Online Classes: Just Because They’re Hip and Convenient Doesn’t Mean They Educate

online_educationOne of the primary purposes for the HB is to but there are limits to what can be done online. The limits of online education/distance ed is has been a frequent topic here and here on the HB. The maxim is this: simply because something is technically possible it does not follow that it is wise or excellent. The Chronicle of Higher Ed has a story today that buries the lede: “most professors do not think their MOOCs are ready for prime time. Asked if students who succeed in their MOOCs deserve to get course credit from their home institutions, 72 percent said no.” A MOOC is an “massive open online course.” Some of these monsters have 10,000 students and there is a great deal of “hype” (that’s Steve Kolowich’s noun) about the potential of such courses. Except that most of the people “teaching” these courses don’t think that it qualifies as education. Who is pushing MOOCs? Administrators. Of course, market demand is driving it too. That’s where the HB comes in. My goal is to diminish market demand for these courses by trying to persuade you that sitting in front a monitor watching videos and participating in online forums and sending emails to your “prof” is not education. It it is useful for continuing ed and other uses but not for education in its truest sense.

One great fallacy here begins with the assumption that the transmission of information is the same thing as education. To be sure, the transmission of information is an essential part of education but there is much more to it. Michael Polyanyi (thank you Ken Myers at Mars Hill Audio—no connection with Mars Hill Church—for introducing me to Polanyi) taught us long ago that all knowledge is personal. There are essential aspects of learning than cannot be quantified, that can only be communicated through personal interaction, through mentoring and apprenticeships. It is not possible for to mentor online.

Once more, would you trust your body to a surgeon who learned her craft online? I doubt it. I’ve been saying this for years but just to check I asked a physician the other day whether he thought it was possible to become a physician via distance education? He shook his head no and said, “This [medicine] is real stuff.” He repeated it for emphasis. His point is that medicine is too important to be taught online. If that is true, how much more true is it for seminary education, particularly for MDiv students, who are preparing for pastoral ministry? If patients would not and should not trust their physical health to physicians “educated” online why would parishioners trust their spiritual well being, of infinitely more value, to ministers trained online?

Nevertheless, the trend toward distance ed is gaining momentum. Geoffrey Feinstein says,

In only a month’s time, the University of Wisconsin started offering a fully legitimate college degree without any class time required and scores of schools announced that they will be emulating CSU lower-division pilots in the near future.

The ugly truth about education is that, where once it had a somewhat monastic quality to it, where it was once considered “a calling” (which was code for “it pays poorly” and “you might not want to start a family on this salary”), today, at the undergraduate level, it is big business and administrators need revenue. It’s ironic however that, though the CHE missed the most important fact that emerged from the survey the tech blog, Techcrunch (HT: Dan Borvan), did not. Tragically, distance ed is spreading like wildfire. To switch metaphors, the college “bubble” may be about to burst and administrators know that one relatively easy and low-cost way to save the goose that lays the golden parachutes is to push distance ed. One prof interviewed for the CHE piece made it clear, DE is about market share: “I wouldn’t want anybody else’s algorithms course to be out there….”

If colleges and universities are serious about wanting to cut costs, there are simple, if painful, ways to do it. Cut waste (e.g., administrative redundancy). Stop building lavish buildings (my university was falling down around my ears in the late 70s and early 80s but we still learned), reduce administration (this is not likely to happen), and cut some faculty salaries. Some profs, who are really full-time researchers rather than full-time teachers and part-time researchers) are making salaries that rival their corporate colleagues. Schools are not Wall Street or Silicon Valley. If a prof wants to make Wall Street or Silicon money let her go thither.

College administrators, bless their hearts, don’t always prioritize learning or revenue nor have they preserved the best definition of learning. Over the last fifty years administrators have gained virtually total control over post-secondary education and in that same time the quality of education has diminished significantly. On the basis of my experience as a teacher, I am confident that liberal arts students graduating this year are significantly less well-educated than their predecessors fifty years ago. The trends about which Jacques Barzun was warning in the 1950s have only intensified. Education has become more subjective, more politically correct, and less rigorous.

Administrators measure things and the easiest way to do that is to quantify. Education, properly defined, cannot be quantified but since the administrators are now in charge it must be quantified. One result is “outcome-based” education. Add to that the subjective turn in Western culture in late modernity and you have a toxic mix. What matters most now is what administrators can measure and what students “feel” (especially about themselves) rather than what they’ve learned. True learning is painful but since students are now customers (or clients) they cannot be challenged or made to experience discomfort the possibility of real learning is significantly diminished.

