Friday, August 16, 2013

Online education reform and LDS church education

Recent technological advances are finally making an impact in higher education.  Distance learning and massive online open courses (MOOC) are only a few of many examples.   BYU’s online courses and BYU-Idaho’s semi-online pathway program demonstrate that the LDS church’s universities are well positioned to adapt to the coming changes.  In contrast, no such changes can be seen in the LDS Church Education System, namely seminary and institute.  Seminary is a daily religious educational program for kids aged 14-18 and institute is a religious educational program for those 18-30 usually affiliated with a university.  The LDS church should use the changes in technology to reform the church education program by augmenting contact in the classroom with online material and learning centers. This would increase the quality of church education and save the church millions of dollars which could then be reinvested into various church education programs. But, how would a revised program play out?
Seminary and Institute would meet once a week in the classroom while continuing to study daily via online learning centers. HD video content and the spread of portable tablets makes access to online learning tools more effective than ever.  Students would be able to view recorded lectures and testimonials from super star speakers such as Randy Bott and John Bytheway on a daily basis.  Online learning centers would maintain active participation in gospel learning via online reading quizzes, online forums and chats, and perhaps even videoconferencing.  Gospel learning has always been based on gaining and strengthening a testimony.  This will always be a personal endeavor that will not be harmed due to a reduction of classroom time.  Meeting once a week will still give students the social benefits of seminary and institute while enabling students to spend more time at home with their families.
Currently the LDS church has both paid and unpaid teachers.  Full time teachers are paid and part time (usually early morning teachers) are volunteers (its their church calling).  In most places in the world teachers are not paid, but in the Mormon corridor (Idaho, Utah, Arizona) there are number of paid teachers.  By shifting the bulk of the workload to online materials, the church would be able to replace paid seminary and institute teachers with part time called (free) members.  While the church would need to invest heavily to get this system off the ground the overall result would be millions in saved dollars annually mostly from personnel costs. For example, 1,000 paid teachers at 35,000-40,000 USD a year would equal 35-40 million USD in annual savings. With additional savings from benefits (health care, 401K plans), and from construction costs (smaller and fewer seminary buildings) the church would save over 50 million USD annually.  

This reform would be in line with LDS principles of having non-paid clergy. Technically, seminary and institute teachers are not clergy, but they are paid to teach the gospel. Their role is similar to what missionaries and Sunday school teachers do for free. Many seminary and institute teachers are already doing this for free as well.  Their replacement would be made easier by a phased in approach to the online reform.  Some could be retrained and rehired as administrators, coordinators, and developers for the newly revamped system. Technology is changing education (for the better) the church needs to take advantage of this both to improve the quality of church education and to be more efficient with church funds.  


  1. There are paid Seminary and Institute teachers in some areas of high concentration of students, where it is more economical to provide classes during the day near to high schools and colleges with large LDS populations.

    But, I was never paid when I was a Seminary teacher and neither are most seminary and institute teachers.

    Seminary has a single class each year on a rotating basis over 4 years; most seminary teachers do it as a stake or ward calling. Classes are in meetinghouses or members homes. It is almost free to the Church to teach tens of thousands of young people all over the country.

    Seminary teachers bring multimedia into the class room and I want my daughter meeting with her seminary class five mornings a week. She cherishes those interactions and I like that she gets wholesome Seminary instruction before going to high school each day.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think we are on the same page, daily seminary instruction would continue (4 days would be online) and the switch from paid to non-paid would only affect certain areas that have paid teachers like Utah, Idaho, and Arizona. Given the large number of teachers in these areas the savings would be massive. As you can attest, called seminary teachers are certainly no worse than paid seminary teachers. In the town where I am from we actually had had both paid and unpaid teaching at the same time! Paid taught full time for the high school kids and unpaid taught early morning at the middle school and private schools.

  2. In my stake they just called someone as the teacher of the online seminary course. I really do not know anything more about it, but I know they are trying something with it.

  3. You may want to look at a few statistics:

    1. Basic Doctrine Assessment (it's given to all seminary students at the beginning and end of the school year) - compare scores.
    2. Percentage of potential students enrolled.
    3. Percentage of potential students who compete with credit.
    4. Percentage of students who go on to receive a temple recommend.

    I think that will show the need of full-time professionals.

    1. I think there are a lot of other factors at play as well. 1. seminary students who have professional teachers also live in the Mormon corridor, an experience very different from other places in the US where there are few members in high schools or near by. 2. Students who have professional teachers meet during the day, not early in the morning. Anyone will absorb less and attend less when class is at 6:00 AM. 3. If full time professionals were really needed then why is the church using called members in most places outside of the Mormon corridor? If they were really worth the cost the church would hire more of them.

      What the reform would actually do is introduce a higher quality seminary program to all the students in the world, not just the Mormon corridor. Imagine how nice it would be for seminary students in Maine, Nebraska, New Zealand, to all get HD video lectures by people like John Bytheway, Randy Bott, Jeffery Holland, and President Monson. I agree that the church needs a professional quality seminary program, I just disagree that the church has to spend 50 million or more a year on it.

      But even if the church decided to keep paid seminary teachers, the work load would be much less and the number of teachers also much less. This wouldn't result in 50 million savings, but still in the 10's of millions.

    2. rpp, I would love to know the answer to all your points, 1-4. I have attempted to measure the percentage of students enrolled by country with some success, but actual numbers would be better. Can data you mention actually be found?