More thoughts on distance-education (3): formation, community, and its long-term effects on faculty staffing

Obviously quite a bit of the education I’m involved with is theological. I think some of the concern I express in this post pertain to non-theological contexts and colleges, but mutatis mutandis.

The issue is this: when a student can pursue an entire theological degree online, via distance, you lose a significant part of the embodied formation of that person. They aren’t living in your institutional community, being shaped by daily interaction with faculty and other students. So you don’t know how they’re being shaped as persons, or necessarily what kind of person they are or will turn out at the end to be. This, I think, is one of theological educations big distance problems.

And, sure, I understand the push-back – that people ought and can be involved in other communities, their local church one for instance, and that they can interact online with faculty and students. But, this latter factor is a mediated one, and in my growing experience is inferior for it. It’s not without reason that 2 John 12 says I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” It’s a reflection on technology and mediated presence, and while every NT epistle bears witness to the value of mediated communication, I don’t doubt that each of those authors would prefer to deliver messages themselves.

The more higher education degrees get reduced to content delivery, and also are modularised, the more incohesive that education process becomes. It becomes parcelled and packaged, and its integration in the pastoral and spiritual formation of the individual becomes weakened.

 

At the same time, this ‘package it up and sell it’ approach affects institutions too. Once you have a top-notch scholar produce materials for a course, you’re set – they’ve done the work once and at best you keep paying them a licencing fee. Sure, you will probably want to revisit and update that course every now and again, but it’s certainly a different course-construction dynamic and cost than, say, hiring an assistant professor and letting them develop over the years. Meanwhile, the ground-labour of these courses is mostly done by adjunctified and casualised labour – highly educated workers who have unstable positions, incomes, zero prestige, and receive no ‘credit’ for this grunt work. And since we’re replicating a model in which stars produce courses and adjuncts service them, there’s no path from adjunct to professor, and there’s no motive to create one. You can just run a course with more students, with more adjuncts, and that’s that. I think in the long run that is going to create issues. What does it mean, on either end, that Esteemed Professor XYZ ‘taught’ a student, if they simply followed pre-set materials. There’s no educational relationship on the Professor end. There might be a perceived relationship on the student end, but that’s a mirage. And then the Adjunct side, in which the adjunct has not ‘taught’ anyone either. They’ve oiled a machine.

Not that I have any solutions. I also happen to think that distance/online education is an unstoppable juggernaut in our society. The horse has bolted, and we need to figure out how to catch up and ride that brumby for all its worth. But the one thing we can’t do is uncritically and thoughtlessly embrace technological changes without reflecting on, and deliberately practising, in light of their social and personal effects.

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