Higher Education in the Online Age (Evan Donovan)

by Evan Donovan, 
for the Theology of Technology course in City Vision University's Masters in Technology and Ministry program

The first half of this paper will seek to define the field of technology and then provide principles for its theoretical and theological analysis. Following that, these principles will be applied to the technological practice of online higher education.

Many definitions of technology have been suggested, but few have an adequate scope to take in the full array of human technological practice. Technology is ubiquitous in human life - the only difference is in what kinds of technology predominate in a given culture. Those who haven’t yet spent much time reflecting on technology’s presence in human life may limit the scope of the word “technology” to those things which they can remember as once being new - personal computers or cellphones, for example - but the real scope of the word “technology” is much broader. As John Dyer notes in From the Garden to the City, “Almost all all of the tools we use on a daily basis...were invented in the past 150 years, but these tools are so normal to us that it seems strange to call them technology.” (2011, p.21). Later Dyer quotes a helpful and humorous three-part definition of technology from the fantasy & science fiction writer Douglas Adams:

First, ‘everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal.’ Then, ‘anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it.’ Finally, anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of the civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be [all right] really.’” (ibid., p. 26)

Marshall McLuhan would reply, though, that despite the apparent difference between technologies in each of these categories, they all share one key thing in common: they are all “extensions of man” - each amplifies or enhances some innate capacity that humans have (McLuhan 1964, p. 7). For example, both the horse and the automobile are extensions of the foot’s capability for transportation, though to differing degrees.

From a different perspective, one can look at all technologies as the material expression of culture - as what theologian Emil Brunner called “‘the materialization of meaning’” (Dyer 2011, p. 48). The social practices that grow up around technology define the nature of a culture - whether that be the participatory oral storytelling culture that grew up around the tribal campfire or the passive broadcast culture that was brought about by the TV set. (Interestingly, McLuhan had predicted that the TV, as a supposedly cooler - more participatory - medium than film, would help bring about a global village, instead of the passive viewership that resulted in most cases (“Global village (term),” 2014).)

Though technology is one of the major factors in creating culture, which is in large part an immaterial set of practices, symbols, ideas, and myths, in itself technology is about work in the physical world. Thus, Tim Challies (2011) in his book The Next Story defines technology as “the creative activity of using tools to shape God’s creation for practical purposes.” This definition, however, may not be sufficiently broad since there are also social practices and organizational systems that grow up specifically around the use of a given technology which must be considered in order to properly understand that technology. McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the message” points in this direction, as it indicates the “symbiotic relationship by which the medium [or technology] influences how the message is perceived.” (“The medium is the message,” 2014)

This symbiotic relationship between a technological medium and the content of the medium (or the social practice which is taking place via the medium, such as education) can be seen strikingly in the case of online higher education. As the latter half of this paper will consider in detail, online higher education is not the same sort of thing as traditional higher education. It is not just a different funnel by which to transmit neutral bits of knowledge. Rather, the nature of what is taught and the social structures that support the act of teaching are in the process of being radically transformed by the shift of higher education from traditional to online.

As John Dyer says in From the Garden to the City, “the nature of technology is to transform” (2011, p. 175).  This kind of transformation is “ecological not additive”, he quotes Neil Postman as saying (ibid., p. 88). For example, the introduction of refrigeration changed  eating habits; the introduction of the automobile created the suburb, and, later, mega-malls and mega-churches; and the introduction of air conditioning drove migration to the South and the Southwest, redrawing electoral maps for generations to come.

The practice of online higher education is still in its formative stages. The full effects of the shift now being witnessed may not be in evidence for at least a decade or two. After all, as McLuhan (1962) notes, every new medium for a while tries to play the role of the old. When TV was first introduced, they tried to show plays and variety shows on it. When the World Wide Web was first introduced, it was entirely text and composed of links between scholarly papers. It is likely that the best means to deliver education over the World Wide Web is still to be found.

Still, there are theological principles, ultimately provided by Scripture, which can be used to evaluate any technology, even at its inception. These principles can help draw out the values implicit in the technology (Dyer 2011, p. 93) and evaluate whether a technology, as it is used, will tend to push society in a positive or negative direction as a whole.

