Is there value in online education?

I loved my three years of theological education at Duke – I would say the best three years of my life. I loved the interaction with friends (who are are among my closest ever) and professors. Being there was as important as what I actually was taught, and I certainly thought that it was much preferable to online learning

Jason Byassee, who believes in physical presence education as well, has some interesting thoughts about the recent United Methodist conference decision to allow for 2/3 of the credits toward theological education to be done online. It has certainly made me rethink the value of it. In a post on Duke’s Faith and Leadership blog, he recognises that Christianity, centred on resurrection, is an embodied faith, but he compares the situation of online theological learning to the situation St. Paul found himself in:

But what about the longstanding objections noted earlier, of disembodied, Gnostic visions of knowledge? I will still maintain that the best setting in which to grow in wisdom and love with God and neighbor is interpersonal, face-to-face meeting punctuated by worship, meals together and service. And yet such meetings are not always possible. We are embodied beings and bodies can only be in one place. This is why St. Paul so often longs to be with the congregations from whom he is absent in the body. But notice what he doesn’t do: he doesn’t wait to offer them his words until he can be with them. He sends them letters. Letters meant to be read corporately, perhaps even to lead to worship or be part of it. Such letters allow him to engage personally without being present personally. They are a poor substitute in some ways. In others they are superior. We have preserved St. Paul’s letters. Unfortunately we do not have his face-to-face conversations.

A regular commenter on my blog (Lance) made some good points yesterday about churches using social media and how that may compromise our embodiedness as a faith. While I agreed with him, my point to him was similar to Jason’s here – social media are meant to supplement and support, not replace face-to-face contact. I think the situation is analogous with online learning.


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