lonnie Yoder, director of online studies and professor of pastoral care at EMS. Yoder, who teaches an online course on leadership at EMS, sees distance learning as “a growing trend” in higher education.

Yoder cites the arrival of the Internet, the way it makes off-campus courses more accessible to students and its flexible format for classwork as three reasons that more of today’s college and seminary students find distance learning appealing.

“Years ago assignments would be mailed out, sent back and the professor would grade them,” Yoder said. “Obviously, we’ve come a long way. I think, today, students are saying ‘I want education to be where I am.'”

Able To Stay Put

Staff at EMS point out that distance learning negates a need to relocate, once a problem for prospective students. And online classes tend to be smaller and, therefore, more personal, they say.

Don Yoder, EMS director of admissions
Don Yoder, EMS director of admissions

“We don’t have more than 12 students in a class and I think that helps,” said Don Yoder, the seminary’s director of admissions.

EMS’ Lancaster campus now offers a curriculum that serves students away from EMS. Last year, Don Yoder said, the campus at Lancaster earned the accreditation required to offer a full master of divinity program, and four new students enrolled.

This fall, 11 new students have enrolled.

Some classes offered by EMS reach people out of the country. Lonnie Yoder said that the seminary’s online courses have students from as far away as Lithuania and Japan. Laura Lehman Amstutz, seminary communications coordinator, said others take the online program while on missions.

“We have faculty members who spend a lot of time in various places in the world,” Amstutz said. “Some of the contacts they have [abroad] give them an insight and sources they wouldn’t normally have, and enhance what they do there.”