Online Education: Relation-less Education

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TylerR's picture


It seems the higher education purists will never run out of arcane reasons why the brick and mortar approach (what if the campus isn't constructed from brick . . . ?) is the "best." It's always hilarious to read these articles. It is a sign of true desperation when your best argument is, "But, but . . . the relationships!" To which I respond, "But, but . . . email, telephone and virtual classrooms!" 

Perhaps some of these might help ease the pain of beholding the blessing that is virtual education . . .

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dcbii's picture


I have a somewhat mixed view of online education, but I agree that the benefits are real, and that traditional educational institutions will need to change.

My undergraduate degree was in math, but was in general a liberal arts education with many required non-major classes.  I would estimate that for at least half of my classes (i.e. ~2 years worth), I was in large classrooms, sometimes even *very* large lecture halls.  I had NO relationship with the instructor at all, and most communication was in the form of notes left on my assignments, tests, etc.

I still think that even with the need for labs or other hands-on type work, and meeting for office hours with the teacher (again, not super common, except perhaps for the major and minor), there would be ways to overcome the disadvantages of having the education be entirely virtual.  You already mentioned email, telephone (or something like Skype) and virtual classrooms.  Those are plenty good for communicating with the teacher or assistants. In addition, there could be regional accredited "resource centers" where one could go to do labs or the other hands-on work, and get access to large computing resources, etc.

Of course, there are probably some aspects of education that can't be done in the best way remotely.  However, there is no need for an entire 4 years (or 6-8 including grad school) of having to be there in person to get all the benefits of an excellent college education.

Dave Barnhart

T Howard's picture

Article wrote:

  • Take classes in your pajamas (or less)!
  • Why relocate?
  • Learn at your own pace.
  • Keep your day job.
  • Pay less. A lot less (but read the fine print!).

These, and a number of other “benefits”, are convincing significant numbers of students to abandon traditional “brick and mortar” universities, opting for their online counterparts.

I must have chosen the wrong seminary.

I don't get the option of learning at my own pace. Each class is pretty structured with deadlines and due dates each week. I did try to complete all the required reading before class started each semester. But, you could do that anywhere.

I tried to relocate my family of six closer to the seminary I chose. No jobs.

I don't get a tuition discount for being an on-line student. I think I actually pay more.

That being said, I am very thankful for the opportunity to attend seminary and to have met many of my professors in person over the last 6 years.

Bert Perry's picture

My daughter is taking an online class in Spanish, and let it be said that (as T. Howard notes about his experience) she does not get to learn at her own pace, and it's not a lot cheaper.  The only time I've taken online classes that were likely cheaper was at work, and those were pretty much worthless because they indeed just recorded things.  Real online classes do have the opportunity for back and forth between instructor and student, and that's why a lot of them aren't much cheaper than on site classes.  The big cost driver is the instructor, not the classroom, and he can only teach so many people.  

That said, the fact of the matter is that moving to another city for seminary is just plain expensive, especially if you're not in your late teens or early twenties.  You lose about 10% of your house's value, might have to take a lesser paying job, etc..    So when a school has something fairly unique to offer, I heartily encourage online learning. 


Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

As I reflect on my 6 years as an on-line seminary student, I'd say the hardest classes I took were my on-line Hebrew classes (waw disjunctive, anyone?). But, I don't think they were more difficult because they were on-line. They were difficult because of all the vocab I had to memorize (500+ words, many of which looked very similar), the construct forms, and the verb craziness that is Hebrew.

Mark_Smith's picture

If there was a seminary within 500 miles of me worth attending. So, I go to Liberty instead. It has worked well so far. Would I prefer more personal interaction yes. But, is it a deal breaker? No.

TOvermiller's picture

I wonder sometimes whether the debate over online/distance education and institution/campus education misses the mark of simple Biblical principles. I see value in both models, on both sides of the debate. However, I don't know that I find either model featured in the NT for training church leaders. This does not mean that we cannot or should not use either model (or both models) to train church leaders. But I do pause to consider what I find in the NT nonetheless.

In the NT, I find church leaders training church leaders in the context of church leadership ministry (Paul with Timothy and Titus, etc.). (Prior to the church, I find Jesus doing the same thing. And in fact, I find Elijah and Elisha doing the same thing in the OT, too - training disciples and training prophets through mentorship instruction and practice.)

When I consider what I find in the NT, I wonder sometimes whether there will ever be a place for churches to recognize and embrace a different sort of church leadership training - and not necessarily a church-hosted Bible college (which, itself, is beneficial). Something like this:

  1. A multi-year co-op of trained, experienced pastors in a region
  2. Each pastor shares his particular expertise, whether counseling, preaching, OT theology, NT theology, etc., teaching a few classes of his own
  3. A group of men/students who spend several years in rotation, spending a year getting training from a pastor at a church, then doing the same with another pastor and church, etc. (perhaps utilizing online training as part of their class time, but being free to discuss what they are learning with their present pastor/mentor)
  4. At the same time, these men serve as assistants in the church they are training in, providing crucial help, receiving real-life training and mentorship at the same time, while receiving housing and basic financial provision from the congregation

After 3-4 years of this kind of training (a mix of local church ministry training, involvement and mentorship, joined together with some online coursework), the group of pastors who form the co-op can provide a mutual endorsement (rather than a college degree). The 'students' also benefit from multiple viewpoints among the pastors, which would be very healthy and productive.