The following five principles for Christian technology use are not exhaustive of what the Bible has to say regarding technology, but they all have relevance to online higher education, both as technology and cultural practice. These principles are, first, that technologists should seek God’s wisdom rather than merely human wisdom; second, that technological work should be done to God’s glory rather than humans’ making a name for themselves; third, that technology should build community; fourth, that technology should manifest an incarnational worldview in which embodied life is valued; and fifth, that technology should not bring bondage and addiction.

To expand upon the first principle, that of seeking God’s wisdom rather than human wisdom, the Scripture is clear that humanity fell through seeking its own knowledge of good and evil apart from God (Gen. 2:17, ESV). The way to renewal is through the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7, ESV). The New Testament echoes this, as Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2, NASB). Christ has come and now displays the perfect character of God, to which believers are increasingly being conformed.

As Paul writes in Colossians, “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3, ESV). Ligonier Ministries comments on this passage as follows:

[Paul] means that every Christian has access to wisdom and knowledge sufficient for holy living in Jesus. Paul likely draws on Old Testament wisdom here and its linking of wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is equivalent to the intellectual content of the faith, and wisdom is the ability to see reality as God does, enabling people to apply knowledge in a life that pleases the Creator and creates godly abundance (Prov. 2; Eccl. 2:26). We are being told in Colossians 2:3 that everything we need to know about the Father and how to properly interpret reality and live to His glory is accessible to all believers in His Son. (Ligonier Ministries, n.d.)

As applied to higher education, this passage suggests that an educational system that is merely the supposedly neutral transmission of facts falls short of the Biblical standard. A Biblical view of the educational process involves correlating the facts of created reality with an overarching interpretation of that reality that sees all things in light of Christ as Creator and Redeemer. This will be discussed in more depth in the latter half of this paper, when the computer’s capability to transmit wisdom, rather than data, will be addressed.

The second principle, that technologists should seek God’s glory rather than making a name for themselves, can be illustrated by the contrast between Bezalel, who was anointed by the Spirit to build a tabernacle for God’s presence, (Exod. 31:3, ESV), and the builders of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11, ESV). The builders of the tower of Babel made their technological effort of building up to heaven in an attempt to avoid being scattered across the earth, but God frustrated their efforts and confused their language. Now God has come down at Pentecost and brought the peoples back together (Acts 2, ESV). Online higher education can have great potential to draw people together from disparate places into one “global village”, in McLuhan’s terms, but, as he also saw, the world of digital communications can heighten conflict apart unless the Spirit is at work in this realm:

Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain...And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. (McLuhan 1962)

Thus, higher education should strive to include spiritual formation so that students can learn to negotiate this contentious and polarized society graciously and winningly for Christ.

The third principle, that technology should build community, follows from the second. Once fellowship between humanity and God is restored, then proper relations between humans are also restored. Jesus said the second-greatest commandment was to “[l]ove your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:3, ESV). Paul writes that when Jesus ascended on high, “He gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8, ESV) for the building up of the church. This could include giftings for Spirit-led technology, which could foster new forms of community. On the other hand, if the technology does not lend itself to community interaction, as with some forms of online higher education, then it falls short of what God intends.

The fourth principle, that technology should manifest an incarnational worldview that promotes embodied experience, makes the third more specific by indicating what kind of community is particularly valuable. God did not just “beam in” knowledge of Himself to believers; He came in person to live a fully human life. As it states in The Message Bible’s eloquent paraphrase, “The Word became flesh...and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, MSG). This shows the high view that God places on His creation, which humans experience as creatures in bodies. In the Gospels, Jesus shows His care for His followers through frequent table fellowship with them, as when He shows Himself to a pair of discouraged believers after His resurrection “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35, ESV). The early church continued this practice, “day by day attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46, ESV).

Philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann describes a “device paradigm” which often works against incarnational practice - this paradigm is in effect when the underlying process by which something takes place is hidden by technology (Dyer 2011, p. 155). John Dyer illustrates this as follows:

The device paradigm is operating [when] both the process of preparing a meal and the practice of eating it together have been compressed down into what we call ‘fast food’...[B]y compressing these human practices down into a commodity available at the press of a button, the space for human connection and depth is often lost...Borgmann...recommends that we take time to intentionally establish what he [calls] ‘focal things and practices.’ These are things that might normally be hidden or made unnecessary by a device, but that we choose [to] do anyway because of the kind of life we value...The table itself [in the early church] became a ‘focal thing,’ a place around which people gathered to share life and encourage each other in faith. Instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, Borgmann urges us to determine what our values are first and to attempt to use our tools in service of those values. (ibid., p. 156-157)

Higher education, if delivered wholly online, could potentially become a victim of the device paradigm, a form of “fast education,” where information is delivered without the deep personal engagement that can drive life transformation. This will be discussed more later, as will possible ways to mitigate this risk.

Finally, the fifth principle, that technology should not bring bondage and addiction, is illustrated by Paul’s writing to the Corinthians, “[You say] ‘all things are lawful for me’, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12b, KJV). “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1, NIV), and so anything that works against the mental and spiritual freedom of the believer should be avoided. God seeks those who have an undivided heart to fear His name (Ps. 86:10, ESV). This can at times be a challenge though. Tim Challies, in his book The Next Story, tells the story of a pastor who asked the teens going on a spiritual retreat to leave behind their mobile phones so they could “‘retreat’ for a time of spiritual reflection,” yet when the time of the retreat came and Challies was speaking

[he] could several sitting in the audience with their heads down, quietly typing text messages to one another. It was clear that these students didn’t really own their phones; they were ‘owned’ by their devices, slaves to their desires and the satisfaction provided by this digital technology. (Challies 2011)

Challies goes on to quote a 2010 study by Oxygen Media and Lightspeed Research that said 39 percent of young women stated they were addicted to Facebook (ibid.). Online higher education in itself is unlikely to become addictive, but it is possible that since it is being delivered over the same media that are used for these addictive social networking behaviors that students will be distracted from their studies.

Given the principles described above - that technologists should pursue God’s wisdom, that technological work should be done to God’s glory, that technology should build community, that technology should foster an incarnational worldview, and that technology should not bring bondage - a preliminary assessment of online higher education can be attempted. This assessment of online higher education will consider its advantages and disadvantages in three major categories: the content of what is learned when learning happens online, the access which online education affords to that content, and the economics of online education delivery. Following that, this paper will conclude with some tentative suggestions for how the shortcomings of online higher education could be mitigated.

First, regarding the content of what is learned, online higher education offers three significant advantages, but with an equally significant disadvantage. The first advantage is that online higher education can provide a structured learning environment, in which topics are presented in a systematic order at the pace of the student. Khan Academy does an excellent job with this as can be seen by the lesson tree on their exercise dashboard, which shows how topics in math build on each other all the way from counting and addition up to calculus (Khan Academy, n.d.) They have a similar structure that shows all the Common Core math topics, and has questions tailored to each one (Khan Academy, n.d.) One could easily imagine something similar being done for college subjects.

The second advantage of online content delivery is that learning is not only at the pace of the student, but can actually be adapted to the student’s needs. The McGraw-Hill Connect LMS (Learning Management System) contains a textbook embedded in the course and, with its LearnSmart feature, can have students take a test that will indicate which parts of the textbook they need to focus their learning on (Mc-Graw Hill, n.d.). With materials like this, students have much more direction and autonomy in their learning than when a course was composed of a series of lectures and a physical textbook which they studied, either on their own or with a study group if they were fortunate. They have the ability to go forward and back based on their own needs, not the needs of the class as a whole. Of course, though, some online classes can be structured poorly, and students demoralized by being made to take the same test repeatedly before they can proceed to the next topic (Sams 2014).

