Sunday, November 6, 2011

Against the Reign of Online Education: Responding to the Rise of the Faceless Classroom (Part 2)

* Disclaimer: Due to likely misunderstanding, please note that in the title, my opponent is "the reign of online education" rather than online education itself. That is, I take issue here with the idea that online learning is nearly as good as or even superior to embodied learning. 

Part I is here, and Part III is here.
The Social Effects of Online Learning

Everywhere the 21st century American looks, personal technological devices are on display. A family out to dinner typically contains at least one, if not all, members distracted by a handheld device with an internet connection. Teenagers “hanging out” in groups are often seen sending text messages to recipients elsewhere instead of conversing with those souls actually in front of them. College students commonly navigate between classes with iPod earbuds in place, oblivious to the existence of other students. Commuters are frequently absorbed in their laptops or personal devices, rarely making eye contact with anyone else. It seems clear, therefore, that while we are not deficient in our access to information through technology, we are increasingly alienated from other people and from the world around us.

One might ask what this milieu has to do with the analysis of online education. The connection can be summed up thus: In a world where extended, high-quality interaction with fellow human beings is infrequent, substantive ideas are rarely exchanged and critiqued, and therefore embodied academia provides a last frontier of sorts where this vital activity is not only possible but required. For those who are connected to the internet for multiple hours in a day (which includes most of us, if we are honest), any ideas that arise tend to do so in without ever coming into contact with the outside world. Until people voice and discuss their ideas, counterexamples may go unpresented, extemporaneous tangents—often most fruitful in yielding unexpected insights— will go unexplored, and so on. To expand on the saying “two minds are better than one,” multiple academic minds are better than one.

In an online course, one’s writing and ideas can be corrected and graded, but no one is present with the online learner who can gradually, subtly shape how the learner thinks as the learner thinks it. This cognitive luxury of the student-teacher or peer relationship is encouraged in person, but is far more difficult to reproduce online. Furthermore, the student is less likely to approach the teacher for any sort of significant mentoring relationship, given the fact that a teacher is hard-pressed to show care or concern over the internet. It is visible displays of professorial sensitivity and personal interest (conveyed in posture, tone, facial expression, and so on) that tend to give students the confidence to seek out a deeper relationship with the teacher.

In the online classroom, the student and her thoughts, expressions, reactions, tone (but tone is scarce, given verbal silence on the part of the student) and logical processes occur in social isolation, without the possibility of rich, timely, socially sensitive, cognitively formative feedback. Without others physically present with the student, no one is present to refute bad mental processes or ideas, to question vague ideas, to demand examples, to provide counterexamples, to gently persuade the student that an apparently interesting insight is actually not so interesting after all (and is thus a waste of time to pursue), or to press for more elaboration where such is needed. Moreover, unpalatable ideas easily dismissed in the online environment may receive helpful pushback from students more sympathetic to the idea. Consider this example: A theology student rolls his eyes when the professor mentions a well-known dispensationalist seminary. A peer sympathetic to some threads of dispensationalist theology notices the disapproving facial expression, and asks for the reason behind the eye roll. It comes to the surface that the eye-rolling student has always assumed that all dispensationalist theologies resemble the popular (and theologically problematic) Left Behind novel series in some way. A discussion ensues which helps to clarify the different scholarly perspectives within dispensationalism, leads to increased respect for the aforementioned seminary, and allows all parties involved to forge ahead in their views with an appropriate level of scholarly nuance and accuracy.

People need a great deal of practice articulating their ideas to each other, not only for the purposes of shaping intellectual processes and crystallizing knowledge, but also because it is precisely in such multi-minded environments that the best thoughts and ideas are born. Iron sharpens iron, as the Proverb goes, and the friction necessary to create sufficient sharpness for battle is best found in person. Discomfort and disagreement profoundly shape and train a thinker, and due to the human propensity to flee such formative situations, the online environment provides an ideal setting in which to ignore the uncomfortable. This is often the case even in threaded discussions, which tend to be an exercise in minimalistic hoop-jumping rather than an arena for robust academic conversation.

A society driven by technological advances favors processing speed, efficiency, and personal convenience over meticulous, socially sensitive, organic (read: flexible and varied), high-quality interaction with people and ideas. The pursuit of information has become more important than embodied relationships. Part of the value of being physically present in one's classes is the possibility of building relationships-- professional and otherwise. As discussed previously, these relationships are the seedbed of new ideas, discarded bad ideas, helpful examples, discussion of previously unknown conferences or professional organizations, and ultimately, mutual inspiration and encouragement to press on in this challenging, disorienting, and often discouraging world of academia.