There are challenges inherent in this model. But I think about it.


Thomas Overmiller
Pastor |
Blog & Podcast |

Julie Anne's picture

a full-time college student. I am fortunate in that my class sizes are small, usually between 15-30 students. Right now I am taking one online class and 2 classes on campus. If you want a rich experience, I think going to class, interacting with students and professors is the way to go. 

Although in a few of my prior online classes, the professors have attempted to encourage online class discussion, it's just not the same as being in class and getting to know someone in person week after week. Also, my online classes have not been less $$ or at-your-own pace.



TylerR's picture


The author who wrote this piece apparently has no earthly idea what online and virtual education is like. Learn at your own pace? Less money? Sure, and if you actually believe that, then I have some nice oceanfront property in Colorado for sale. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

TylerR wrote:

The author who wrote this piece apparently has no earthly idea what online and virtual education is like. Learn at your own pace? Less money? Sure, and if you actually believe that, then I have some nice oceanfront property in Colorado for sale. 

Don't forget that we get to sit around all day in our pajamas on our computers...

In reality, we work 8-5 at our full-time jobs; come home, eat, and spend a little time with the family from 5-8; then spend the rest of the evening reading, writing, or memorizing from 8-midnight. Rinse and repeat 5 days a week. Then on our Saturdays we're either reading or writing for a good portion of the day. Sunday, we serve in the various ministries of our church, which means we also have to make time throughout the week to prepare our lessons or sermons.

Yeah, it's a cake walk being an on-line student.

Bert Perry's picture

Some online education; it's "Ocean front property in Arizona".    :^)

(sorry, Tyler, just couldn't resist)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry's picture


It seems like some of the responses here are to something that wasn't said in the article. They seem to miss both what was said ("There are and will continue to be good reasons to pursue an online education") and miss what seems to be the thrust--the a major part of education is relationships. Sharper Iron is a good example of the kind of thing that online cannot provide you. The article never says that all online educational outlets are as the ones he described in opening. Some of them certainly are. I know that when I did online components of coursework, I could do it at my own pace, logging on at whatever time I wanted, wearing whatever I wanted. I also know that I couldn't sit face to face with a classmate or a professor. We didn't talk about life over coffee. It was about content and only content. On top of that there was no immediate reaction and easy exchange of ideas. Email, telephones, and online classes aren't the same in terms of being able to judge body language such as confusion, tension, or agreement. You can't tell when someone else is about to talk so could be talkiong over each other. You can't see the rest of the classroom in many cases. You certainly can't chew the fat in the hallway after class. So there are significant limitations to electronic communication. 

But overall, the point of the article seems to be that relationships are an important part of education. I agree. 

That doesn't make online education worthless. In some cases it probably makes it worth less. 

But in any event, I think it would be good to interact with what the article says, not with what you think is your exception.

Perhaps the real point of discussion should be how important are face to face relationships in the educational process? Does it differ from field to field?

TylerR's picture


It's not entirely clear that the author was talking about strictly ministerial education or not. My original comment was deliberately snarky because, well . . . I was in a particularly snarky mood! I'll make a few remarks to respond to Larry's questions:

If we're referring to secular education:

  • If you're young, then I think you'd benefit from going to a brick and mortar institution. An 18-yr old needs structure, and the relationships and mentoring which can take place at university are invaluable. To a large degree, it depends on the person. If cost is a significant factor (and it probably is), then get an Associates Degree from the local community college and transfer into university as a Junior. 
  • If you're not young, but already working as a professional within your chosen field, then you don't need a brick and mortar education. I got my BA in Emergency & Disaster Management online while I was on active-duty, working as an Anti-Terrorism Planner at a military installation. Every single thing I learned could be directly and immediately applied to real-life. I was already in the field. I got it. I didn't need mentoring, in that sense. 

If we're referring to ministerial education:

  • strongly believe that virtual and online education can return the mentorship and development role to the local church where it never should have left in the first place! 
  • I've posted about this before, so I'll refrain from going over the same ground again.

Thus, we turn to Larry's question:

Perhaps the real point of discussion should be how important are face to face relationships in the educational process? Does it differ from field to field?

My answer - it depends on the situation of the person, and what field they're planning to study. For ministerial education, I think the "mentorship and relationship" advantage of a brick and mortar education is vastly overblown. However, if a local church doesn't take it's responsibility for mentorship and development seriously, then that could become a significant problem. I have a younger man in my church who is starting at Maranatha Seminary (virtually) this coming Fall. I'll be doing my best (which isn't saying too much!) to lead the church to take it's mentorship and development role seriously. 

I would also say that I've had great interaction with all my Seminary professors from Maranatha. I literally email the NT Professor several times per week for his insight into the Greek from my upcoming NT sermon texts, or about anything at all. I haven't seen a "relationship gap," in that sense. In fact, when it comes to an alleged "relationship gap" with virtual ministerial education, I suspect it's a lot like the supposed "missile gap" Kennedy trumpeted to anybody who would listen during his 1958 Senate campaign - it doesn't really exist. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?