re-re-thinking online theological education (part 4: What happens when we go online?)

This is part four of our series reflecting on online theological education. In our previous instalments we considered what for, who for, what is education, and who are our communities. Now I want to turn to “what happens when we go online”
Distance education has existed for a good while. Hans Ørberg’s famous Lingua Latina course was written for independent study, mailed out to students across Europe. I took Latin as a distance student in the 90s, and that involved receiving course booklets in the post, and snail-mailing in assignments to the university. In the 2000s, at least as I observed it, things began to change. LMSs became a thing, more content became available online. In 2006 I was taking an online university course that was recorded audio lectures and an online tutorial hour, with an online exam. By 2009 I was taking video classes online, and by the 2010s we were seeing a shift to some offerings entirely online.
Covid-19 changed things rapidly though. It forced almost all institutions to go online, whether they had previously entered that space or not. Obviously some institutions had, and were better equipped. Other professors were left (by their institutions, in part) to simply scramble to run their offline content, online.
I’ve seen the inside and outside of at least half a dozen institutions, as teacher or student, and think I have a reasonable grasp of the range of online offerings. I’m talking about education broadly, not simply theological education, but I’ll return to that specifically. Don’t think that I’m picking on anyone in particular, because I’m about to tell you why online education is less than ideal, and what I want us to focus on is why. I do fully aware that I’m someone whose fulltime occupation is currently online education.
At one end of the spectrum, online offerings equal : here, we recorded the lecture (either video, audio + slides, audio only), and you can listen to it, do the 2-3 assignments (reports, essays, etc), and sit the exam. Honestly, this is pathetic. Yet, if we’re indeed honest, many students at bricks and mortar institutions get the same experience, simply in-person, of a set of lectures, a few assignments, and an exam. Large courses are particularly vulnerable to this pedagogy. It’s old, it’s stale, it doesn’t represent best practice in offline learning, it sucks online. You might as well spend your education dollar elsewhere.
The above model reflects, in part, a mindset that still thinks of education primarily as content-transfer. If we move to something that’s more like skill-formation, we find different models online. These tend to be “here’s modular content, and here’s a set of tasks, and work through them in sequence, taking and applying the knowledge we’re giving you”, regular assignment, piecemeal, with a greater degree of online interaction, though probably asynchronously. This is better, but it’s also hard work for both sides of the fence (instructor and students).
Probably the biggest game-changer is when an institution requires attendance at an online seminar, on zoom or similar, which involves participation. I’ll come back to that point a little later here.
Other models I’ve seen include developing a complete and fairly static online content, consisting of lectures or short lectures, readings, online asynchronous discussion, e.g. forums, etc., and then regular tutor feedback. I think that’s at the upper end of thoughtful, engaged pedagogy, and I’m going to suggest that it still falls short. It falls short for a few reasons. Firstly, to the extent that the teaching content is pre-made, the relationship between students and lecturing professor is parasocial. Yes, I learnt from “Professor X”, but Professor X didn’t teach me. That relationship is entirely one way. Secondly, if the one running the tutor-engagement is not that teaching professor, as so often is the case in our casualised and adjunctified world, then there is a real disconnect between teacher and tutor and students. For adjuncts, this is soul-draining. Thirdly, it’s very very hard to build online community, and so the notion of character formation and community very rarely emerges in online forums (I’ll return to this again later too). An online cohort of students engaged in text-based communication once or twice a week is not sufficient for community nor for spiritual formation. Students might come out with better knowledge and skills, but they are not truly being formed-in-community. I would go so far as to say this model has systemic unhealthiness – it divorces teaching from research, delivers content as a static product to be consumed, relies and exploits an adjunct underclass, and dis-integrates the whole college as a community of faith and learning precisely because of its fragmentation.
What really happens when we go online is that we add one layer or another so that our interpersonal relation is mediated. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the nature of technology. Writing a letter, or reading a book, is also mediated communication. The question we must consider is how it’s mediated, and what effect that has. I’m suggesting above that those models are too mediated, and are severing what I see as essential elements of connection.
What about online seminars/tutorials? I think these are the sine qua non of online education. If you are in a program and you’re not being at least offered live video sessions with an instructor, I’d tell you to leave and find a better program. Especially if you’re paying hundreds or thousands of dollars out of your own pocket. Live videoconferencing is a technological marvel, in that it allows us to talk in almost real-time to people we can also see in almost real-time. Yes, it’s still mediated, yes it’s not quite real time. Yes, it’s harder to have free-flowing discussions with larger groups on Zoom. Yes, it’s still not the same as being there. But it’s so much better than any other option above. Not that the above aren’t useful, in fact I still think you want a backbone of online content and guidance for students to work through material, but that should come together in live discussion with an instructor and other students. Because when you do that, you are engaging in actual learning in relation to other human beings, and that to me is the key ingredient in education as courses rather than education as I read things in books and figure it out myself.
However, however, this probably still isn’t enough to form community to the level that you need for spiritual or character formation. I’ve been on all sorts of internet spaces for a long time, and seen communities of various sorts : email lists, reddit subs, various forums, including institutional spaces, chat groups, the twittersphere, and for the last 5 or + years I’ve moderated a fairly large Latin Discord community. And what “nebulous” community requires is, I posit, relatively simple: it needs shared time in a shared space with shared communication. This happens not entirely by itself in a residential campus setting, but it’s a lot easier. Online, it means people spend time at their screen, regularly, multiple times a week, often multiple times a day, checking in, reading, commenting, talking. Even better if it’s some kind of live chat interaction. That gets you closest to experiencing conversation. Very few educational institutions are deliberately attempting to foster this level of relationality among their student cohorts online.
And even if they were, it’s still probably going to fall short. Why? Let me tell you, I have an online shared space with two other friends, whom I primarily know online, in which we discuss theology, share our lives, and pray for each other. That’s a rare thing. Building that level of community, across a seminary, is just too hard for most places to do. And when you do, you need to be asking your students to spend a considerable amount of time online, that they are then not spending in physical space interacting with whatever people are in their physical lives and places, and that is not healthy either. Neither can you, again I posit, really build an online community that serves together, prays together, worships together, lives together. You can’t and you shouldn’t.
All this, however, really has in view “group 1” of the who for – vocational ministry candidates. In part five we’ll discuss imagining and re-imagining, and the possibilities that exist for better pedagogy, healthier institutions, and the access and inclusivity that online can provide.
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