Growing up, I went to a school building and sat in a physical classroom next to my classmates and teacher. I liked some and—I confess—thoroughly disliked others, but never thought that hard about what education was all about. I just knew I was supposed to be in school all day, every day, along with everyone else.
In sixth grade our class was selected to pilot an exciting new program called the “Calculator Project.” We got to use electronic calculators in math class rather than having to figure everything out in our heads or on paper. It felt a little bit like cheating, but we all thought it was cool that these handheld devices could do hard math so quickly and accurately.
Needless to say, the world of education and its use of technology has fundamentally changed in the past four decades.
I recently read an article stating that after twenty-five years, Moody Bible Institute (my son’s alma mater) is closing its Spokane, WA extension campus and significantly cutting faculty at its main Chicago campus. In addition, Fuller Seminary (my alma mater) is closing three of its eight extension sites within the next two years and downsizing by selling its main Pasadena campus. In a recent survey, 1 in 8 university presidents expressed concern that their school would close in the next five years—all due to severely declining enrollment.
The reason for all this reduction is clear: online distance learning is quickly gaining market share and drastically reducing student numbers at traditional campus-based institutions.
Education is not dead, of course, but it is changing—rapidly and radically.
Contemporary studies also indicate that online education produces as good, or in some cases, better educational outcomes than traditional residential campus models of education. To be honest, I’m still not sure I believe it. I don’t want to believe it.
Because of my age, I am hopeful that it might still be possible to finish my teaching career spending a significant portion of it physically present and face-to-face with students who are actually there. But realism tells me this kind of educational experience will become increasingly rare. It appears that much of future education will be progressively localized and virtual.
Every educational model has problems and limitations. I am not lamenting the loss of the traditional model because I am a traditionalist. Old models of education have many problems and weaknesses. There are some things I will not miss about it, like, for instance, the tendency to lack collaborative learning. In addition, we cannot assume that taking a large block of time away from the contexts of “real life” will somehow result in students being able to remember and apply the mass of material presented at the residential school when they return to the “real world.”
And yet, I wonder what important things will be left behind in these “new” and “emerging” virtual models. I suspect the main thing will be the overt embodiment of truth and goodness in those students and teachers with whom and from whom we are learning. In short, we will not be physically “rubbing shoulders” with the ones we are learning with and from.
This is a tragic and significant loss, especially in Christian education. Disembodying virtue and veracity is dangerous when making disciples. God did not send disembodied messages and sets of commands when He wanted to make Himself known and help us grow in godliness and wisdom. Rather, He sent real-life leaders and prophets like Moses, Isaiah, and Elijah to share and flesh them out. Ultimately, He sent Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, who is the epitome of what it means to embody virtuous grace and truth.
Is campus and residential-based education dead? Not yet, but in many ways, it faces the danger of extinction. Purely online education is an information delivery system, but little more. It can too easily uncouple knowledge from the concrete realities of embodied life. True wisdom requires knowledge, but knowledge that is observable and well-applied in the everyday lives of those who want and claim to possess it.
My greatest teachers were great not just because they were well-informed, but because they were wise and personally available to me in ways that were concretely formative and meaningful. I ate with them, laughed with them, mourned with them, and struggled with them. I directly observed them living well as they loved and interacted with God, their wives, their children, their students, and even their pets.
The Apostle Paul knew we needed real-life models and examples if we were to succeed in following Jesus. That is why he told the Corinthians to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” and urged the Philippians to “join in imitating me and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” We need embodied examples of what truth and goodness actually look like in the frequently confusing contexts of our lives.
An education—residential or virtual—that fails to provide living models in close proximity with other learners is impoverished and incomplete. The separation of instruction from instructor and those instructed is inherent to distance education. This problem of separation is not insurmountable, but it must be adequately and creatively addressed so that future education does not become a contemporary form of ancient Gnosticism where the message is all that matters and becomes wholly detached and disconnected from the embodied character of those who share and live it out.