A Different Significance: Online vs. F2F Education (part 2)

About two years ago I was invited to give a talk to our faculty in recognition of having been awarded Bethel’s 2009 Faculty Excellence Award for Teaching. In part one of this (slightly updated) version of the talk, I described my experiences integrating podcasts into two courses and evaluated them in light of the “No Significant Difference” hypothesis. In the second part of the talk, I considered two “different significances” relative to the online vs. F2F debate…

One obvious “different significance” of online education is that it permits smaller, regional universities like Bethel to reach new audiences and better serve constituencies other than traditional undergraduates. This is already an obvious strength of Bethel Seminary, which has students far beyond the Twin Cities.

As I’ll argue in a moment, it’s important that the College of Arts and Sciences continues to operate chiefly as a brick-and-mortar institution serving a chiefly residential population. However, something like academic podcasting could enable a Christian liberal arts school like Bethel to engage in a kind of outreach and witness that far transcends its location and size.

In addition, I’m intrigued how podcasting might help our individual departments and programs connect with alumni, prospective students, parents, and donors. (Since this talk, our department has started to produce a quarterly podcast for precisely this purpose.)

The Policast logoFirst, podcasting has enormous potential for us to fulfill stated goals of encouraging lifelong learning among constituents like alumni and churches. In addition to the podcasts described earlier, our department joined Political Science to produce an 18-episode political affair series (The Policast) for the fall 2008 election season. Though focused primarily on the presidential and Minnesota Senate campaigns, we also interviewed both major candidates for the state house district in which Bethel resides, and our colleague Stacey Hunter Hecht had several students in her Political Parties and Elections class produce episodes as part of a project. While we sought to inform students (many of whom were facing their first elections) and model civil discourse and Christian engagement with politics, we primarily targeted recent alumni, advertising through social media like Facebook to help provide resources to former students still interested in politics, foreign affairs, and American history. (And this coming year we plan to revive and expand the series, starting it in January-February 2012 as the primary/caucus season heats up.)

With this modest attempt at outreach, we seemed to reach just shy of 100 listeners per episode, with the most popular episode doubling that total. More surprisingly, our two podcast series aimed explicitly only at students enrolled in a particular semester of a single course — CWC: The Radio Show (the weekly supplement to Bethel’s Western Civ/church history course taken by most first-year undergraduates) and Radio Modern Europe (my 10-episode series of required podcasts for an upper-division European history course) — reached far beyond their intended audiences. Here’s a breakdown of downloads for the 2008-2009 academic year:

Downloads for Our Podcasts, 2008-2009Those numbers for CWC: The Radio Show may seem miniscule, but remember that our original goal was simply to draw in 15-20 students (the equivalent of a single section of the course). Somehow, we connected with 5-6 times that number each week, despite making very little effort to reach former students, faculty colleagues, or anyone else.

And Radio Modern Europe was even more surprising. For every student in the course required to listen to each episode, approximately 100 others also downloaded it. Throughout Fall 2008 and for a while after, it was in the top 10 list of iTunes U’s most downloaded podcasts about European history, rubbing shoulders with courses from Yale and Stanford, plus a required intro course at Cal-Berkeley.

A few weeks into the semester, I received an e-mail from one such listener, a naval officer in Suffolk, Virginia, who explained that he had stumbled across the podcast (which Bethel had made available beyond the firewall that had protected it the first year I attempted the experiment) and started listening. So on subsequent episodes I started soliciting feedback from non-student, non-Bethel listeners… And soon heard from a magazine editor in Los Angeles, a grad student in Connecticut, a physician in the Netherlands, a young woman in Denmark, and… Well, it’s been nearly a year now since I posted any new episodes, and I’ve still received a dozen more e-mails this semester. (And sixteen more since I gave this talk in November 2009, including one from Australia last month.)

Here’s a breakdown of North American listeners who took time to contact me:

Radio Modern Europe ListenersBesides the Dutch and Danish listeners already mentioned, I’ve also heard from international fans in Colombia, Ireland, Rwanda (well, a Norwegian living there, but still…), England, Australia, Germany, and France.

All of which, of course, pales in comparison to the reach of something like the hugely popular modern European history podcasts produced by one of my graduate advisors, but for a small course in a small department at a small American Midwestern university… And produced with no thought of reaching such an audience, and so no attempt to market it more widely…

Well, it suggests that a Christian liberal arts school like Bethel is capable of outreach and witness far transcending its location and size.

I’d also suggest that podcasting can permit individual programs and departments to connect more effectively with alumni, prospective students, parents, donors, and other constituents. (Since giving this talk, our department has started a quarterly podcast for precisely this purpose.) We ought to consider how we might help serve the Christian formation needs of churches that have limited wherewithal to provide their own courses on biblical studies, theology, ethics, church history, and other topics. And we should consider how this technology might enable collaboration with other scholars and institutions.

So in terms of making it possible to reach new audiences and non-residential student constituencies, online education (depending how it’s configured) has enormous potential and advantages over face-to-face. But there’s one more “different significance” that mutes my enthusiasm for online and makes me certain that F2F needs to remain the central mode of teaching for a school like Bethel: fundamentally, our vision of education is not about providing information, but bringing about transformation; and I’m not convinced that that can happen outside of a gathered, embodied community.

