E-Learning: learning conducted via electronic media, typically on the Internet  (Oxford Dictionary)

10997876_sDuring our recent trip to North America, a number of things happened that reinforced my calling to champion the foundational role of personal relationships in Christian formation. One was the following Facebook message I received from a friend after we had spent some time together.

Thanks for always making time for me, ever since my teenage days. There is no doubt in my mind that a great part of my understanding of discipleship and spiritual friendship was downloaded from you — even before we started using those words. Besides paying forward what I have received from you, I hope I will figure out how to reciprocate friendship to you tangibly.

This was a brother I had first met when I was a student in Regent in the early ’80s. He is almost 50 now and serving as a pastor. His note reminded me that in a day when e-learning is blossoming, there are still some things that can be conveyed only through the personal encounter of “face to face” (2 John 12).

Call it a sign if you like. During our trip I also received a gift, a book that gives a clarion call to maintain the personal dimension in Christian education. Our friend Bill Reimer, manager of Regent College Bookstore gifted us with a copy of James M. Houston & Bruce Hindmarsh’s For Christ and His Kingdom (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 2013). It contained the opening and closing addresses at the first Canadian National Forum on Christian Higher Education that took place in Edmonton in May 2012.

Entitled “The Transmission of Living Faith”, Bruce Hindmarsh’s address defends the need for intellectual and spiritual integrity in transmitting the Christian faith to the next generation. Hindmarsh alludes to the teachers that shaped his life and how it was the personal connection that made the difference. He writes:

My guess is that you have your own list of teachers who have shaped your life, and that it was for you, as for me, a very personal business.

When I was a new graduate student at Regent College in the 1980s, I wrote a paper for Jim Houston, which came back with several helpful comments but also with something entirely unexpected: his phone number. He had written his phone number on the bottom of the last page of my research paper along with an invitation to come over to the house to discuss things further. (For Christ and His Kingdom, 36.)

We are not surprised then that a large part of Houston’s own address, “Embracing the Personal in Christian Education”, is an apologia for living and teaching personally. Houston maintains that a personal approach to education is the only approach that takes seriously how God has made us. He writes:

So I agree with Parker Palmer in his significant book The Courage to Teach that it is the inner character of the teacher that counts more than all the changes to and redesigns of our curriculum of education. In his book, he explores “the heart of the teacher” as having identity and integrity so that beyond the superficial issues raised by the questions of “what,” “how,” or even “why” we teach, we ask “who” we teach. As Lord Bullock, Master of St Catherine’s college, where I did some teaching, used to tell us, “It is an immature tutor whose primary interest is ‘the subject’; rather it is the mature teacher whose primary interest is the pupil.” (For Christ and His Kingdom, 53.)

While I champion and try to practice an approach to teaching that takes seriously the personal and relational dimensions of education, I am also encountering many who are enthusiastically championing e-learning. During the trip I met a Christian educator who told me that with online learning, his seminary could now reach many more students who otherwise could not have benefited from the top-notch education his school provided because of constraints of money and/or distance. E-learning will only get bigger, both in secular and faith-based education, because of the confluence of a number of factors:

. . . a number of big changes are coming at the same time: high-speed mobile networks, cheap tablet devices, the ability to process huge amounts of data cheaply, sophisticated online gaming and adaptive-learning software. (“E-ducation,” The Economist, June 29th, 2013, 11.)

E-learning promises much for those who take seriously the individual in education. The following comments are about children’s education but the same would hold for adults.

At its heart is the idea of moving from “one-size-fits-all” education to a more personalised approach, with technology allowing each child to be taught at a different speed, in some cases by adaptive computer programs, in some cases by “superstar” lecturers of one sort of another while the job of classroom teachers move from orator to coach . . . (“E-ducation,” The Economist June 29th 2013, 11.)

Indeed e-learning holds the promise of using precious classroom time for personal tutoring.

Today students in most classrooms sit, listen and take notes while a professor lectures . . . there is little to no human interaction . . . Virtual tools are providing an opportunity to rethink this methodology. If a lecture is available online, class time can be freed for discussion, peer tutoring or professor led exploration. (Salman Khan, “No More Lockstep Learning,” Scientific American, August 2013, 57.)

In my concern that e-learning will compromise the personal dimension in Christian education, I have often come across as a Luddite, suspicious of new technology and resisting its use. I think some of my fears are valid. For example, with e-learning there is the temptation of numbers — “we can now reach so many people in so many places” and this won’t hurt the bottom line either. It will be so easy for pragmatism to trump biblical theology and we dismiss the personal dimension altogether. But in doing so we fall prey to a new reductionism that does not take seriously the importance of relationships in the shaping of faith. Inconvenient though it may have been, Jesus did make a personal appearance (John 1:14). He didn’t just Skype us from heaven.

But I remind myself that technology is, to a large extent, neutral. It’s how we use it that matters. So I am taking a long hard look at how we can better use the tools we now have to teach in ways that take seriously the individual student. But I will still be having students over at our home, I will still be having meals with my students in small groups, and meeting up with them one on one when needed. I need to hear their stories. I need to know them as much as I can so that I can better connect what I want to teach to where they are in their lives.

As for the friend who sent me the Facebook message, I will tell him that getting his note was reward enough, and I had the added joy of knowing that he is also trying to shape lives personally. I pass on what I have received. I too was a student of Dr Houston.