The third advantage of online content delivery is that courses do not have to come from a single source but can be collected from across the world, and the best of them curated. There are sites that offer long lists of MOOCs - free online courses from major universities (“MOOCs from Great Universities”, n.d.), and there are sites that describe how to get a “DIY education” through transferable courses (“The edupunks’ guide to a DIY education!”, n.d.) Now there is even a college that has started accepting completed courses from MOOC provider Coursera for credit (“Antioch University becomes first US institution to offer credit for MOOC learning through Coursera”, 2014)

However, despite these advantages, online higher education is not equally suited for all subjects, and has an unconscious bias in how information is presented. The computer started out as a data-processing machine and its bent is still toward delivering data. Given the Biblical principle that wisdom is to be valued over mere data or information, this is a major disadvantage. Neil Postman elaborates on this point:

To a person with a pencil, everything looks like a sentence. To a person with a TV camera, everything looks like an image. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data....[E]very technology has a prejudice. Like language itself, it predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments. In a culture without writing, human memory is of the greatest importance, as are the proverbs, sayings and songs which contain the accumulated oral wisdom of centuries. That is why Solomon was thought to be the wisest of men. In 1st Kings we are told he knew 3,000 proverbs. But in a culture with writing, such feats of memory are considered a waste of time, and proverbs are merely irrelevant fancies. The writing person favors logical organization and systematic analysis, not proverbs. The telegraphic person values speed, not introspection. The television person values immediacy, not history. And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom. Indeed, in the computer age, the concept of wisdom may vanish altogether. (Postman, n.d.)

Perhaps Postman is being hyperbolic at the end of this quote, but it is true that the kind of wisdom embodied in proverbs is not valued in contemporary society, and that the computer is best suited for transmitting quantitative data. It is no accident that Khan Academy started by doing lessons in math and that math and economics are still its two strongest areas, while it has hardly anything covering literature. Literature opens people’s minds to alternative ways of being in the world, to the mysterious experience of life itself, and it is best taught through discussion; likewise with philosophy. “God calls us to live with wisdom,” Challies writes (2011), and “wisdom combines knowledge with experience to live with virtue.” A well-rounded Christian education requires spiritual formation, as was suggested earlier in this paper, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for spiritual formation to happen through online intake of information alone.

Most likely, the rise of online higher education will be a force further secularizing the American educational system since it is the large universities and the venture capitalists who have partnered with them that have started MOOCs - Coursera, Udacity, edX. Most of these schools are focused on STEM education, and the most successful MOOC courses have been in technical subjects, like “Functional Programming in Scala,” which had a 19.2% completion rate (Parr 2013). This bias toward STEM in online learning may be beneficial to society, since many believe there is a shortage of qualified professionals in STEM fields. The Brookings Institute did a recent study that indicated that STEM openings stay open longer relative to other positions and jobs requiring specialized computer skills are associated with higher salaries (Rothwell 2014). However, not all agree with this assessment, especially given that STEM is a heterogenous sector and demand is not as high for parts besides IT. A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly questions the conventional wisdom:

A compelling body of research is now available, from many leading academic researchers and from respected research organizations such as the National Bureau of Economic Research, the RAND Corporation, and the Urban Institute. No one has been able to find any evidence indicating current widespread labor market shortages or hiring difficulties in science and engineering occupations that require bachelors’ degrees or higher, although some are forecasting high growth in occupations that require post-high school training but not a bachelors’ degree. All have concluded that U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more. Were there to be a genuine shortage at present, there would be evidence of employers raising wage offers to attract the scientists and engineers they want. But the evidence points in the other direction: Most studies report that real wages in many—but not all—science and engineering occupations have been flat or slow-growing, and unemployment as high or higher than in many comparably-skilled occupations. (Teitelbaum 2014)

Therefore, given that the supposed STEM hiring crisis may be overblown, an education system that values the humanities and the insight that they can bring to fields such as communications, law, and Christian ministry is still worth having.

Access to education is the second primary area in which online higher education holds out promise. Here online higher education provides two advantages over traditional education, but at the same time presents three related disadvantages. The first advantage is that people of lower income and in the 2/3rds world may have access to educational content they otherwise wouldn’t have. Regarding lower income individuals, the statistics, though, are not as clear-cut as one might believe:

When it comes to paying in-state tuition at a public school, for example, a U.S. News analysis of about 300 ranked programs shows that it's more expensive on a per-credit basis to take an online undergraduate course than a comparable on-campus course.

