Tamar 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