Monday, July 9, 2012

Education for Sale: $199 per Month

         I’ve read that at least one college has decided recently to let students take as many courses or credit hours as they wish for $199 per month, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level.  While to some folks that might sound quite tempting, to me it does not.
         Education, like nearly all other very-hard-to-acquire skills and conditions, is an apprenticeship.  To get it, you must spend time, lots of time, interacting with the master.  Time online is not time with the master, even if he (or she) is in front of his computer the same time you are in front of yours.
         Try to imagine how much worse off the disciples would have been had they spent their time with Jesus online.  Even having spent three years with Him face-to-face, one of them denied Him three times, another betrayed Him, and all the rest ran away in fear.  One wonders at what level their theology and piety would have languished without those three precious and unparalleled years of eye-to-eye interaction with Jesus in the flesh, absorbing His tone of voice, the looks on His face, and (given the way we teach even when we are not teaching) His activities and mannerisms when He was off duty.  We must never forget that God's appearance among us was an incarnation, not an inpixelation.
         Imagine how much less effective Socrates would have been without the face-to-face interaction that allowed him to ad-lib the kinds of questions that needed to arise in response to the unpredictable, spontaneous, and sometimes boneheaded statements made by others, things not to be known beforehand or incorporated into an online lesson plan.  If teaching were primarily just imparting information, and if learning were primarily just acquiring it, then perhaps this computer-based approach might work, but even then only moderately well.  That’s because such enormous amounts of real teaching and learning do not come within a hundred miles of what can be gotten online that even $199 a month is likely to be overpriced.  We all know how fraught with intellectual peril a combox can be.  We know the same about Skype, or at least we ought.  And, once we figure out how to do holograms, the same problem still will face us, even if those holograms purport to be of Obi-Wan Kenobi or John Calvin.
         Imagine trying (1) to teach someone to hit a curve ball, or (2) to do brain surgery, or (3) to do high-level theology online.  If doing the first two online seems impossible, then please note that from among those three diverse activities, theology is by far the most complicated and difficult.  Like hitting a curve, it requires mastering the appropriate natural laws (this time of souls and of sin), and, like the medical example, it requires expertise in surgery, (this time in the dissection and cure of souls).  Doing theology is a highly-complex, skill-based, academic activity that requires many thousands of hours of practice:  I do not exaggerate.  One can never become a theological virtuoso without those thousands of hours.  After all, we are not talking about something simple like the physics of spheroid rotation through the air or mapping the brain’s nervous system and function, we are talking, at the root, about God.  If, because of their native complexity and their unsuitability to electronic learning, you cannot acquire the former skills via the internet, then you can’t acquire the latter one that way either, and for the same reasons.
         To be clear, the difference to which I am pointing when I reject the low-priced online learning offered by the college in question is the difference between job training and education.   The internet is perhaps suitable for the one, but not the other.  I say so because I think that those who go to college ought to go because they seek to be educated.  If they do not, if they seek merely to be trained, then send them to a trade school and let them pursue their job training however they wish.  My concern here is with education, and with the ways it is best promoted and gotten.  This is not the way.
        You wouldn't try to be an online parent; don't try to be an online teacher.  Neither of those important task is well-suited to a computer screen. 

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