The average per credit, in-state cost for an online bachelor's program is $277, compared with $243 per credit at brick-and-mortar schools.
Online undergraduate education is less per credit, however, than traditional education at private schools and for out-of-state students at public institutions.
A 2013 survey conducted by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Learning House also found similar results. (Haynie 2013)

Traditional Christian liberal arts institutions, which are intended to provide the spiritual formation and pursuit of Christ-centered wisdom that is difficult to obtain through an online education, are more expensive than online education, but the differential is not as great as one might expect. As of 2013-2014, the average tuition in a CCCU school (Council of Christian Colleges and Universities) is “$5,739 below the national average for all private four-year institutions” (Stemmler 2014). The 2013 survey of financial aid indicated that students receive median gift aid of $9,254 from the institution and $1,559 from the government, as well as $6,965 per year in loans for a total of $28,558 in loan debt for 2013 graduates (“CCCU releases results of annual financial aid survey,” 2014). That is about $1,000 less than the national average for the class of 2012 according to a report issued by the Institute for College Access & Success (Ellis 2013). Furthermore, that report looks only at people who borrowed; research from the Department of Education in 2008 shows that for all who received bachelor’s degrees in 2008, the median debt is slightly above $10,000 (Etchemendy & Wadhwa 2013).

Furthermore, alternative models do exist whereby a Christian liberal arts institution can be made self-sustaining without imposing a substantial burden on students, either while they are there or for the decades to come. The College of the Ozarks doesn’t require any students to pay tuition, debt is discouraged, and work is mandatory (Lee & Lu 2014). The college is based in Branson, Missouri and runs a number of entertainment and hospitality enterprises which make it self-sustaining through student labor. This way of educating students not only frees them from the burden of debt but also promotes self-discipline, a skill that will serve them well as they enter the working world after college.

In the 2/3rds world, however, online higher education shows its most promise as a revolutionary way to expand college access. According to an Economist special report, “EdX, which had nearly 400,000 students in 2012-13 reckons that almost half of them live outside the rich world” (Avent 2014, p. 11) The MIT Technology Review describes how in Rwanda, a nonprofit is working to create “an entirely MOOC-based university.”

Though it is only entering pilot stages later this year, its eventual goal is to create a 400-person university in Rwanda, with MOOCs providing the lessons and teaching fellows guiding students through discussions and problematic areas. To start, the first students will try out a Harvard University course on Justice, and a University of Edinburgh course on Critical Thinking and Global Challenges, says executive director Jamie Hodari. Already, the program has struck a partnership with Southern New Hampshire University to test and certify associates degrees as its startup university gets off the ground, he says. (Leber 2013)

Beyond expansion of access to education to groups for whom it would otherwise be out of reach, online higher education provides, as a second advantage, total flexibility in terms of scheduling, as long as students can complete their assignments on time. As Ryan Avent writes in the Economist, “Busy people can fit it around their job or family schedule, work at their own pace and sample courses from universities the world over without leaving their homes” (Avent 2014, p. 11) This, too, expands access, since people who otherwise would be constrained by their other commitments can now continue to get education.

With these great advantages come several closely connected disadvantages, however. First among these is that students in an online-only program may not feel like they have a peer group in their studies, which can both lead to disengagement and a lack of cross-pollination of ideas. “Vincent Tinto [(1975,1993)] proposed that a student who is more integrated” into an institution is “more likely to persist” (Nash 2005). Online programs must either have an offline component or strong discussion forums and social networking features in order to promote integration of students into the life of the institution. As for cross-pollination, I know that I would have never heard of Christian Community Development, and thus, most likely never come to TechMission, if I had not gone to a college with a Christian Community Development program, met personally people who were in the field, and realized that it was an exciting way to live out the call of God to discipleship. Online-only students may be more likely to proceed down the path of least resistance to whatever degree they had as a goal when they first came to school.

The second disadvantage has been hinted at above in the discussion of literature and philosophy - the lack of in-person discussion. Web technologies according to Postman reduce people “more than ever...to mere numerical objects” (Postman, n.d.) - rather than being one in a hundred in a lecture hall, you are one in thousands in a MOOC. Christian liberal arts schools try to deliberate cultivate small classes so as to encourage the discussion that enables people to grasp the ideas latent in art, literature, and philosophy. Now admittedly, given that each class requires a professor to teach it, not everyone who will need higher education in this century can be educated in this fashion. Such schools should still be supported by Christians, though, since the liberal arts schools are most likely where the “culture makers” will come who can create the next imaginative worlds like those of Lewis and Tolkien, and in turn those worlds will help shape the worldviews in culture at large.

