by Jon Lewis
Distance education is the most powerful dynamic affecting training institutions today.
Distance education is the most powerful dynamic affecting training institutions today. It has the potential to totally redesign education as we know it. Peter Drucker claims that distance education could make university campuses relics in 30 years.1
However, in their rush to adopt the new DE trend for themselves, schools run the risk of misapplying the technology at great expense to themselves and with poor results. This article will provide some food for thought to anyone wanting to begin using DE in a mission context. I do not have a great deal of experience in DE but am an interested bystander who has watched DE being applied in mission settings.
Because of its involvement with communication networks in the Majority World, Mission Aviation Fellowship has found its resources used by many missions and church organizations as a platform for DE to some of the most remote corners of the world. As MAF’s vice president for research and planning, I have observed and coordinated some of these efforts. It is from this vantage point, on the sidelines of DE, but with some technical application experience, that I offer these observations.
DEFINING DISTANCE EDUCATION
DE is not a technology—it is a methodology. Today, DE has become synonymous with training at a distance using computers and information technology. But really, DE is not new. It has been around for a long time via correspondence courses, cassette and videotape training, and broadcast classes by radio or TV. For most of its life, however, DE has been the Cinderella of education—the looked-down-upon half-sister of residential institutions. But the recent advances in information technology—notably e-mail and the Internet—have given DE an equal footing with traditional classroom education. In fact, if Drucker’s prophecy is correct, DE may one day become preeminent.
Many view it as simply a means to expand the audience of their existing classrooms—of teacher and student functioning as they always have, except separated at a greater distance. Following this perspective, some schools have poured huge amounts of funds into specialized electronic classrooms designed to transmit their current course offerings to extension students at remote sites. But DE is really much more than a way to expand student enrollment. It is a new paradigm of education and is actually redefining some of our learning methods.
In the mission world, DE means different things to different people. It has become the catch-all phrase for a whole range of new technologies related to education. Some of those are:
1. Full Web-based courses: Putting interactive courses on a Web server that can be accessed by students utilizing Web browser software.
2. Real-time audio/video conferencing: Sending audio and/or video transmissions from a live classroom to extension students who can participate simultaneously at another location. This can involve either one-way or two-way links, the latter allowing extension students to participate with the live classroom students.
3. Streaming audio/video: Students can download from the Web or main computer server audio or video recordings of lectures and view them at their own convenience.
4. Text-based e-mail courses: This has been particularly appropriate for application in the Majority World, where computer hardware and modem connections are still expensive.
5. Online conferencing: A variation of e-mail courses, the online conference enables a virtual community to develop between teacher and students. The conference server facilitates the transmission and archiving of messages.
6. Electronic whiteboards: These allow a teacher’s notes to automatically be digitized and sent to a student’s computer in the classroom or at a distance.
7. Power Point presentations: Lectures using this software can be sent by e-mail or stored on the Web for retrieval by future students.
8. Digital libraries: The ultimate power of DE will be the ability to access incredibly vast numbers of books in digital form. As more and more institutions link their libraries, students will seamlessly search and retrieve books from anywhere in the world.
9. Electronic books: As a natural extension of the digital library, these will be the platforms from which that information can be found and retrieved. Already several units are available, including the well-known Palm Pilot, which can download and store multiple books from electronic libraries.
When it comes to mission application, there appear to be two main trends or philosophies: Instructor Led Courses (ILC) and Computer Based Training (CBT). ILC is based on creating a virtual classroom of multiple students, while CBT is designed for individual study.
ILC can use either the Internet or low-bandwidth e-mail, but it is always centered around a teacher leading a community of students. Instructors can send reading material and assignments and receive completed papers, reports, tests, etc. Students benefit from a high level of interaction with each other, no matter where they are. Courses usually happen over a defined time, but students do not need to be linked together in real time—making it possible for easy participation over many time zones.