I don’t want to create a strawman here. No one is suggesting that we’ll become something like the online university my brother works for. (Otherwise it was a huge waste of money to spend $30 million on a university commons.) But as we think about how to construct courses, I believe that we need a preferential option for F2F, only using online if it presents a unique opportunity for a kind of teaching that significantly improves learning (no significant difference isn’t good enough)… and even then I’d supplement the lost face time. (That was my take-away from the Modern Europe podcasts: for all their expected and unexpected advantages, they took me away from students, and made it all the harder to create any kind of learning community.)

To understand how I’m envisioning education as a transformative enterprise, let me refer to my research on Pietism and higher education, and reuse a quotation I’ve probably used in several other contexts. This is Covenant historian and writer Karl Olsson speaking in 1961 to the faculty of North Park (then) College, a cousin-institution of Bethel’s, starting the third year of his tenure as its president:

…we seek to bring the student to personal fulfillment and to his eventual salvation. The school is not solely or even primarily interested in the training of cooks and bakers, engineers and physicists, teachers and preachers; it is not even interested primarily in giving its students the zest and the joy of intellectual and aesthetic adventure: the burning corolla of the world, the ravishment of line and color and tone, the bitterness and delight of ideas, the ice and luxuriance of style. It is primarily interested in pointing beyond itself and beyond all created things to the Source of life and truth, who by giving Himself to us sustains within us the hunger for salvation.

No Significant Difference literature, of course, doesn’t speak to such goals, which are no doubt hard to assess in any case. But that doesn’t make them any the less essential.

It goes without saying that online education can’t replace the experience of living in a dorm, worshipping together in chapel, singing with a choir, playing soccer, or serving the poor in north Minneapolis or Guatemala, all of which are crucial elements of a “whole person” education. But even if we bracket our discussion and think solely of academics…

Could a hybrid or online course do more than improve student comprehension of a historical narrative and actually “[point] beyond itself… to the Source of life and truth”? Perhaps. If the Spirit can work through a more limited technology like the 1st century epistles of the apostle Paul, then it can work through a podcast or Moodle discussion board. But while Paul could carry the Philippians in his heart and share God’s grace with them at long distances, yet he still “long[ed] for them with the affection of Jesus Christ” (Phi 1:7-8).

And if, as we at Bethel proclaim, we are truth-seekers, then we must remember the nature of that truth — or Truth. In the words of Karl Olsson’s contemporary, then-Bethel president Carl Lundquist:

…the unifying center of the academic program is neither Truth nor the Pursuit of Truth but is Jesus Christ Himself. Ultimately, in our Christian view, Truth and Christ are one, and the important thing about Truth is that it ought to point to Christ. (from his 1959 report to the Baptist General Conference)

Carl Lundquist
Carl H. Lundquist

Reflecting years later on an education centered on a personal God (who is not the distant watchmaker of the Deists or the passionless Logos of Greek philosophy, but a person who weeps and rejoices with us), Lundquist added that “Truth, in fact, is troth—a way of loving. And it is motivated not only by curiosity and the desire to be in control but by compassion” (from Lundquist Burning Heart newsletter, in 1986).

If our Truth is personal and relational, then it seems to fit that He is best sought by persons in relationship. Paul’s epistles to churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Phillippi, Colossae, and Thessalonika, though they found their author and recipients separated by hundreds of miles, were read in communal worship, not in lonely contemplation. And community, according to Lundquist, is where a Bethel education truly takes place. Once more from his 1959 report:

…we believe that in the end the impact of one life upon another is probably greater than the impact of an idea or a method of teaching or a favorable physical setting…. At Bethel we want our young people to enter into personal contact with their teachers, and we hope to keep such academic paraphernalia as the curriculum, course credits, class hours, and examinations from getting in the way of this relationship.

And in my own limited experience, the “academic paraphernalia” of online education can get in the way of such a relationship. One of my former students has spent several years teaching English in China; on a visit home one summer, he reflected (from his own experience as a teacher, and as a student) that while he could get information without getting to know his teachers, he didn’t think he could be formed in any meaningful way without a face-to-face relationship.

As Pietists, we might, then, think of Bethel as a kind of ecclesiola: Spener’s “little church” within the larger church body, where we encounter the Word of God in communal study of his words. Or even as koinonia itself, the congregated body of believers that, like the Christians of Pentecost (Acts 2:42), devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship, and prayer (if not sacraments — we are not quite the church in that sense). As the Covenant theologian and North Park dean Don Frisk wrote, of the local church but, I think, with application to our own community:

…real koinonia is never achieved in the abstract; it arises only in real sharing by real flesh-and-blood people in a particular place and situation…. Love comes to sharpest focus in the congregation, where we meet, not humanity in general, but human beings in all the concreteness of their personal existence. In the give and take of the fellowship we learn the richness of Christ’s love and mercy as well as the severity of his judgment. Where there is this kind of open relationship the community can be the agent through which the Holy Spirit moves and works.

While online education can be effective in meeting certain knowledge and skill outcomes and it promises to help schools like Bethel expand and better serve their constituencies, what’s most distinctive and valuable about education at Bethel is that it seeks the salvation of people who learn of Jesus Christ within a gathered, embodied community.

<<Read the first post in the series

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