by Donald Sommer
When I began my missionary career in the Philippines in 1986, making a long-distance telephone call was a major project. Very few private homes had telephones so there weren’t many people to call anyway.
When I began my missionary career in the Philippines in 1986, making a long-distance telephone call was a major project. Very few private homes had telephones so there weren’t many people to call anyway. When we could contact someone in another city, it involved making a trip to a public calling service, giving the number to an operator and sitting and waiting for up to two hours to be connected. If the call did eventually go through, the quality of the sound was so poor that it was often impossible to effectively communicate.
Sending a telegram was even worse. It was prohibitively expensive to write more than a few words and one was fortunate if it arrived at its destination in less than a week.
I recall many times when I arrived at my destination long before my telegram did and was consequently left stranded at a pier, bus station or airport because no one had heard I would be arriving.
When my family and I completed our service in 1998, fiber optic lines had been installed and good quality telephone service was common. By that time, I had gotten so used to communicating via email that I was frustrated if I had not received a reply from the home office by the next day. Before this technology, I would have expected to wait a month to get a response.
With the explosive spread of the Internet and digital technology today, the possibilities for fast, reliable worldwide communication have increased enormously. I recently had a conversation using a peer-to-peer Internet telephone software program with an old friend in Manila. The sound quality was excellent and there was virtually no lag time between when one person spoke and when the other person heard the voice. A few years ago I would have never considered making such a call using a traditional telephone due to the high cost. Now we were able to talk for forty-five minutes and it didn’t cost us anything.
It was ironic that he had a high-speed Internet connection, and I (located in a modern American city) was still using a slow dial-up service.
A couple of months ago I was in an electronic discussion room listening to a Bible teacher explain the book of Romans. I recognized the name of one of the members of the group as a former Filipino colleague. With the Bible teacher continuing his exposition, I started a private text chat with my friend. I was curious as to how accessible this type of computer-based interaction was for a middle-class person in the Philippines. I learned that he purchased online time using a system similar to a calling card. He paid about two dollars for twenty-six hours of connection time.
SEEING TECHNOLOGY IN A NEW LIGHT
In 2002 I visited a ministry outreach in Cameroon, West Africa. I was in a medium-sized city that was more than two hours by bus from the major commercial center of Duoala. One day I entered one of the three Internet cafes in town to check my email. I could overhear a man using one of the computers for an Internet voice chat. He was having an explicit and inappropriate sexual conversation, probably with an anonymous partner in another area of the world.
I realized that if the money, technology and accessibility were available in an African city for something like this, it was time for Christians to get serious about taking advantage of those same resources. However, our goal would be to spread the gospel and to edify the body of Christ.
Most in the missionary community today are aware that computers and the Internet can be used as excellent communication tools. They are also aware of the tremendous informational resources available on the World Wide Web. However, it is time for us to take these resources to the next level and to fully integrate technology into our training and discipleship ministries.
Scenario one: A small mission agency has leadership training centers in five Latin American countries. Their curriculum requires that graduates have a class in biblical Greek; however, the agency has only one person who speaks Spanish that is qualified to teach Greek and he lives in Costa Rica. Furthermore, each of the training centers has only three students at most that are ready for the Greek class at any one time. To solve this dilemma, the mission agency purchases three computers for each of the training centers and provides Internet connection.
The Greek teacher in Costa Rica lectures to each of the students in various locations using a voice chat service that provides password-protected access to a discussion room set up specifically for the class. Students ask questions by clicking a button on the screen that displays an icon of a raised hand next to their names. The instructor, who serves as the moderator of the chat room, calls on the student by yielding control of the microphone.
The voice lecture is enhanced by PowerPoint slides prepared in advance by the instructor and downloaded by each student prior to class. The students view the slides as the teacher lectures. The PowerPoint presentation remains on the computers’ hard drives after class and the students refer to it and use the slides like flash cards to review their vocabulary and grammar between live online sessions.
