Randall Smith’s recent CWR essay, entitled “Distance Education: It’s a long way from real education” (May 12, 2020), makes some valuable points about student learning. Smith is a wonderful scholar and teacher. I admire him and so it is not surprising that I appreciate many aspects of his article. As someone who has a lot of experience teaching both traditional courses in the classroom and courses online, I would like to offer some clarifications and suggest some distinctions of my own.
In short, I think we need to be careful about dismissing the value of all online education—especially for graduate students.
Upfront, I should state that I teach at an institution that offers courses both on campus and online. Online education is not an area that the Augustine Institute Graduate School just recently began exploring as a way of coping with the COVID-19 crisis. Nor did we move into this space as a means of addressing budgetary issues. For us, online education is mission-critical. We are fully accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, and we take teaching our online students as seriously as we take teaching the ones who move to Denver to study with us in person.
Being physically present in the classroom is certainly ideal. But, as our Dean Christopher Blum has explained elsewhere, that does not mean we should write off the possibility of teaching those who are unable to relocate.
Smith doesn’t think so, either. In a comment later posted to his article, he clarifies that he is mainly concerned that online education cannot meet the needs of undergraduates. I was also very grateful for his kind words about my own institution: “Am I a fan of the distance education work done by my friend Chris Blum and his colleagues at the Augustine Institute? Absolutely.”
In what follows I would like to extend the conversation by explaining more fully why and how I think online education can work for graduate students. Above all else, it must be personally engaging in the various ways I explore below. I cannot speak to other online graduate programs. But I can speak from my own experience.
The difference between graduate and undergraduate students
Drawing on Hubert Dreyfus, Smith makes the important point that education must involve communicating a love for the subject matter. “If students don’t care,” Smith says, “if the topic does not matter to them (which is usually something they ‘catch’ from the teacher’s love and devotion to the subject), then they will not learn.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Still, in my experience, there is a vast difference between undergraduates and graduate students. Graduate students enroll in specialized programs because they are already convinced of the subject matter’s importance. In our case, students come to us convinced that studying theology is deeply enriching. That is why they sign up for all the reading, the papers, the tests, and so forth.
Without an online option, many of our students would not be able to pursue further studies. Many of them are working full-time to serve the Church. They include priests, deacons, religious sisters, directors of religious education, Catholic school teachers, and catechists. Others, while not employed by the Church, are occupied with the responsibilities of a full-time job or full-time parenting. For many of our online students, moving to Denver is simply not an option.
We view our online option as a way of meeting the needs of the Church. Theological training is not a luxury, but an urgent exigency. Our students, many of whom are in teaching positions in one capacity or another, recognize that they cannot give what they do not have. They come to our program already hungry to learn.
The importance of grading
Smith also highlights the fact that being in the classroom allows professors better to gauge whether students are tracking their lectures, thus ensuring a higher quality of learning.
It is true that being in the same room with students has major advantages. At the same time, I cannot help but note that my own impressions of students in the classroom have often been wrong. Nodding heads and raised hands are not always reliable indicators of student comprehension. Some students who look bored are mentally engaged but simply shy, while others really have checked out. It can be hard to tell the difference.
The only way to know for sure is to have the students submit papers and take exams. Grading assignments often yields surprising results. The students that appeared to be most attentive and outspoken may fail. The quiet ones that I was most concerned about may end up earning the top scores.
Grading assignments is the only real way to know where students stand—and how effective you are as a teacher.
Moreover, the ability of the professor to gauge student learning is proportional to the number of students the professor has to teach. This brings me to an inconvenient fact: since grading is crucial it can hardly be a good thing that the vast majority of professors are either not grading their students themselves (students are at the mercy of a Teacher’s Assistant, typically a grad student with little personal teaching experience) or grading too many students to have time to do so carefully and thoroughly.
The quality of education is not just a matter of where you are—online or in person—but depends even more on how personally involved the professor and students are.
Asynchronous vs. synchronous learning
Smith voices concerns about what is called “asynchronous” learning. The term refers to learning formats where, among other things, students watch prerecorded lectures. Smith makes the important observation that a professor who prerecords his or her presentation does not have the opportunity to control the way the student experiences the material.
