Birmingham Theological Seminary’s Department of Distance Education is experiencing substantial growth! Just a few years ago, BTS offered distance education courses via media such as audio cassettes and some video cassettes. The department was based on a library-type system, where students could check-out course material and return it upon completion. This meant that if one student had the material checked out (up to 16 weeks), other students simply had to wait, often being placed on a waiting list. It also meant that the school had to maintain the costs of video and audio tape replacements when someone accidentally taped the football game over their Old Testament tape.
The BTS staff has been working over the last several years to offer courses that take advantage of new technology. We began by creating Interactive CD-ROMs that can be used in any computer. A complete semester’s worth of course material and lectures can fit on one CD-ROM, making shipping much easier, and use much easier for the students. Also, the media becomes the property of the student so that they do not have to return it. It becomes a resource that they can use again and again not only in their training but later on in their ministry. The administrative tasks involved in maintaining the library-type system were removed and there are no more waiting lists for students. When a student is ready to take a class, they simply register and we mail them the CD. They have 16 weeks to complete the course material. The interactive CD-ROM is ideal for anyone, but especially for business people who travel with a laptop (no more idle time in hotel rooms) and missionaries who would have a hard time transporting a stack of audio or video tapes, course supplements and other paperwork that are now all on one CD.
Our desire in doing this work was still to eventually offer our courses on video via DVD. However, the costs involved in video production prohibited us from making this move. In 2004, a generous gift of $10,000 was given to BTS specifically for distance education. With this gift, we were able to purchase a low-end camera, a computer with video editing software, and the necessary audio equipment to begin production of our first courses on DVD.
In March 2005, we released our first DVD. The course was ST3526 Systematic Theology 1, by Dr. Jeff Lowman. The exciting thing about the DVDs is that they are indexed according to Dr. Lowman’s outline. This makes it easy for the student to navigate exactly to the point in the lecture series where they need to pick up (by chapter markings). More so, however, the student now has a resource to put on their shelf that enables them to come back years later and refresh themselves on a particular subject. That in itself is an invaluable tool. Imagine reading about “sacerdotalism” and trying to remember exactly what it means and what the orthodox perspective is on the matter. You can simply look on the outline (much like you’d look at the back of a movie DVD you rent) and go to the disc and chapter that covers sacerdotalism. Or the student could show a brief clip in a Sunday School class. The final product is more than a tool for students to use to achieve their educational goals. It becomes a tool that students can use for life.
Our tuition at Birmingham Theological Seminary is still just $100 per credit hour. This is one-fifth of the national average (according to the National Center for Educational Statistics). This means, in essence, that every student receives a scholarship. In other words, quality, practical theological education is very affordable. Our distance education program makes this available to students whose schedules and locations prohibit them from attending our live classes. These students pay the same rate of tuition and a material fee of $40 for courses on interactive CD-ROM and $80 on DVD. These materials then become the permanent property of the student. These material fees help defer some of the costs associated with the distance education program, but do not cover the total costs of such an operation.
Therefore, we invite you to consider how you or your church or business might partner with Birmingham Theological Seminary to extend our educational opportunities beyond Birmingham and Alabama. Your donation is tax-deductible and all funds are overseen by a board of directors who care about the stewardship of our entire institution.
Equipment costs are our greatest needs at present. A few specific needs include:
1. External storage space – We are presently using a 1 TB external storage device with 2 other smaller devices. Although this functions, it is slow and risky. Our desire is to one day work off of an array that will provide enough storage space with the needed redundancy and speed to prevent data loss. This will cost between $10,000 and $15,000.
2. DVD duplicator – At present it takes several hours to burn and print DVDs for 1 course. This is not efficient with our time or our equipment (we’re using a DVD-Recorder with a built-in HD for this task that was not built to produce this volume of media). We need a duplicator that will handle burning and printing in one step. Cost ranges from $10,000 to $12,000, depending on features and performance. This is currently our highest-priority need.
3. Pro Camera – We are presently using a consumer line “prosumer” camera that delivers decent results, but lacks the “polish” of the professional line cameras as well as the features. We hope to have the funds to purchase a professional camera that will deliver the results that give our courses the greatest longevity and effectiveness possible. The cost is between $3000-$5000.
4. Audio & Lighting Equipment – We have one wireless mic but would benefit from adding a second lavaliere to accommodate multiple speakers, but also to serve as a backup for technical difficulties (which we have previously encountered with our one mic). We would also benefit from additional boom mics for capturing the questions and comments from students. Lighting equipment would improve our image quality and give us a more consistent product. These costs are varied.
These are just a few of the known costs we are facing at present. There are also ongoing costs for media (tape, CDs, DVDs, ink, cases, etc…).
Please prayerfully consider how you might participate in this work. If you have any questions about the program, feel free to contact the seminary.