The students do their homework using a Greek font in Microsoft Word documents. They then email it to the instructor on or before the due date. The exams are overseen by a proctor at each location and submitted as Word documents via email in the same manner as the assignments.
Scenario two: A missionary has served on a particular field for over thirty years. Health issues and family responsibilities have made it necessary for him to return to the United States. During his years on the field he developed an intimate understanding of the culture of the people he worked with and has an idiomatic command of the language. He is discouraged that he now finds himself in a culture that is far more foreign than the one he recently left. He feels that although he spent thirty years developing intercultural communication skills on the mission field, there is no way for him to use his expertise in this new land.
Missionaries still on the field realize this man could teach a systematic theology class in the local seminary by using streaming video technology. Since high-speed Internet access is available in the city where the school is located, one of the classrooms is set up with a connected computer and a video projector. With the help of tech savvy individuals in his home church, the retired missionary is able to set up a simple studio in his house.
The church helps purchase a four-hundred-dollar digital video camera that will record the lectures which will simultaneously be sent via the Internet to the classroom in the remote location halfway around the world. Since the missionary prefers a more traditional style of teaching, the camera can focus on him or on a white board (if he chooses to write on it). This seasoned missionary is able to continue service after leaving the country in which he ministered for many years.
Scenario three: A mission class in an American seminary is studying how best to contextualize the concept of grace cross-culturally. As part of the class they arrange for live voice chat sessions with theologians from around the world. Each theologian is asked to speak on how the culture they live in understands the meaning of grace.
One week a speaker from
Kenya lectures to the students from an African perspective. He explains the cultural understanding of free gifts, what influence African religions have on how a person understands grace and how colonialism has impacted the biblical notion of God’s grace in the African mind.
Speakers are from around the world: China, Southeast Asia, Latin America, South Pacific, Continental Europe and the Middle East. Everyone gives their unique perspective on how their culture understands grace.
After each week’s session, the students are required to write a three hundred-word response to the most recent lecture. Rather than a summary, the paper would be an evaluation which offers suggestions on how to present the biblical concept of grace to that particular culture. These responses are then posted to an electronic discussion board.
Each student is required to post a response, read the responses of the other students and write a reaction to the postings of at least two other students in the form of a threaded discussion. By doing this, the students are forced to construct meaning from the lectures for themselves. They also gain understanding from fellow classmates.
IMPORTANT ERAS OF INFORMATION DISSEMINATION
There have been a number of extremely important developments in history that have dramatically increased our ability to disseminate information. The first development was writing, believed to have been invented around five thousand years ago. Writing has allowed information to be preserved exactly as recorded for others who had no knowledge of the original events or ideas.
The next great event was the invention of the movable-type printing press more than five hundred years ago. This led to the mass production and distribution of writings at a lower cost. About one hundred years ago the advent of electronic technology introduced a new dimension to the way information was delivered.
The ability to broadcast voice and images dramatically reduced the amount of time between an event and its broadcast to the world. The ability to record sounds and pictures on film and tape made multi-media communication a reality.
Today we are witnessing the emergence of the latest era of dramatic growth in the dissemination of information.
The advent of inexpensive digital technology and the Internet makes it possible for information to be delivered in many forms and be available to consumers on demand—anytime, anywhere. Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, explains clearly the impact that the arrival of the Internet and digital communications are having on economics, education, cultures and lifestyles.
Each of the previous developments have been used effectively by the Church to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and there is every reason to believe that Internet technology will have an equally dramatic impact toward the goal of world evangelization.
DISTANCE EDUCATION AND DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY
Distance education is not a new phenomenon. Paper-based correspondence lessons date back to the days of the Pony Express (Valentine 2002). Today, however, because of a combination of demographic changes, new expectations in the workplace and technological advances, distance education has become a common method of instruction (Kovel-Jarboe 1999). Over eighty percent of American colleges and universities offer classes via the Internet.