CBT, on the other hand, is designed for more individualized instruction, when a specific start or stop date is not necessary. A complete course is prepared ahead of time and placed on an Internet Web site or CD-ROM so that a student can set his or her own pace. Many CBT courses use sophisticated software that tracks a student’s progress, such as quiz results. These results can then be sent to a course monitor who can track the progress of a number of students. CBT course preparation can take a great deal of time, thought, and expense, depending on the level of computer interactivity, but once complete can be reproduced and marketed at low cost.
Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. A combination of both is often the best. My organization is helping a number of Central Asia training institutions prepare their first DE courses for the Russian-speaking world. Poor or expensive Internet connections favor the CBT model, but the personal interaction of ILC is also a priority for the institutions we are working with.
SUGGESTIONS FOR APPLYING DE
How can a school apply DE successfully? Here are some suggestions.
1. Make full use of the three dimensions of learning. People learn by hearing, seeing, and touching. But they learn best when they use all three. Blackboards, overhead projectors, and small group interaction add much to the traditional lecture. DE, however, incorporates all three through the richness of multimedia. A student can be fully engaged with all his or her senses, helping increase recall.
The problem is that many schools are simply digitizing lectures and text material. This underutilization of DE is like driving an Indianapolis 500 race car at only 35 miles per hour. Traditional course material must be redesigned for the richness of the new medium.
2. Make full use of the fourth dimension of learning—interaction. Traditional classrooms have always provided for a certain amount of this, but usually it has been teacher-to-student or student-to-teacher. The student-to-student interaction that occurs is often limited by a student’s willingness to fully participate.
DE offers the opportunity to expand interaction to a new level. Now it is possible for each student—no matter how timid—to enter a discussion on equal footing with anyone else. Besides this, the virtual classroom can involve students from all over the world, adding a global dimension and cultural richness to any discussion. Even CBT courses that do not link students can enhance the individual’s learning experience by providing constant interaction and feedback.
3. Make use of the speed DE allows to search related material. Courses properly designed for DE technology should make it easy to access related material. DE can fully employ hot links and hypertext. This should not be underestimated. Innovation often requires extensive data; the ability to search that data makes discovery possible. But the time needed to search for related material in the conventional manner often deters even the most dedicated student from completing thorough research. These barriers have been removed.
4. Use DE to provide multiple paths to get to the learning destination. Typically, a teacher guides students along a single path of thought toward understanding a concept.
This path depends on the thought process of the teacher. A linearly thinking teacher would be easily followed and understood by students who are linear thinkers. But not all students think or learn that way, and they sometimes are considered “slow” or, worse yet, insubordinate.
DE, using the various technologies of hypertext and multimedia, can offer multiple paths to the same learning destination. (See graphic below.)
A teacher may continue to use his or her primary path of guiding students (dark line on the diagram), but alternate paths are also available. A DE student is free to explore those that might better fit his or her style of learning.
This technique has been beautifully incorporated by Sky Media2 in its Bible survey courses available on CD-ROM. Both with the adult version narrated by Philip Yancey and, to an even greater extent, the Life of Christ children’s CD-ROM, a student can explore multiple learning paths. This kind of environment allows participants to feel in control of the learning process, thus helping them remain interested throughout the course.
5. Use the full potential of hybrid technology. As I mentioned, DE is not just one method of teaching, nor does it utilize just one technology. The combination of technologies is what makes it a powerful education tool for any situation.
For example, in much of the Majority World, computers are already common, but full access to the Internet is either not available or too expensive for many students. Mixing technologies can help. A student could have his primary course material provided on a CD-ROM, which he can access on his desktop computer and then link to his teacher via a simple and more affordable text-only e-mail system.
Through its Digital Circuit Rider project, Progressive Vision3 is producing training courses on DVD (digital videodisk). Chinese pastors will be able to experience interactive learning simply by plugging the DVD unit into any TV set.
6. Couple DE technology with a mentoring network for greatest impact. As institutions rush to offer their DE courses to students in the Majority World, we must remember the high tech/high touch balance.