Would it be better for the professor to be present in the room with students as they learn from their teacher? All things being equal, yes. Nevertheless, asynchronous learning can still be effective for graduate students.
Until recently, it was standard practice for many professors to simply write up a lecture and read it to students. Some of my own professors in graduate school taught this way. Professors were not expected to be conversational. Some of the most sought-after professors were even—brace yourself—boring. But as professors they were not expected to be entertainers. They were simply expected to present a nuanced articulation of the subject matter. This format produced many great minds.
These days professors are encouraged to be more extemporaneous and relaxed. In general, this is a positive development. I myself enjoy having back-and-forth exchanges with students in the classroom.
I should add that prerecorded online lectures at the Augustine Institute are first delivered in a classroom environment. (COVID-19 has caused a temporary exception to this policy, but only for this term.) In addition, to keep things from getting stale, lectures that are more than a year old are retired and retaught rather than being run term after term.
At the same time, the trend of viewing the professor simply as a facilitator of learning is problematic. The rightly celebrated Socratic method is also susceptible to hyperbolic lionization. I can think of many courses I took with brilliant professors that were frequently disrupted by classmates who loved the sound of their own voices.
In other words, asynchronous learning has advantages of its own. Some professors, not wishing to seem rude, overindulge distracting student questions and comments. Asynchronous learning, even when combined with synchronous opportunities, has potential pitfalls, but let us not romanticize: so does synchronous learning.
The best way to handle the challenges involved is to have dedicated time for personal interaction. That, I believe, can be done online.
Education should be personal, not merely embodied
Smith rightly observes that, since embodiment is essential to human nature, education should be embodied. Again, all things being equal, I agree that physical presence is preferable. But physical presence is not more important than personal interaction—and we all know that one can be physically present without being personally engaged.
Unplanned conversations outside of the classroom are often the best part of teaching. Students feel more relaxed outside the lecture room. Some are reluctant to make themselves the center of attention inside the classroom. I cannot tell you how many times I have had students begin a question with, “I am sorry, but I have a question. . .”
One thing I love about online education at the Augustine Institute Graduate School is that the faculty have thought very hard about how to provide for personal interactions with students not only on campus but also online. For example, this summer I am teaching a course that involves both prerecorded lectures and weekly “coffee with the professor” Zoom sessions. I will also be carefully designing message boards where students will have to answer questions through which they will participate in conversations with me and other students. When done well—and it takes time to learn how to do this—these formats create opportunities for meaningful personal engagement.
To my mind, that engagement online can be far better than teaching a room of thirty, fifty, or a hundred students, many of which would never have a significant personal interaction with me. I agree with Smith: large class sizes are a problem. Indeed, I have been there and done that. Having a large group before you who sit like bumps on a log all semester long is a dreadful experience for all involved. But the online format can actually stimulate interaction with students who otherwise might be too shy or timid.
As Smith points out, education means taking the risk of being subject to questions. I agree. And I know this can occur in an online environment as well.
Rethinking education as personal
The COVID-19 crisis offers us an opportunity to rethink Catholic Education. An authentic Catholic education is not just a matter of having faithful Catholic professors. Yet too many reduce Catholic formation to content. As Smith reminds us in his piece, education is not just “content delivery.” If someone tries to sell you on “delivery” models, beware. They do not understand education.
Education also requires more than professors sharing a room with students. A school is only as good as its professors. Quality education requires quality instructors who faithfully and effectively teach students, interact with them personally, and grade their work with care. Hiring TAs and eliminating full-time professors in favor of less-qualified adjuncts will not cut it.
To be personally engaged, professors must not be overworked. If teaching is about inspiring a love for learning—which it is—it is important that professors do not burn out due to overburdensome course loads. Professors need the opportunity to renew their love for their subject matter through research and publication. Professors cannot give what they do not have. Research is what keeps the subject matter fresh and exciting. If that work is not valued institutionally, the student experience will suffer. If your professor has no time to do anything but teach and grade, beware.
Good education is also more likely to be fostered by a faculty who enjoy a meaningful communal life by which they grow and learn from another.
Quality Catholic education is first and foremost about quality personal engagement. Being in a classroom with a professor is no guarantee that this will take place, though physical presence does have its advantages. Nonetheless, I think we can continue to form graduate students quite well online. It all depends on who is doing it and how.
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