In missions, distance learning methods have historically played an important role in training and leadership development. Correspondence Bible studies and Theological Education by Extension (TEE) have long been essential elements in the missionary’s arsenal of discipleship tools. The inability for potential students to leave their homes and occupations in order to study in a full-time residential school has been the main driving force behind the creation of distance learning programs. These methods have seen varying degrees of success. The most common reason for lack of success is a failure to complete the required coursework (Crook 2001). This is often due to the lack of a structured study schedule and/or insufficient or delayed feedback from the instructor. Both problems can be overcome using online distance learning techniques.
Online learning is far more than an electronic correspondence course.
Online distance learning can be placed into two general categories: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous means that the instructors and learners are interacting with one another in real time, such as in a live audio, video or text chat session. Asynchronous learning involves any learning activities that take place when the teacher and learners are not interacting with one another at the same time. This type of instruction can take a variety of forms: viewing a previously-taped lecture from a CD-ROM, listening to a streaming audio file, responding to a reading assignment by posting one’s thoughts to an electronic discussion board or asking the teacher questions via email.
Success in distance learning is greatly increased by frequent interaction between the instructor and the students (Crook 2001). A synchronous session can be treated just like a traditional class in which attendance is taken, thus forcing students into the same type of structured routine they would experience in a face-to-face classroom. The immediacy of email and discussion board postings eliminates the long turnaround times between coursework and feedback associated with other forms of distance education.
A NEW PARADIGM OF TEACHING
Teaching using modern technology cannot be done with a “business as usual” approach. The teacher cannot talk into a microphone the same way he or she may lecture in a classroom (the effectiveness of this method has long been questioned anyway). Online teaching requires new techniques that engage the students in the learning process. Effective online learning must incorporate a variety of teaching methods that are characterized by student-to-student collaborative learning, the multi-media presentation of content and frequent interaction between students and instructors (Levin, et al 2001).
There are numerous ways to create teaching environments that meet the above criteria. Electronic slide presentations can allow lecture notes and supplementary material to accompany a synchronous session. Discussion boards facilitate the interactivity and collaboration that encourages authentic learning. Streaming audio and video files can be placed on a Web server and can be accessed at the convenience of the students. Required reading from websites or scanned documents can be viewed online and discussed among the students. There are numerous texts and reference books that are available online or on CD-ROM. There may also be interactive software that permits immediate feedback to the learner.
FREE AND EASY
There are two common concerns voiced when online distance education is discussed: (1) the fear that technology is prohibitively expensive and (2) the belief that only highly-trained computer experts can set up a distance learning program. Nothing could be further from the truth. The computer hardware needed is common and well within the budgets of most mission organizations. In most cases, even donated, used equipment has the capability to run the software necessary for distance learning. Most common software applications are often used: Internet Explorer, Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.
Common instant messaging services such as Yahoo!, AOL and MSN are all that are needed to create high-quality voice and video conferencing sessions. The free service PalTalk provides excellent features for setting up classroom-like discussion rooms. MSN Groups allows users to create discussion rooms that closely resemble those of expensive proprietary products such as Blackboard (commonly used by colleges and universities to facilitate student interaction in online classes). For less than one hundred dollars, products can be purchased which will allow individuals to create high-quality audio and video files that can be streamed over the Internet or placed on CD-ROM or DVD.
AudioStreamPlus is an inexpensive and easy-to-use product for creating streaming audio files. This application converts audio files into the highly-compressed swf format and embeds them in a webpage that can be played through the popular Macromedia Flash player that is installed in nearly ninety percent of Internet-accessible computers. A simple demonstration of this product can be viewed and listened to at www.pmabcf.org/weblearn.
Most of these products are designed with the average consumer in mind. They are generally easy to use and their features can be discovered intuitively.
WHAT ABOUT THE PERSONAL TOUCH?