The third disadvantage is that without a peer group and without necessarily the engagement of a professor, online students must be more intrinsically motivated. They are more free to take the course when they wish, but, by that same token, the burden is then on them to make sure that they proceed forward in the course at the appropriate pace.

MOOC completion rates illustrate this point dramatically. According to a study by Katy Jordan, the average completion rate for MOOCs is less than 7 percent (Parr 2013). To take a more specific example, the University of Texas in 2012 worked with edX to develop a set of courses but had completion rates of only 1 to 13 percent (Hamilton 2014). Avent, writing in the Economist sees this as a “virtue”, however: “[T]he ease of dipping and out...improv[es] the chances that students will take up online education in the first place and that if they keep trying they will hit on the right subject eventually” (Avent 2014, p. 12).

Admittedly, the numbers are not as dire for online courses that are part of a more traditional degree program. Those students have more “skin in the game”, since they have invested money toward getting a degree. In 2013, according to the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, “81 percent of students completed in-person classes and 78 percent completed online courses.”

The economics of higher education is the final area in which the introduction of online models is reshaping instruction, and it is a double-edged sword. As with many fields, it may cause a hollowing-out of the middle, eliminating jobs for those who have moderate skill:

[F]uture advances in education and health care could reduce the earning power of many highly paid academics and doctors while creating jobs for more more workaday tutors to help the laggards...and at the very top of these professions ‘superstar’ teachers or doctors using technology to reach many more people will do better than ever” (Avent 2014, p. 12)

This is an advantage insofar as cutting down on the number of people needed to teach could potentially make the educational system more sustainable. College tuition rates have increased dramatically in the last 30 years, vastly outstripping the overall cost of living:

Cost of living increased roughly 3.25-fold during the time from [1978 to 2008]; medical costs inflated roughly 6-fold; but college tuition and fees inflation approached 10-fold. Another way to say this is that whereas medical costs inflated at twice the rate of cost-of-living, college tuition and fees inflated at four times the rate of cost-of-living inflation. Thus, even after controlling for the effects of general inflation, 2008 college tuition and fees posed three times the burden as in 1978. (“College tuition in the United States”)

However, it doesn’t appear that the largest factor in this dramatic increase is due to professors’ salaries, according to research by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

The number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty, according to an analysis of federal figures...In all, from 1987 until 2011-12—the most recent academic year for which comparable figures are available—universities and colleges collectively added 517,636 administrators and professional employees, or an average of 87 every working day, according to the analysis of federal figures, by the New England Center of Investigative Reporting in collaboration with the nonprofit, nonpartisan social-science research group the American Institutes for Research...Universities have added these administrators and professional employees even as they’ve substantially shifted classroom teaching duties from full-time faculty to less-expensive part-time adjunct faculty and teaching assistants, the figures show. (Marcus 2014)

Furthermore, this rise in administrators in fields like student support services hasn’t corresponded to a rise in efficacy. “Since 2002, the proportion of four-year bachelor’s degree-seeking students who graduate within even six years, for instance, has barely inched up, from 55 percent to 58 percent, US Department of Education figures show” (Marcus 2014).

Other sources further illustrate the expansion of administrators in colleges to the expense of other departments. Washington Monthly writes:

Between 1975 and 2005, total spending by American higher educational institutions, stated in constant dollars, tripled, to more than $325 billion per year. Over the same period, the faculty-to-student ratio has remained fairly constant, at approximately fifteen or sixteen students per instructor. One thing that has changed, dramatically, is the administrator-per-student ratio. In 1975, colleges employed one administrator for every eighty-four students and one professional staffer—admissions officers, information technology specialists, and the like—for every fifty students. By 2005, the administrator-to-student ratio had dropped to one administrator for every sixty-eight students while the ratio of professional staffers had dropped to one for every twenty-one students. (Ginsberg 2011)