J. Gresham Machen warned about this in his 1926 testimony to the House and Senate Committee against the (then) proposed Department of Education. He observed the rise of the factory model of education. Distance ed is only the next phase of the factor model. Machen said,

The principle of this bill, and the principle of all the advocates of it, is that standardization in education is a good thing. I do not think a person can read the literature of advocates of measures of this sort without seeing that is taken almost without argument as a matter of course, that standardization in education is a good thing. Now, I am perfectly ready to admit that standardization in some spheres is a good thing. It is a good thing in the making of Ford cars; but just because it is a good thing in the making of Ford cars it is a bad thing in the making of human beings, for the reason that a Ford car is a machine and a human being is a person. But a great many educators today deny the distinction between the two, and that is the gist of the whole matter. The persons to whom I refer are those who hold the theory that the human race has now got behind the scenes, that it has got at the secrets of human behavior, that it has pulled off the trappings with which human actors formerly moved upon the scene of life, and has discovered that art and poetry and beauty and morality are delusions, and that mechanism really rules all.

Computers are a wonder. Here I am typing on one and here you are, where ever you are, whenever you are, reading it. Nevertheless, like factories, do de-humanize people (any online debate, if it continues long enough, will provide ample evidence of this phenomenon) and education is the antithesis of de-humanization. True education is humanism in the best, Renaissance, sense of the word: it is the recognition of other persons as bearers of the divine image. It is the personal, academic, formation of the intellect, the will, and the affections. Distance ed is the transmission of information, which, when substituted for true learning, can only be a truncated species of education and another unintended door to a new period of illiteracy and ignorance.

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  1. Thank you for this article.

    What are your thoughts on Reformed Theological Seminary’s Master of Arts in Religion program which is fully online?

    Also, what would you suggest to someone who would like to further his education but unfortunately cannot relocate or work part-time in order to attend on-campus classes? (This is my case)

    Thank you,

    • Hi Jesse,

      I don’t think even the RTS MA is “fully online.” “Mostly” perhaps but not fully. More than that I shouldn’t comment on particulars. Take a look at the links to the other articles I’ve written on this. They will be more complete than any comment I can add here. I’m sympathetic to your situation. We face it here all the time.

      Let me ask you this: If, however, you were studying to become a physician, would you try to do it online?

  2. Dr. Clark,
    This is a wonderful post. I couldn’t add to it except a personal story. My teaching contract, where I had taught for 13 years and had good student reviews and was respected by my peers, was not renewed and it is possibly because I refused to teach online courses. On an individual basis, some course can be successfully taught online but majors and degrees should not be offered online.

    Thank you very much for this post.

  3. I am on the Board of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in South Carolina, We are seeking creative ways to provide “distance learning” while recognizing the critical need to be a resident student as well. Currently, “At least one year of study for the B.D./M.Div. (no fewer than 24 credit hours) must be completed in residence at GPTS” (website, under Distance Learning – Mentor Study).

    A Seminary M.Div. for men preparing for Gospel ministry without some residency is unthinkable, in my opinion. Substantial personal interaction with professors and other students should be non-negotiable.

    GPTS also has a high view of the importance of the local church:

    “All students seeking credit from GPTS must make regular application for admission to the Seminary. In addition, each non-resident student must a) be under care of Presbytery prior to matriculation, b) have the formal approval of his overseeing Presbytery to study via the Mentor Program (letters from Presbytery must accompany application), and c) attend orientation on campus in the Fall semester of his 1st year.”

  4. While I heartily agree regarding MOOCs for ministers and other professionals, as a layperson I very much appreciate when universities and seminaries make courses available online for free. Oxford, Yale, and many other schools have put up some very interesting courses at iTunes U, and WSCAL has Dr. Strimple’s ST lectures for free at the bookstore. Of course, listening to these lectures while I drive or whatever doesn’t qualify me to say I’ve taken the course, but I think I learn something.

    • To be clear, I’m all in favor of Distance/online tools for continuing and for the ways you and Frank are using them. Hence Office Hours and the HB and the Heidelcast and etc.

  5. Ditto, John. I’m currently going through Dr. Douglas Kelly’s courses on Medieval Theology and History and Theology of the Puritans, from Reformed Theological Seminary at iTunes U.

