Higher education is undergoing a paradigmatic shift at present with the advent of mature delivery systems for online education. My school, Dallas Theological Seminary, is no exception. We have an active online ed department that develops new courses on a regular basis. I myself have designed two online courses, our first two semesters of Greek, and I am scheduled to soon develop our third and fourth semesters of Greek into online offerings. This sea change is driven by lots of forces. Technology has improved, making for a better online experience. Students desire online courses more and more because they are less disruptive to settled life patterns than residential courses. Even educational accrediting agencies are making fundamental changes, soon allowing entire degrees to be given online.
All of these changes are forcing seminaries into some difficult discussions. Online education challenges some fundamental philosophical models, especially within Christian education. One could even say that there are some theological issues in play, including the nature of the human person and the best environment for spiritual growth. The trend certainly is to move with abandon into online ed; the argument often given is a financial one, namely, that the institutions which don't move in that direction will readily lose students to those that do. I certainly see the value of online ed, but I am not convinced yet that we should allow it to eclipse our residential campuses.
Interestingly enough, I think Steve Jobs would agree.
When Steve Jobs designed the new headquarters for Pixar, he built into its structure a fundamental belief about how people interact. Instead of isolating individuals and departments, he believed the building should enhance meetings and collaboration. Walter Isaacson writes about this on p. 431 (Kindle location 7455) of his biography of Jobs:
Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” he said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” So he had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity,” he said.
Even though Jobs was talking about how the design of a building and spontaneous creativity that develops in face-to-face contact, while I am talking about spiritual growth and preparation for ministry, the point is essentially the same. People develop best--do their best work. so to speak--when they are in direct contact with other people. There is something tangible and life altering about direct human contact that pixels will never replace. We need to recognize this and consciously incorporate it into our changing educational models. I don't think that we should abandon online ed; instead we should recognize that it can serve a purpose, albeit a restrictive one, in an educational program that emphasizes direct personal contact overall.