Looking at a narrower span of time, a study by the American Association of University Professors reports:

At public four-year institutions, spending on instruction rose just 0.9 percent per full-time enrolled student between the 2003-2004 and 2010-2011 school years, and academic support costs rose 1.5 percent. Meanwhile, spending per student athlete rose 24.8 percent. While the low academic increases partly reflect state cutbacks in appropriations for public universities, private four-year institutions also saw a sizable differential: Spending on instruction grew 5.1 percent over the eight- year period, while athletic spending grew 28.9 percent. (McGregor 2014)

Given all this, those who are looking to save educational costs by implementing online education may be looking at the wrong target. Professors are a valuable part of the knowledge economy in which we now live, forming a community of scholars that both instruct students and produce research of their own. The Biblical principle, “the laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Tim. 5:18, ESV) comes to mind here. How can people expect scholars to give away for free learning that it took them years and many thousands of dollars to acquire? It is understandable to reduce the costs of such training to disadvantaged groups and people in developing nations, but professors need to make a learning as well.

As it is currently, universities are increasingly employing underpaid adjuncts to do jobs that were previously done by professors, though tuition is still rising. A New York Times article provides one story of this:

“I have a colleague who was teaching nine courses in one semester,” said Maria Maisto of New Faculty Majority, a campaigning organization. Her members, she said, are paid an average of $2,500 for a three-credit course. “That’s without an office, and without being paid for prep time or grading time. Ultimately it’s the students who suffer,” Ms. Maisto said.

At the same time, calling for an end to the overuse of adjuncts does not mean returning to the traditional tenure system. Tenured professors can often get entrenched in the system, working less than they should and losing touch with current developments in the field, because they know that their job is safe whatever they may do, in all but the most extreme of circumstances. An Inside Higher Ed editorial spells this out in detail:

The main problem with the tenure system is that lifelong job security removes the incentive for high performance. As University of Illinois professor and economist Jeffrey Brown explained in Forbes, tenure is essentially a form of job insurance. Insurance, while providing some benefits, also leads to moral hazard: the "well-established phenomenon that people behave differently when they have insurance than when they do not."...
Because of moral hazard, professors are unlikely to work as diligently with tenure as they would without it. Teaching effectiveness and research productivity will inevitably decline, although evidence...to prove this point is elusive...
Of course, many tenured professors continue to undertake groundbreaking research motivated by genuine interest in the field and by a desire to be recognized among their colleagues. Many tenured professors are also excellent teachers who take the time to nurture and develop their students, again motivated by forces outside the tenure system. However, tenure removes an essential feature of the competitive labor market: firing. Tenured professors are only required to meet basic expectations (showing up, teaching their assigned courses) to maintain their salary and status. The natural result is that some professors will work just a little bit less, and some....will stay at their jobs even after inadequacy, and even incompetence, sets in. (Palmer 2012)

The best system for compensating professors, in most cases, would be a compromise, where professors were paid a regular salary, rather than by the course or student as with adjuncts, and yet would still have to maintain high quality of instruction (and research, if that is in the scope of their responsibilities) in order to keep their jobs.

Given all these considerations - regarding the content of education, access to education, and the economics of education - it appears that online higher education is good but insufficient in itself. It is well-suited to the transmission of some subjects, such as science and mathematics, but not to the character formation that is an essential component to Christian education, nor to the humanities - the appreciation of which help to broaden people’s awareness of the range of human experience, and which are the soil from which new acts of culture making will grow. Online education delivery expands the reach of higher education dramatically, particularly to the 2/3rds world, but the type of education that is provided, if not augmented by on-site components, is missing that element of embodied life together which was so important to Jesus in his teaching of the disciples and in the life of the early church. Finally, online education claims to provide significant cost savings to an unsustainable higher education system, but at the cost of the livelihood of the individuals who in the long run will sustain the educational system through providing instruction. Despite all this, though, it is inevitable that online higher education will be increasingly common, in the United States and especially abroad.