  6. I have been told that once upon a time brick and mortar seminaries were either free or very affordable. I think if seminaries want to avoid distance learning, they need to find a way to make it possible for men to attend without saddling themselves with crippling debt (in addition to often relocating their entire families) so they can labor amongst the people of God for a meager salary the rest of their lives. Is there a way for this to be done? How can we make it possible for the many men out there with a heart for pastoral ministry to get the kind of quality education you are talking about?

    • Hi Jesse,

      Yes, but that was a long time ago. It’s a long discussion but relative to funding there are essentially two kinds of seminaries, denominational and non- or trans-denomination. Denominational sems are subsidized by the members of the denomination and thus tuition are less expensive for the student. Historically, however, they haven’t always worked well. Princeton was a great seminary but it followed the trajectory of the PCUSA and in 1929 reorganized and essentially began abandoning openly its confessional roots. WTS, organized the same year Princeton Sem reorganized, was privately funded. Still, students had to provide for themselves. Even though there was no tuition charged (as I recall) I don’t think the sem funded student living expenses. That ended several decades ago. Machen and others of the founders essentially subsidized the seminary out of their own pockets. That was extraordinary. Absent such benefactors, a non-denom sem must charge tuition. Our tuition at WSC is right smack in the middle. We’re told that it is lower than it should be but we keep it there in order not to burden students. Our donors carry most of the cost of education. Tuition covers perhaps 45% of the cost of education. That means that donors whom students never meet have given significantly to make possible their education.

      Books, teachers, staff, buildings, they all cost money but, generally, the student gets what he pays for. We faculty invested considerable sums of dollars and years of preparation to be able to serve the churches by teaching future pastors (and others). Unlike university profs we’re not highly paid. We’re mostly ministers, so we’re used to it.

      Debt is a problem. We’re working on it. We’re asking donors to help (and they are stepping up!) so there is financial aid but as I see it, speaking only for myself and not on behalf of my employer or anyone else, I think churches need to learn to help on the front-end rather than on the back end. What typically happens is that congregations don’t mind paying for their pastor but they don’t see the benefit of funding pastors generically. So, they tend to be helpful to those who graduate, who need help with loans.

      So, you shouldn’t think that a graduate will be saddled permanently with “crippling” debt. Assuming all things being equal (a student does well, has an internal call that is recognized by the churches), the calling church typically helps with loans as part of the call. Men with families attend WSC all the time. Call Mark MacVey and talk to him—888-480-8474. Take a listen to this episode of Office Hours.

  7. Dear Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for sticking with this topic. One suggestion:

    Sometimes how we label things can have a large impact on where the debate ends up going. Let me suggest, therefore, that we refer to online classes as “distance credentialing” rather than “distance education.”

    Best wishes,


  8. Re: would you want your doctor educated online? Well, some “pieces” of the education, particularly portions of the basic sciences, would probably work out ok. But certainly not the clinical portions! And also, there’s a difference between individualized yet online education (where the instructor can interact with the students individually).

    I would imagine that seminary studies could be divided similarly.

    Seminaries (and churches) will need to face the fact that it’s likely that they’ll lose their tax exempt statuses if they wish to remain orthodox. That will likely further challenge the affordability of seminary education.

    • Dear Dr. McDowell,

      You raise a common concern about residential seminary education – whether or not it is affordable. I wish to challenge this common understanding.

      Try comparing the actual cost per student of education at a high quality school like Westminster Seminary in California to any accredited Medical School or Law School in the U.S. I am certain that you will discover that the Medical School programs and Law School Programs spend far more per student per year than WSC.

      This means that the question is not affordability it is whether or not we are willing to pay for it (after all, we are paying for the medical and law school programs). The way graduate education is paid for can be broken down into two chunks: (1) Outside funding through donations and government subsidies; and (2) Paying the graduates sufficiently high salaries that they can borrow large sums of money to attend school and then pay back the loans. Often it is a combination of these two.

      Picking up on the second method, the typical Harvard Law School graduate has more than $100k in student loans at graduation. Given that the average starting salary for such graduates is north of $160k per year this isn’t a problem. Yet, on the reasonable assumption that we are not going to start paying pastors $160k per year as soon as they leave seminary (with signing bonuses!) this means that the Church will need to focus on the first method. We will need to subsidize the cost of seminary education and we will need to do so to a far greater extent than we are today.

      Can we afford to do this? Of course we can. The typical American is far wealthier today than Americans from 200 years ago. Yet, Princeton seminary charged no tuition and provided free housing to students during the early decades of its operation. The question isn’t whether we can afford to provide high quality residential seminary education to our future pastors but whether or not we will choose to do so.

