September 6, 2009

edupunks and the seminary

I've shared some thoughts and questions about theological education in the past here, here and here. With that in mind, Fast Company has an interesting article on the topic of changing culture and higher education entitled, "How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education." The article says in one part, "The challenge is not to bring technology into the classroom ... The challenge is to capture the potential of technology to lower costs and improve learning for all." And there are schools all over experimenting with this. Whether it be video of lectures, course content online, etc. It's all moving this direction. So, my mind moves to the question, "What are people looking for a higher education paying for then?!" To me the answer seems to be quite simple: the opportunity to learn within context with face-to-face dialog [relationship?]. It's not the content people are willing to pay for, it's interpersonal exchange and context that they will pay for. Certainly the dialog piece can happen over the web but there still seems to be something quite unique about the exchange that happens when applying what one learns in the same context.

How is this addressed in theological training?

What do you think? Do you agree with me? If not, why?

HT: Geoff Hsu for handing me a copy of FC


Jason Coker said...

At the risk of generalizing, people by and large get a secular education to maximize their earning potential or secure a position (usually both). There's very little concern for learning. From that perspective, I think the movement toward decentralized/technology-based education appeals to us because it makes getting our degrees easier and cheaper. So, I just think people will pay for whatever credential will lead to the achievement of their goals. If that's in context, great. If not, so be it.

Some of this pragmatism has crept into theological education because that's what is required for professional credentialing in most denominations. But if our concern is strictly about maximizing learning, then the question is "what is the very best possible means of learning to be disciples of Jesus, and how does decentralization and technology play a part?"

I think it can and does play some part as the facilitator of communication, although tech remains a shallow medium. The richness of personal interaction remains superior. Moreover, learning is definitely best done in a safe, hand-on, and reflective environment. I like your idea of learning in context, but I think for people who are sincere about learning there is still a desire for content, insofar as that content represents genuine wisdom. Personally, I want the wisdom to live effectively and well for the kingdom, and that can only come from being around people who have a demonstrated proficiency in doing so. If I had the choice between talking with a Dallas Willard or John Howard Yoder on the phone for an hour, or spending time with them for an hour, I would definitely choose the latter. But if I only had the choice of the phone, I would be grateful for technology and certainly learn something!

So, I think the future of good theological education involves divorcing it from the motivation for professional credentials, immersion with practitioners (not theoreticians) whenever possible, and communication at a distance whenever necessary.

Steve said...

Good questions here J.

Having spent a lot of time in classrooms as a student, and a lot of time in multiple formats of distance/tech-based learning environments, there are some pros and cons to both. It depends on a couple things:

1. Motivation - are you getting your education for the credentials or are you just trying to learn and be better at what you're already trying to do? I know the answer for many will be "both," but it matters.

2. Course selection - if you're trying to earn a degree, then you're likely to end up with a class or two or ten (even in theological degrees) that don't necessarily appeal to you or seem relevant to your field. In my experience, those classes are GREAT candidates for distance learning - you don't have to invest in the communal aspects, you get the content, and you can often set your own pace as to how quickly you can blow through the class. Plus, they're often a lot cheaper.

I think my personal favorite approach to answering the physical vs. distance question is "both." I've taken several hybrid courses in which the class meets physically for two or three intensive days at the beginning of the term, but then interacts with course readings, discussion questions, and writing projects online on discussion boards, chat rooms, and even SecondLife (I HATED that format). That was my favorite because it gave me a chance to meet my classmates and get a feel for their personalities and work/life contexts, so then, when we interacted online, I was just looking at words on a screen.

The hybrid approach also gives seminaries the opportunity to bring in professors that they would never be able to lure in on their full time faculties.

Sorry for the lengthy response here.

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