Linking a school directly with a student via computer or e-mail may work well in the West. But in non-Western nations, where relationships are paramount, DE needs some kind of face-to-face accountability. This is particularly true for future church leaders, who do not need just academic knowledge but also professional training and character development. Instead of depending on direct school-to-student connections (Scenario A below), schools should work through local churches, institutions, and alumni networks that can provide the personal mentoring needed (Scenario B below).
Scenario B provides several advantages. First, the primary institution will be able to make its courses available to students who otherwise would be able to afford it. One computer strategically located in a church or school could be used by a number of students. Second, the local institution can provide face-to-face contact, support, and accountability for students not used to working independently. Third, the local institution, which may well have limited resources, can partner with a resource-rich institution willing to share its courses, faculty, and libraries. In turn, the resource rich institution gains from the other’s real-life input.
THE IMPACT OF DE ON WORLD THEOLOGICAL INSTITUTIONS
Distance education could reinvent Christian training institutions. Most seminaries and Bible schools in the Majority World have been designed following the model of traditional residential institutes in the West. These, in turn, have evolved over the centuries from the time of ancient Greece. Formal learning has usually been understood to have the following elements:
1. A physical campus that houses a community of scholars;
2. A classroom environment where a teacher imparts knowledge to students;
3. A library; which is the repository of academic wisdom;
4. An accreditation and degree system that bestows value to the education received at that institution.
This is a localized and inward-focused dynamic. I call this a centripetal model—one that pulls toward the center.
Steven Covey, in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People4, talks about the fact that each person has a circle of concern and a circle of influence.
Formal education at residential institutions may have a large circle of concern, but their circles of influence are quite small—impacting primarily those on their campuses. Once students become alumni, for all practical purposes, they move out of the school’s circle of influence.
Theological institutions should no longer view themselves as fortresses of knowledge and bastions of truth, but instead as beacons of hope and epicenters of change. They should recognize the tremendous impact they can have on their surrounding communities and cultures by sharing what they offer to more than just an on-campus student body.
DE can make this happen, helping existing schools expand their circles of influence to encompass their circles of concern. It can help change a school’s thrust from inward to outward. Imagine what greater impact a school could have if it maintained mentoring relationships with its alumni. This could have an added impact of keeping faculty fresh and connected to current experiences.
One excellent example of a centrifugal model is the Central Asia Leadership Training Center (CALTec) in Almaty, Kazakstan. After two years of intensive training at the Almaty campus, CALTec intends to equip its graduates with computers and e-mail plus a small stipend to sustain them for the following three years. During that time, they remain in close contact and are accountable as they engage in church-planting efforts.
Schools could also target key Christian leaders in churches, hospitals, schools, and businesses with nonformal courses on spiritual growth. This would not only be a valuable asset for strengthening the Christian community, but would also elevate the school and faculty in the eyes of all as a center of influence for God’s kingdom. At the same time, the school benefits by maintaining relevancy with links to real-world situations on a day-by-day basis.
Ultimately, I believe the answer to increased effectiveness in Christian leadership training will involve a creative use of old and new teaching approaches. It will demand a mix of both formal and informal education, of traditional plus DE. As training institutions learn how to exploit the tremendous potential of DE and allow it to reshape their training methods, they will move from a centripetal focus to a centrifugal thrust. They will escape their myopia—overly concerned about tuition, degrees, and accreditation—to become centers of mentoring, impacting ever widening circles of influence for the kingdom of God.
1. Robert Lenzner and Stephen S. Johnson, “Seeing things as they really are,” Forbes, March 10, 1997.
2. Sky Media, 5675 DTC Blvd., Suite 255, Engelwood, CO 80111; Evan Morgan, president.
3. Progressive Vision, P.O. Box 5854, San Clemente, CA 92674; Marcus Vegh, president.
4. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Jon Lewis is vice president for research and planning for Mission Aviation Fellowship U.S. He has served with MAF for 23 years in various capacities, including line pilot and Africa director. Currently he researches new service opportunities around the world, administers MAF’s Ministry Effectiveness Evaluation project, and guides the organizational strategic planning process.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 490-496. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.