To be continued. Stay tuned for "Assault on the Academic Ethos," "Information-Age Epistemology," and more...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Against the Reign of Online Education: Responding to the Rise of the Faceless Classroom (Part 1 )

This essay will be posted in a currently unknown number of installments. 

In the age of the internet, instant information is at the fingertips of anyone with access to an internet connection. Because computer-accessed information is so convenient-- and convenience is one of the chief information-age virtues-- educational institutions have understandably become attracted to online forms of education. An online course can exist even when physical space is limited, or when there are scheduling conflicts due to busy students. Moreover, the student of an online course need not spend a dime on gasoline, find childcare, or even change out of his or her pajamas to "attend school." It should come as no surprise, then, that online education is being warmly embraced and enthusiastically adopted by educational institutions.

Because contemporary academic organizations have become transfixed by online education's promise of a global reach and thus a geographically unrestricted student body (and further, a geographically boundless source of income), those concerned with pedagogy (and sadly, not all educators are) must ask whether this trendy educational exodus out of the embodied learning environment is ultimately of help or harm to the cause of true education. The fact that we can do something in no way means that we should. I love Blue Bell ice cream—more than any other dessert, in fact—but I do not eat it for my meals (not regularly, anyway) because that would be a most unhealthy lifestyle choice.

To continue the metaphor, if technology is like food, we must determine whether it is “junk food” or “health food.” As Neil Postman taught, no technology is neutral. What Postman meant was that in some way, every technology—for better or for worse— shapes the people that use it and, therefore, their culture. He stated that shaping power well: "New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop" (Technopoly, p. 20).

Because technology changes “the nature of community” and culture itself, no technology should ever go uncritiqued. The stakes are too high to neglect adequate evaluation of our culture shapers. Therefore, let us take a good look at that which is too often viewed with indiscriminate favor: online education. For the duration of this series, my intention is to provide a counterbalance to the prevailing sentiment regarding this topic. It should not surprise the reader, then, that this counterbalance will be predominantly negative. If this series succeeds in slowing gushing technophiles down so that they carefully reconsider their philosophy of online education, then I will consider such a litany of negativity a success.

To be continued...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Classic is Born

If you have not yet purchased Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith by Douglas Groothuis, I urge you to do so.This is the kind of book that endures for generations (although I unfortunately foresee my binding lasting only a fraction of that time), because Groothuis magnificently speaks the truth in a timeless manner. A book that challenges the academic mind while remaining accessible to the average reader is a rare thing, and Groothuis accomplishes this feat with clear, engaging prose that will delight even the most demanding reader with eloquent, memorable turns of phrase.

Apologetically speaking, Christian Apologetics is a comprehensive masterpiece, unique among books of its kind because of the ground it covers. Groothuis wisely handles worldviews beyond just atheism, although atheism is thoroughly and adeptly handled (many apologetics books and ministries seem to suffer from a sort of "atheism myopia"). Moreover, the book profoundly addresses the human condition, includes sections on the nature of truth, logic, and apologetic methodology, and begins with a transcendently beautiful introduction-- perhaps the crown jewel of the book-- called "Hope, Despair, and Knowing Reality" that will leave one excited to read the remaining chapters. Furthermore, name, subject, and scripture indices, a glossary, and an extensive bibliography organized by chapter provide valuable reference material.

A particularly valuable feature of this well-organized, intellectually solid, meticulously researched book is the fact that it is filled with carefully chosen scripture throughout, and thus commends a robust, biblically literate, theologically informed, intellectually grounded Christian worldview. With contributions by leading biblical scholars Richard Hess (OT) and Craig Blomberg (NT), Christian Apologetics is a force to be reckoned with, and will very likely equip and influence many readers for years to come.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Cultivating Conviction

"If we are really convinced of the truth of our message, then we can proclaim it before a world of enemies, then the very difficulty of our task, the very scarcity of our allies becomes an inspiration, then we can even rejoice that God did not place us in an easy age, but in a time of doubt and perplexity and battle. Then, too, we shall not be afraid to call forth other soldiers into the conflict. Instead of making our theological seminaries merely centres of religious emotion, we shall make them battle-grounds of the faith, where, helped a little by the experience of Christian teachers, men are taught to fight their own battle, where they come to appreciate the real strength of the adversary and in the hard school of intellectual struggle learn to substitute for the unthinking faith of childhood the profound convictions of full-grown men."


