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The Table Video

James K.A. Smith, Betsy Barber& Todd Pickett

Online Learning: Helpful or Hurtful?

Professor of Philosophy / Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College
Director, Center for Spiritual Renewal and Associate Professor of Spirituality and Psychology, Biola University
Dean of Spiritual Development, Biola University
March 28, 2014

The era of technological learning is upon us. But online learning is, de facto, exclusively about information transfer. But what about communing together to be formed? Does online learning, as accessible as it is, reduce us to our minds? Is online learning helpful or harmful? James K.A. Smith, Betsy Barber, and Todd Pickett in a CCT Conversation on Embodied Spirituality: Exploring Christian Spiritual Formation.


What about if your university is your computer, and you’re doing distance learning, which is a wonderful and horrible opportunity for us? [James laughs] We have to do it. There will be people we can reach with a Christian university that otherwise would never have this. Yeah, it seems to me anytime we put something online, we are making every single one of our students learning-disabled, because now they’re isolated in some way, and it’s not a breath relationship. How do we do formation online?

It’s a mode of learning that is almost de facto about information transfer, right? As you say, if you’re comparing that to nothing, it’s a benefit. If you’re comparing that to the full-orbed formational communal project that we know as traditional residential undergraduate liberal arts education, it’s hard to kind of imagine those two things side by side.

The one innovation I’ve heard of that tries to at least honor this challenge is looking for ways to let online learners in other places find one another for communities of practice and/or finding congregations and communities that will basically host peer learning groups that make this more embodied, more communal, more practiced. You could imagine, for example, that everyone in our class, even though we’re all across the country and around the globe, we nonetheless actually commit to certain practices, say a morning and evening prayer, and even though we are isolated, in common we are praying the divine hours or something like that.

Again, I’m not convinced that that’s the ideal, but maybe in the real, that’s not a bad strategy of response.

We’ve talked about for our spiritual formation classes, as we put them online, sending along a light this candle, smell this incense, you know, get down on your knees, and now we’re gonna all pray together in that kind of instant Skype networking way that we can do.

It does show the challenge, though, doesn’t it, of the kind of cultural liturgies of media and communication, that sometimes they are just loaded to be reductionistic. They, ironically, reduce us to lines that connect online, even though we are obviously bodies.

But they may awaken desire, which then this person will go out and find a church wherever they are.

This is why the intellectual project is so crucial. The other thing that’s going on in an education is you are actually inviting people to think about the practices that they’re immersed in, so that they can then have new intentionality. What communities of practice do you want to shape you? Or what communities of practice have you been immersed in that you didn’t realize were communities of practice and were functioning liturgically? That’s an intellectual insight that is part of a Christian education.

That’s right.

One of the temptations I find even with talking to people online, if I’m Skyping or other things, it seems like the online screen, which is usually filled with links, links that you can go elsewhere if you’re bored for a moment so you can leave, so the screen almost intuitively, even as I approach it, I feel my body, if I’m bored for a second, I’ll get to leave and go someplace more exciting.

Betsy: Facebook.

Yeah, and so that is going to be the one temptation, even as we kind of create a kind of interpersonal experience on computers, while I may walk away from somebody in person, and that would be pretty rude, there is kind of this extra temptation on a screen that has formed me habitually to want to go elsewhere in a moment.

How do we form ourself to check in with the Holy Spirit even in front of the screen and saying Lord, what do You have for me right now? You’re with me in this body. What do You have for me?

Well, and there could be very concrete institutional architecture that frames it so that, for example, you kind of eliminate those temptations in your online interface. I’m kind of pro-paternalism in some of these respects.

It’s what Cass Sunstein calls nudging. Nudging is where you basically set up institutional spaces that just kind of constrain your choice architecture, but it’s for your good, so then you’re sort of propelled. Otherwise, again, we’re thrown back on the individual willpower, and I don’t have that. I need the Spirit, and I need the community to help me live this out.