Distance Ed: After The Hype

computers in classTamar Lewin (HT: Kendrick Doolan) writes in Tuesday’s NYT “two years after a Stanford professor drew 160,000 students from around the globe to a free online course on artificial intelligence, starting what was widely viewed as a revolution in higher education, early results for such large-scale courses are disappointing.” A study of a million users of a form of distance ed known as MOOCs (massive open online courses) shows that only 4% of those who begin the course actually finish the course. This won’t surprise teachers who offer courses in which students enroll as “auditors.” Those students are actually present for the course but are not enrolled for credit. They may listen to lectures and even participate in discussion (as permitted) but do not submit term papers or take exams. Typically, auditors drop out about the time mid-terms approach. In my experience, rarely (about 1 or 2 in 10) does an auditor complete a course. Change the relationship from in-person to online and it might be a little surprising that 4% of student complete the course.

Lewin describes the attempt by San Jose State University to introduce MOOCs as a “flop.” That’s a the technical academic term for failure. Even those courses that employed mentors failed. According to the story, some critics are arguing that MOOCs are not a sustainable business model. If that is true then economics will doom them more quickly than anything critics have to say.

Some defenders of MOOCs liken them to the development of technology. Lewin writes, “Some draw an analogy to mobile phones, which took several generations to progress from clunky and unreliable to indispensable.” The problem with the analogy is that a course is not a cell phone. Computers are like cell phones but computers aren’t courses. A cell phone is not education. The problem isn’t with the technology. The problem is with the idea. Distance ed is attractive and it works for things like continuing education (e.g., webinars can be very useful) and they may work at the undergraduate level (although anecdotal evidence suggests to me that undergrads tend regard online courses as soft) but they are not a sound way to educate future physicians, lawyers, and ministers.

I won’t rehearse all the arguments against distance ed (see below) but as we consider how we want to educate future ministers we need to remember the nature of education. It is not the mere transmission of information. It involves formation. Note that I didn’t say “spiritual formation.” That happens principally in the visible church. Nevertheless, profs and other real, live, 3-D students do help form future ministers in a way that cannot happen by distance. Once a distance ed student logs off, he’s in his room, by himself. When a student is on campus, he walks out of class with the prof. The process of education and formation continues. Relationships are developed. Communication is refined. Clarity happens. Sometimes, because the sub-30 generation (millennials) have learned to be deeply skeptical of all mass communication (including lectures), they have a highly developed filter that makes it difficult for them to believe that a mass message is actually intended for them. They tend not to believe something until it is said to them personally. Thus, sometimes the most valuable part of the class happens in conversations between classes or after class. Unless every prof is to strap a GoPro to his head (with a WiFi link etc) there’s no way even to approximate this aspect of the teaching/mentoring process online.

Technology can be a wonderful thing. So is education. As we negotiate the future of seminary education we Americans in particular need to avoid the temptation of the quick fix to our big problems (money, time, and space). Distance ed is not a real solution. It is a mirage. The churches will thank us for being patient, wise, and faithful and for not giving in to the trendy.

Here are more resources on Distance Ed on the HB

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  1. I wouldn’t want to study at a seminary or even with a tutor that does not employ SOME distance ed. I’m talking about the kind of distance ed in which the distance is significant not only in space, but in time as well. We are separated from the Reformers, Puritans and Standards not only in space (in your case, with most of them, several thousand miles), but by over two hundred years in time. Are you going to “teach” me “theology”, etc., without sending me to these people? Thank you, but no thank you.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    The only problem with distance education is the belief that it substitutes for face-to-face education.

    I have participated in three MOOCs. Two I finished. The third I stopped participating in as soon as I realized the Professor wasn’t very good. I have also listened to or watched eight or nine courses from the Teaching Company (which were all excellent). There really is a quite a bit of value in these classes for someone like me who is 51 and who also has already received an excellent undergraduate education and earned a couple of masters degrees.

    Being able to buy the lectures from world-class faculty on a subject for less than $100 is frankly a great value. But that is the rub. The low cost of mass producing the lectures is leading people to dream of mass producing education. Regretfully the tide is moving so strongly in this direction that an actual college education may be reserved for the children of affluent parents within our lifetimes.

    Thank you for encouraging people to swim against the tide.


  3. Dr Clark,
    We have our disagreements but I more than appreciate your analysis of distance, online courses. To sum up some of what you wrote, these courses dehumanize both the participants and the educational process. The courses revolve around a famous, repeated statement from the tv show Dragnet. Distance, online courses present “just the facts” and with this dehumanization comes an oversimplification of the course material and issues being addressed.

  4. I would like to add to your excellent observations that learning is also greatly enhanced when the student is part of a community of learners. I think formation comes not only through out of class conversations with the professors — which is vital! and professors value it too! — but when students talk and share and debate among themselves over the things they are learning.

    This came home to me when I assigned a paper where students all wrote a paper on a controversial New Testament passage. That group did a lot of talking a learning together….

    • Hey Steve,

      That’s a good point.

      We’re preparing men to minister in a communion and a community. The isolation of DE is contrary to both the process and formation of pastors.

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