14030730_sDo you want to learn about Artificial Intelligence from one of the top experts on the subject? Now you can. Professor Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University is offering his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online and for free.

His remote students will get the same lectures as campus students paying US$50,000 (S$65,400) a year, the same assignments, the same exams and, if they pass, a “statement of accomplishment” (although not Stanford credit). (Bill Keller, “Tomorrow’s university: Free, online, everywhere,” The Straits Times, October 4 2011, A19.)

Prof Thrun says that his online students would get the same quality of education for about 1 to 2 per cent of what they would have to pay if they came to Stanford. Part of the reasons Thrun is pushing for online university teaching — it makes sense economically.

The traditional university, in his view, serves a fortunate few, inefficiently, with a business model built on exclusivity. “I am not at all against the on-campus experience,” he said. “I love it. It’s great. It has a lot of things which cannot be replaced by anything online. But it’s also insanely uneconomical.” (Bill Keller, A19.)

What Prof Thrun is proposing is not new. Many schools are already offering courses online. And so are many seminaries, Christian organisations and churches. And I am worried.

I have long believed that every teacher teaches two subjects. First they teach the subject that they have been assigned to teach, whether it is Artificial Intelligence, Hermeneutics, baking, or how to play the piano. But every teacher also teaches their students a second subject — they teach their students about life and this can only take place in the face-to-face encounters of live teaching. Sharon Daloz Parks captures this principle well in her book Leadership Can Be Taught.

In all educational experiences, people to one degree or another model themselves after the teacher, learning things that are not in the explicit content of what is being said or read, but that are implicit in the way the teacher goes about teaching. It is easy for teachers to underestimate how much is being taught about “how to be” that goes unexamined. Students unconsciously drink in, for example, the way a teacher models the resolution of conflicts in class, solve problems, handles the introduction of deviant, innovative, troubling, or confusing points of view, and exercises authority. Lessons about professionalism and expertise are absorbed and reinforced class after class — year after year. (Shalon Daloz Parks, Leadership Can be Taught, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2005, 233).

Parks is talking about leadership training for the marketplace but she might as well be talking about Christian discipleship.

In his last letter to Timothy, Paul reminds Timothy about his teaching but also how those truths he taught had been modelled by his life and the lives of Timothy’s other mentors, probably his mother and grandmother.

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings, what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it . . . (2 Timothy 3: 10-14 NIV)

The most important truths in life must be both taught and modelled. Jesus could have beamed us spiritual truths from heaven, using technology superior to anything Apple could have come up with. But He came in person. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14a NIV).” So Paul understood that teaching must be truth taught by words and by life, that the most important things in life are both taught and caught. (I wonder if Prof Thrun would have become this brilliant innovative scholar and teacher if he had received his training online.)

Sometimes I wonder if I am an old-fashioned Luddite resisting progress. God knows there have been many well-meaning Luddites in history that slowed down the progress of perfectly good changes. I like to believe that my concerns are biblical, and they take seriously the bible’s own teaching about what it means to be human and how we are to teach the most important lessons of life.

Online learning can teach me content. A good online lecture or sermon can inspire me. But only live teaching, where I actually interact with a real person in real time, can shape my heart. Mr John Hennessy, Standford’s president, understands this. He sees online teaching

supplanting the large lecture that is often filled with students paying more attention to their laptops. He endorses online teaching as a way to educate students, in their developing world or our own, who cannot hope for the full campus experience. (Keller, A19.)

But we yell amen when Hennessy goes on to say

There is nothing quite like the give and take of a live community to hone critical thinking, writing, and public speaking skills . . . And it’s not at all clear that online students learn the most important lesson of all: how to keep learning. (Keller, A19.)

From the context of the church, we would argue that the most important lesson we need to learn is how can we be better followers of Jesus? How can we grow in Christ-likeness? Can online teaching effectively teach these lessons?

Christians are concerned about what we teach. We want to make sure that the content of our teaching is true and biblical. But we also need to be concerned about how we teach. There should be no uncritical embracing of online teaching for example, without proper reflection as to whether it is the proper way to teach so that lives are changed. We should not be seduced by the same arguments that the world uses — it’s a cheap way to reach more people faster. Are cheap, fast and many, necessarily biblical values? Let me go discuss this with my spiritual friendship group.