- Associated Press - Sunday, May 22, 2016

BROOKINGS, S.D. (AP) - A small private seminary in Brookings is receiving national attention for its progressive approach to online classes.

None of the about 85 students at the Institute of Lutheran theology show up to a classroom each day, the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/1WBGWYm ) reported.

Instead, they meet online, where they see one another as squares on a computer screen and upload presentations and assignments in real time.

It’s a model that differs from the norm of distance learning, and its unique approach stood out to the makers of public television documentary series, “Voices in America,” who spent time earlier this month filming at the ILT facility in Brookings.

The documentary focuses on the future of education, with ILT’s virtual classrooms as one example of future trends in education.

ILT started in 2008. The college is headquartered in Brookings, but its students come from New York to Texas to Canada.

More than 13 percent of college students nationally use exclusively distance learning, or online classes, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and since 2000, the number of students taking at least one class online has steadily increased.

ILT’s use of solely online classes opens the door for many opportunities, said Margaret Donnelly, writer and producer for “Voices in America.”

“I think they realize (education) is changing and that they’re moving with that change,” Donnelly said.

Brick-and-mortar colleges have long debated the merit of online learning versus a traditional classroom, according to Leon Miles, ILT business manager and certificate faculty member, but for ILT, it’s not an either-or scenario.

“We run a traditional classroom, a traditional semester, online,” Miles said.

At ILT, students can work in parishes while pursuing their degree, which is a model Miles said could also work in other vocational degrees.

“If it’s a degree that’s heavily dependent on experience, then this is a way to get the academics and the experience in tandem,” Miles said.

ILT’s approach to distance learning could also provide an example not only for higher education, but also for the K-12 education system in South Dakota, which already uses various forms of online classes, according to Mary Stadick Smith, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Education.

All South Dakota school districts have access to the Digital Dakota Network to take online classes, but a new grant aimed at innovation could expand the distance learning options for students.

A trio of education laws that passed earlier this year allocate $1 million to innovation grants, which Stadick Smith said are intended to expand learning opportunities for students.

“We have a good infrastructure in place to allow us to do some of these innovative distance-learning type opportunities,” she said.

The “Voices in America” episode featuring ILT will air this fall. Check local public television listings for specific times.

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Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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