-J. Gresham Machen, "Christianity and Culture," 1912 (emphasis mine)

The essay in its entirety can be found here:

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Communication in an Online Culture

The internet and social media are not conducive to complex, detailed dialogue about important issues. It favors hasty, insufficiently supported, decontextualized, emotionally driven, relationally insensitive responses. We ought to fear a society in which citizens develop whatever communication skills they have by immersion in this environment-- especially because this is increasingly the society in which we live. We are steadily cultivating an exceptionally vocal culture of inept communicators.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Canon, Church History, and Irenaeus

Today, misinformation abounds about the origins of Christianity. Some individuals assert that by the time of the Council of Nicaea under Constantine in AD 325, there were upwards of 80 (disagreeing) gospels which competed for the traditional four slots (this many-gospels account is quite a desperate move, having no positive support along with a sizable case against it). Most who hold to this view contend is that the Church rather arbitrarily selected Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John out of this pool of contenders for political reasons. Other contemporary writers assert that after a supposed period of conflict and division, alternative "Christianities," such as the various varieties of gnosticism, were unfairly snuffed out by the growing power of the church of Rome (perhaps the most influential of these theories is the Bauer thesis, which is thoroughly debunked in The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Kostenberger and Kruger, 2010). It is becoming increasingly popular to believe that "traditional" Christianity has had its day in the sun, and that now other, historically oppressed perspectives must have a turn in the limelight.

Recently in a used bookstore, I came across a strikingly and distressingly large section titled, "Alternative Church History," which was filled with works on the gnostic "gospels" and gnosticism itself. Unfortunately for those who wish to revise history by exalting early heresies to a level of popularity far beyond what the historical record supports, the facts of history are not up for grabs. The early church did not hide these heresies from public view, or try to dispose of the evidence of "alternative Christianities," but openly and confidently exposed and refuted their errors. In the early church, gnosticism was never considered to be a separate branch of Christianity, but was recognized as something else entirely. Thus, gnostic texts were never an option for inclusion into the canon. These historical realities are being obscured and must be reestablished. Early writers such as Irenaeus (active around the late second century, long before the existence of Constantine and the Council of Nicea) are of great help to us in dispelling falsehoods and rumors caused by the irresponsible pens of certain contemporary writers.

     Perhaps most important is [Irenaeus'] treatment of Scripture, which was not yet in canonical form throughout Christian communities. Irenaeus successfully appeals to a notion of catholicity, that most churches everywhere in the late second century see a certain collection of writings to be Scripture. He helps to prove that churches were not in disarray, uncertain of authoritative texts of the faith, but generally united in agreeing on most books and especially not agreeing on an entirely different and threatening genre of books: gnostic writings. Thus the voice of Irenaeus still disallows even contemporary gnostic fans like Elaine Pagels, critical historians like Bart Ehrman and popular authors like Dan Brown. He is the first to refer to a four-Gospel canon, to defend most thoroughly the apostolic authority of the Gospel writers and Paul, and among the earliest defenders of the book of Revelation while still disputed among some churches. -- W. Brian Shelton, "Irenaeus," in Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy, ed. Bradley G. Green, pp. 51-53

Monday, August 22, 2011

Combating Cognitive Corrosion

"The answer to the epidemic of biblical illiteracy and theological ignorance is not the availability of more information. Rather the answer comes in the shaping of our sensibilities such that an understanding of biblical truth becomes consequential and foundational in our lives." -Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace, p. 147.

This is difficult advice for most people to follow. In a culture where entertainment and information technology reign supreme, most individuals have been conditioned to passively receive and absorb stimuli, rather than trained to actively cultivate the mind. Contrary to the pressures of the age, the Christian is supposed to be transformed by the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:2), not transformed by the cultural captivity of the mind. That which we cognitively consume is not neutral; our sensibilities will be shaped in one direction or another, whether that be in the direction of habitual inattentiveness or in the direction of disciplined, focused reflection. We should take care that we are not offering up our sensibilities to be molded by the corrosive pressures of a high-speed, digital age. Moreover, simply having access to large amounts of facts, data, and Bible verses is not an indicator of a robust Christian worldview. The wise person knows that access to limitless (yet decontextualized) information is not the same as having wisdom and knowledge. Growing in the latter intellectual virtues requires far more than search engines, blogs, and social media can offer. Steeping ourselves in the good, the true, and the beautiful requires careful, thoughtful, deliberate engagement (and at times disengagement) with our world and its technologies.

About The Soul in Cyberspace: I highly recommend this book. It was first published in 1997, but remains an insightful, cogent and important critique of technology from a Christian perspective. Moreover, it has proven to be quite prophetic since its publication before the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

Purchase it here: The Soul in Cyberspace