      Let me put the matter bluntly:

      (1) First, the only reason why we wouldn’t demand the highest quality education for our future pastors (and be willing to pay for it) is because we don’t think that God’s word and Christ’s Church is worthy of that sort of investment.

      (2) Second, this is not simply about the future. We are already suffering with a shallow talent pool for pastoral ministry. As one of my friends puts it: “When you go to Presbytery and talk with pastors it is shocking how few of them you can imagine being in any position of leadership outside of the Church.” The reason is obvious. Imagine that you are a 28 year old Captain in the Army with six years of experience. Your Elders encourage you to consider pastoral ministry. As you look into ministry you discover that you will probably make twenty to thirty thousand dollars less upon finishing three years of graduate school than you are currently making as a twenty-eight year old Captain in the Army. How much should you reasonably consider borrowing while foregoing three years of salary in order to take that sort of pay cut?

      Given this reality, it is amazing that we do have many fine men pursuing ordained ministry.

      Best wishes,


  9. “Cut waste (e.g., administrative redundancy). Stop building lavish buildings (my university was falling down around my ears in the late 70s and early 80s but we still learned), reduce administration (this is not likely to happen), and cut some faculty salaries.”
    Since most colleges are definitely socialist and marxist in orientation, asking them to do this in their mind is like chopping off a leg.
    My dad who worked for a Denver area school district would tell you of the waste in just K-12 schooling alone. This school district thought they were so far behind technologically they were trying to implement iPads for every student, no doubt they are succeeding or have already.

    • Trent,
      To be able to propose a solution to our educational problems, we have to have a broad understanding of our current educational system. According to many Leftists, the system as it stands now is designed to fail so that we move into a more privatized system. With tax policies as they are, we cannot adequately maintain the schools. So as the quality of our schools continues to fall, there will be a cry to do away with an “unaffordable” public education system. Please note the significant school closings that are already occurring in some of our major cities. These closings will cause overcrowding and will thus accelerate the collapse of public education.

      In addition, the “No Child Left Behind” system is meant to create compliant and conforming children. This is not just my opinion or that of those on the Left. Educators are telling me this as well. Children are being taught to follow orders rather than exercise independent thinking. They are being taught to merely memorize rather than understand why.

      In addition, the overuse of technology, along with the testing methods of “No Child Left Behind,” are preventing kids from having confidence in their own thinking. In my Trigonometry class last year, I gave a quiz where they could not use calculators and had to divide a two digit larger number into a two digit smaller one. One fourth of the class could not perform this simple calculation by hand with some of them telling me that it could not be done without a calculator.

      If we add to the above the lowering of standards insisted on by many parents and administrators, it seems to me that the Left’s assessment of our public educational system has at least some credibility.

  10. Distance learning isn’t even good for continuing ed and here’s why. How easy is it to close one browser window where a lecture is opened and open another to distract yourself? If you can’t pay attention to an online lecture for more than a few minutes due to the distraction the internet creates, it’s impossible to focus long enough on texts to understand them. Science involves reading a lot of texts, understanding them, and building on the ideas or formulating different ones. This requires a lot of focus, concentration, and the ability to read long arguments filled with formalism and jargon.

    ‘Distance learning’ does not necessarily mean ‘online video lectures,’ but increasingly does. If distance learning is achieved primarily through texts, how is it better than buying a gold-standard text on a subject (which are much easier to find now by reading Amazon reviews with a critical eye) and working your way through it at a fraction of the cost? What does distance learning do better than old-fashioned books?

    I recently asked a question of an expert on a cutting-edge subject. He told me to go back and read a paper from the 1940s. This is the reason he’s an expert – he has mastery of old texts to invent new concepts himself.

    If we’ve lost this way of acquiring mastery – trading it for ‘distance learning’ or some other poor substitute, we really ARE headed for a new dark ages.

  11. While I agree in part with some of issues you raise with distance education, I think that many of the same problems are encountered in traditional settings. For example, is the student at the state university in a lecture class with 500 other students really experiencing anything different than he/she would online? A student in either situation that really desires to learn will, and the one who doesn’t, won’t. While there are some obvious inherent limitations to online learning, like library/research access, perhaps in certain circumstances it may be possible to have a much better education program online than that which might be available at numerous regional universities.

    • Education (whether near or far) has respect unto truth. And truth has respect unto Christ , the only teacher. Therefore if one is educated (near or far) he is educated by Christ, the only teacher. Ultimately, Internet or Prof (aka apostle, aka prophet, aka minister, aka pastor, aka teaching elder, aka man) does not teach.

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