Many feel that one simply can’t replace the free interaction and exchange of ideas that takes place in a face-to-face classroom by sitting in front of a computer screen. Online distance learning does not need to replace the traditional classroom; rather, it can be used as a supplement.
Online instruction can utilize qualified teachers when none are available locally. It can also make training available to students who are unable to travel to a central location.
Utilizing distance education can allow the faculty of a ministry training center to refocus their work from that of relating facts to teaching spiritual development.
Distance education makes it possible for content experts from anywhere in the world to communicate the basic subject matter, thus freeing the field missionary or national worker to become more of a mentor to the students. Rather than devoting time to preparing lectures, grading papers and keeping records, missionaries physically near the students can focus on how this information can transform their lives.
A GOOD STRATEGY
During my forty-five-minute conversation with the friend from Manila, I learned that one of the main concerns of young, educated Filipinos during the 2004 United States presidential election was how each candidate would address the issue of job outsourcing.
A booming industry in the Philippines, India and several other developing countries is that of call centers. U.S. firms hire overseas workers to answer customer support inquiries from American consumers. These nations are seeing a dramatic rise in an educated middle-class that is tech savvy and open to the realities of a changing world. This is just the group that is likely to look beyond traditional boundaries and seriously consider the claims of Jesus Christ.
Recent statistics reveal that nearly fifteen percent of the world’s population uses the Internet (Miniwatts International 2005). The growth of Internet usage is a robust thirty-three percent per year, with the fastest growth in Africa, where Internet access swelled by 428 percent from 2000 to 2005.
The African Virtual University is a project sponsored by the World Bank that offers online college courses which can be accessed throughout Africa.
It is true that much of the technology discussed in this article is not available in many of the places traditionally targeted by missionaries, namely, remote villages in undeveloped majority world nations. However, modern missions is changing as strategic thinking sees the need for the Church to focus evangelistic and church planting efforts on the ever-expanding urban areas in the world. Increasingly, these cities are being populated by young, educated people who have grown up with exposure to digital technology. These are people that are reading websites from around the world. They are aware of the cultural turmoil faced by people all over the globe and understand how the Internet plays into that instability.
Likewise, this is a generation seeking answers to the most fundamental of human questions about who they are and how they fit into the plan of a greater reality. Young learners worldwide will increasingly be exposed to some form of online training and will not only be willing to study it, but may even come to expect and demand it.
The possible applications for integrating technology into instruction are limited only by our imaginations. These possibilities are only going to increase as computer hardware and software continues to develop and as sophisticated products become more readily available to common users.
The secular world is already using these technologies. Now it is time for the Church to take advantage of the full potential that these technological advances have to offer to more effectively communicate the life-changing message of the Savior, Jesus Christ.
Crook, Bob. 2001. Staying the Course: Retaining Online Students. [videorecording] Dallas, Tex.: Dallas Teleconferences.
Friedman, Thomas. 2005. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kovel-Jarboe, Patricia. 1999. “The Changing Contexts of Higher Education and Four Possible Futures for Distance Education.” Retrieved October 25, 2005 from http://horizon.unc.edu/projects/issues/papers/kovel.asp.
Levin, Sandra; Waddoups, Gregory; Levin, James; and James Buell. 2001. “Highly Interactive and Effective Online Learning Environments for Teacher Professional Development.” In International Journal of Educational Technology, 2(2). Retrieved October 25, 2005 from www.ao.uiuc.edu/ijet/v2n2/slevin/index.html.
Miniwatts International, Ltd. 2005. “Internet Usage Statistics—The Big Picture.” Retrieved October 25, 2005 from www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm.
Valentine, Doug. 2002. “Distance Learning: Promises, Problems and Possibilities.” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 5(3). Retrieved October 25, 2005 from www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/fall53/valentine53.html.
Donald Sommer served in the Philippines from 1986 to 1998 with Things to Come Mission. Donald is director of Prison Mission Association and is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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