I confess, I’m a slow convert to distance education. But I’m coming around.
My reservations have stemmed from my commitment to embodiment. Genesis starts with God’s dignifiying of physicality in the first chapter, and that theme runs clear through the Incarnation to the bodily resurrection. Isn’t our faith unique in its appreciation for physical presence?
And if that’s the case, how can any kind of decent education happen without embodiment? How can people possibly learn about our God without engaging five senses in the content? Doesn’t the Eucharist include taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound? As does baptism. How can somebody grow in Christ without the senses?
Yet, as I said, I’m coming around….
Of course, I still believe face-to-face is best. After all, the elder John wrote, “Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full (2 John 1:12). And his next letter contains a similar sentiment: “I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink” (3 John 1:13). Clearly, he thought non-physical communication was inferior to the real thing, especially when he had so much to say.
But still he wrote, didn’t he? In fact, aren’t letters and book forms of distance education? Think of all the things we’ve learned through books and documentaries and movies and plays….
The biblical epistles certainly are forms of such education. Paul wrote to believers in Asia Minor (Ephesians), in Philippi, Thessalonica, Colossae… John wrote to believers in seven churches (Rev 1–3), and to the elder and the elect lady. And these apostles packed their letters with of content that went far beyond accounts of their most recent events, family news, church updates, and political drama. They talked theology, mixing orthodoxy with orthopraxy—which is the goal of distance education.
My introduction to actually teaching via distance ed came when I led my first course in Italy. Students from across the world were able to participate because we did not require them to be based in Texas. So even though I got to teach in an embodied setting, I had many students who could be there only because they were getting most of their training by distance. This past year in Italy, we had people from Albania, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, and the US, and their varied perspectives added to the richness of everyone’s experience.
I took my first plunge into teaching a live distance course last semester. In what I describe as a Hollywood Squares setup, twelve of us logged on at the same time and could see each other on the screen in squares of four rows divided into three columns. And inside those squares were living, breathing, interacting humans.
Our semester began with a student in Houston having to leave class early because victims of Hurricane Harvey—strangers she planned to feed and house— were arriving. The following month, a student in Florida endured the hurricane that tore through that state. So we heard about the rescue efforts from someone who was there. Then a student living in Las Vegas told of the shootings in her city from the perspective of someone ministering on the ground.
Through the accounts of these students, I saw that what we had lost in embodiment, we had gained in broadness of perspective. And not only that, each of those providing “boots on the ground” was able to stay in his or her respective ministry rather than having to uproot to move to Dallas thanks to distance education. So in a real way, ministry was multiplied through our flexible learning platform.
Paul expressed his longing to see people he was discipling by long distance. Here’s a sampling:
- Romans 1:11 – I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong.
- Romans 15:24 – When I go to Spain…I hope to see you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while.
- 2 Timothy 1:4 – Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.
Yet while awaiting the ideal, he used every opportunity to impart truth through the means available to him. And that’s what I hope to do too.
This spring for the first time, Dr. Gary Barnes and I are offering a course in sexual ethics that addresses many of the issues ministry workers must be equipped to handle in their work. The lecturers we invited last year cannot come to teach every semester. But thanks to their agreement to let us film them, we can offer some of their good content to students who live all over the world. And those students don’t have to quit their jobs and relocate to have access to the information.
Indeed, thanks to distance ed, more and more international students are able to stay in their home countries rather than uprooting families, which means they can forego all the inconvenience and expense of relocating. Even as visas become harder to come by, distance education allows content to penetrate into areas where other governments are at odds with ours. The result is a strengthened church across the world.
Last week two of my distance students showed up on the Dallas campus and gave me big hugs. It was great to meet them face to face after hours seeing each other only via screens. There’s no doubt about it—I will always prefer the ability to wipe a tear and deliver a hug. But I’m a convert to distance ed. Because I see that it doesn’t have to be either/or. Through the magic of internet interaction, education can be both/and.