I mentioned this book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart by Q. Schultze here on the blog before. I was recently reading part of this book again and found a great critique of online classes/education. I agree with Schultze: online learning is far inferior to the “old school” method of teacher, students, and desks (or tables, of course).
I realize our readers are reading this online, so I want to note a few brief things before I use Schultze to critique online learning. First, I am speaking specifically of MDiv classes taken with the goal of being a future pastor. Though these critiques are applicable to all online learning, I’m not focusing on anything but MDiv classes that men take to become a pastor. I believe “old school” seminary training is far better than online seminary training. Second, I realize there are some extreme and rare cases where online seminary classes are better than nothing, though “extreme and rare cases” would exclude most of us who live in modern Western countries.
Here are a few things to consider about learning, listening, interacting, and understanding in the context of an intimate group.
“Cyberculture nurtures primarily superficial messaging and highly monologic discourses that lack the richness, equality, and spontaneity of conversation. Proximate speech is the primary ‘technology’ that we use to build mutuality, trust, and a shared sense of the common good.”
“As David F. Ford puts it, ‘One lesson is that wisdom is best learned face to face by apprenticeship to those who have themselves learned it the same way. Perhaps the ultimate privilege is to have wise parents, teachers, and friends – a wise community of the heart.”
“The contemporary hoopla about cyber communication generally ignores the fundamentally oral nature of our createdness. We are created principally as speech agents, as conversationalists, not as keyboarders, uploaders, and downloaders. No matter how many new types and technologies of communication we fabricate, the most powerful and character-shaping forms of human discourse are always tied to our native orality – to our speaking and listening ‘in person’ with each other.”
“‘Distance learning,’ writes [Clifford] Stoll, ‘offers all the information, all the facts, all the boredom of an ordinary classroom, with none of the inspiration, none of the commitment, and none of the joy. It’s ideal for the student who equates information with education. Perfect for the school that wants to hustle students through with minimal human interaction.’”
“Much of our moral bearing in life comes from our everyday rituals of conversation, through which we mutually attempt to build trust through dialogue. The discipline of listening to one another, of truly trying to empathize and sympathize, is part of what makes us human.”
“Partly because of the technologizing of our daily communication, we are losing the moral dimensions of speech and slipping into inhumane forms of monologic communication.”
There are several more dimensions to Schultze’s discussion; you’ll have to get the book for more info. Again, I agree with Schultze. In my experience, the content of the lectures in seminary was only about one-fifth of my education.
The other four-fifths include: 1) The professor’s body language, eye contact, and the overall ethos of the classroom setting. In my seminary classrooms, we could feel the professor’s intensity, pick up on his sarcasm/irony, or struggle through some difficult concept together as questioning students. It was intensely personal. 2) The dialogues with professors between classes. Piety, godliness, wisdom, love, kindness, and patience cannot really be taught in a lecture, but they can be “caught” by interacting with professors who have these qualities. Knowing the professors on a personal level showed me what Christian virtue looks like and made their lectures even more stimulating and personal. 3) Interactions with other students was also a major part of my seminary training. We would discuss and debate what we were learning, study exam questions together at a coffee shop, take an evening jog while talking apologetics, and enjoy seminary chapels and picnics together (with our families). Seminary helps future pastors interact with others face to face – which is obviously a large part of pastoral life. 4) Another thing “old-school” seminary gives a person is self-discipline. Seminary teaches a man to get up, study, make the 8:00AM class, write, pray, spend time with family, and press on in life. The pastoral life demands these things as well; seminary training is a good prelude for real pastoral life (though seminary life is so much easier than the pastoral life).
Based on these things (and some others), I would strongly not recommend online seminary training for future pastors. It is true that “old school” seminary requires tons of sacrifices, structure, sweat, speech, and study. But so does the pastoral life!
The above quotes are found in chapter seven (“nurturing Virtue in Community”) of Habits of the High-Tech Heart. Also on this topic, see Clifford Stoll (quoted above), High-Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian. Finally, I should note my (and Andrew’s) alma mater, Westminster Seminary California, which doesn’t offer online classes, but does offer a solid, confessional, Reformed, “old-school,” seminary education.