Therefore, it becomes necessary to determine what steps can be taken to accentuate its strengths and mitigate its negative effects. This paper cannot go into these issues in much detail, but a few directions for further exploration can be suggested. The first of these is the potential for blended learning, or more specifically what is called the “flipped classroom,” where students watch videos and do exercises on their own and then come together to discuss and work on collaborative projects. TeachThought.com describes the advantages of this learning modality:

In a traditional classroom, instructors use class time to lecture and disseminate support materials. Students then review these materials and complete any assignments at home, on their own time. With some luck, teachers will review those assignments in class the following day, or at least host office hours so that they can field questions and offer support.
‘Flipping’ defies these conventions. In this method, teachers and professors use online media to deliver notes, lectures and related course materials. Students review these materials at home and at their own pace. Classroom periods are then transformed into hands-on work periods where the teacher–who will have already delivered his or her lecture digitally–is free to field questions, engage class-wide discussions or offer other means of support. According to Mary Beth Hertz of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, ‘flipping’ reinforces student-centered learning, allowing students to master content in an individual way. (“The definition of blended learning”, 2013)

More significantly perhaps even than blended learning is the possibility of internships and on-site experiences that augment the learning that is done online. Internships, if done properly, can cause people to question the fundamentals of how they see the world and inspire them for a lifetime of Christian service. However, internships, like short term missions trips, are not inherently good if they are done cursorily and without a focus on listening to the community that one is entering to serve. Jo Ann Van Engen bears witness to this:

Our students call [their short-term] experiences ‘life changing.’ But often that ‘life changing’ experience is based on an emotional response to a situation they do not really understand. Too often the students return home simply counting the blessings they have of being North Americans having gained little insight into the causes of poverty  (Van Engen, n.d)

Perhaps part of the problem is that many internships or short term missions trips are too short, have too little educational context, and are done at too great a cultural distance - or at least with insufficient attempt to bring the cultural divide. Van Engen, after describing the ill effects of some short-term trips, gives an example of an alternative approach:

Groups like the Christian Commission for Development (CCD) in Honduras intentionally provide learning experiences to short-term groups. CCD accepts North Americans only if they are serious about learning. Their groups visit Christian development projects, speak with rural and urban poor, and dialogue with Honduran leaders. The groups often spend some time working, but only on CCD’s facilities, not in rural villages or poor neighborhoods. CCD recognizes that outside groups can unintentionally destroy the cohesion and sense of empowerment. Groups return to North America with a better understanding of the injustice and sin that oppresses people in developing nations, and what they can do to make a difference. (Van Engen, n.d.)

Of course, in many cases, the best way to create change is to find out the needs of one’s own community. Perhaps the next revolution in higher education could come out of Christian small groups, like how the Sunday school movement grew out of the nineteenth-century church’s attempt to educate the children of the working class (“Sunday school,” 2014). These small groups could take online courses in the Bible, theology, community development, urban ministry, and so forth, then work out the implications in their own neighborhoods. This way the church would raise up leaders with both a head and heart education, and for much less money than seminary or even Bible school can do right now. I can visualize such cell groups and intentional communities spreading across the country, and even, with the help of translation technology, the world. Christians would catch the vision of community development and the Gospel would become something practical, something the world could see. Christians, without the debt burden of traditional education, but with its communal benefits, would be free to love their communities, wherever God called them.

It may be an idealistic vision, but I see learning communities like little replicas of TechMission spreading across the land like seeds from a dandelion in late summer. There Christians could come together to work out the intersection between Jesus, justice, and whatever other “third value” they had. For me, it is the liberal arts - the creation and study of cultural myths, narratives, and symbols that glorify God. For others, it may science, or law, or medicine. It may be in ten years or so that Christians can take courses online in these fields and then discuss them with their local communities of practice, among fellow believers. In this way, the secularization of a uniform online educational system could at least be partially reversed. If the work of culture making to which I desire to contribute is successful enough, perhaps Christians could even be among the ones making the some of the most popular online courses. But even if most of the online courses are secular, at least Christians on the local level could discuss as they went through their local certification programs what parts of the course material reflected a Christian worldview and what did not. In this way, the data and information that can so easily be transmitted over the computer could be transmuted into wisdom, and Christians can bring into the Heavenly City “the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:26, ESV)


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[Edited May 2015; updated the institution's name]

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