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To ask if God educates by distance is not a question asked for the sake of being silly. I’m wondering this because our college is exploring the possibilities of online education (earlier called “distance education” but now I guess no one likes the negative connotation of distance). The college I teach in is encouraging the faculty (including me) to do a few online courses ourselves. It’s a wonderful idea to help skeptics become comfortable with the process and see first-hand the possibilities in store.

But as I embark in my reading about online/by-distance study, I’m quite surprised by the overwhelming positive literature around the subject. It’s hard to find critical (negative) material that argues against online education. Recently, I read one article (It was course reading, author was not named) that stated that “transforming” students was the goal of education, and that we should also focus on the “end goal” of teaching—the transformation of students. The author shows is to be theologically consistent, because, according to him, even Paul was focussed on the end goal, the transformation of the believers. The implication is if the “end goal” is the transformation of students, then the delivery method (online or on-campus) of getting there, should not matter. The article further argues that “presence” of the community and the teacher need not be a face-to-face presence. A virtual presence, especially where the teacher is able to listen to the real concerns of students and interact with/responds to it, is just as present. Furthermore, this presence if acted out well, it is as effective (sometimes even more effective) to achieve the end goal.

This argument is tough to refute because it challenges the notion held by educators like me who state that transformation can only (can mostly) happen on-campus. We think that face-to-face learning is the (best?) way (method) students learn to apply ideas, learn to practice what they have been preached, and even be transformed in the likeness of Jesus. But now, this article, argues that transformer does not need face-to-face, physical presence, rather a virtual presence is just a real and effective.

If this is true, if physical presence is not necessary for transformation, then, to visit the opening question, could God actually be the ultimate distance educator?

To the world, and even to many of us Christians, God is mostly invisible. We know He is here, but we cannot see Him. He communicates, but to most of us it is not through an audible voice (that we associate with face-to-face), but with his word (Holy “text book”, even a holy “email”?!). And while he encourages us to join a cohort (local church), the larger church seems to be virtual (a “universal” church that we cannot see, but believe exists).

I’m not trying to be funny. Though it could be (esp. the Holy email part). But my point is to ask whether we’ve gotten distance all wrong and rather than focus on presence or absence, we should focus on effectiveness to transform. The idea that God’s presence is actual can be debated… because if we cannot see God, then perhaps we need to redefine what is meant by “actual” presence. And again, what if the fact that we can feel/experience his EFFECT, becomes the argument for presence rather than material presence. So, rather than the fact that we need to set a seat for him to sit next to us, we see God’s effect because we are being “sanctified” in the daily grind of life, guided by the word, through the invisible Spirit. So, it can be argued, that God cares more about whether we are changed/whether we grow, rather than whether we can see him face-to-face.

Something seems wrong. But I’m not able to put my finger on it. Ok, maybe I can.

It’s the incarnation. If God could change us/transform us through His invisible presence working visibly for an effect on our behalf, there may have been no need for Jesus to walk amongst us. The necessity of the Son of God, becoming human/coming to earth, walking with the disciples, challenges us to think of God in purely “distance” terms.

After Jesus, the Spirit, yes, is present. Yet apart from some charismatics/Pentecostals, I doubt many Christians experience the Spirit as a being who walks next to them. The reality, again, becomes invisible. So we’re back to the first question, does God eventually become a “by distance” educator?

Well… the problem of seeing the spirit as an invisible being is really where the theological problem lies. We cannot see the Spirit, not because the Spirit cannot be seen, but because “we” are not able to see the Spirit. Our eyes our not clear enough, our vision is not capable of seeing the all-present, all-powerful One. That invisibility does not make God invisible, but rather it points to our inability to see. Perhaps like blind students in a class, we use other senses to see and experience God’s “presence” but God is still present. He is not far away, he is not absent, He is not even invisible. It is that reason why Jesus comforts his disciples that he is not leaving them (us) like orphans. Another (the Holy Spirit) is coming. Has come. Here. With us. God is here.

So, is God a by-distance educator? No. His invisibility should not be thought of as lack of material presence. God is here, in time-and-space. In the living Church. In our lives. He is affecting the change, not giving us suggestions to change. He is helping us understand His word, he’s not giving us an assignment/test to understand His word. He is here.

All this does not mean that by-distance education is bad. Distance (online) education can, and probably is, still good. But I’m glad that God is not a by-distance educator.


Just read an interesting article/study on Google books. And while Google has reportedly fixed the errors, the article still draws attention to important issues in internet education.

article: Google Book Search: A disaster for scholars
In the Chronicle for Higher Education.

Whether the Google books settlement passes muster with the U.S. District Court and the Justice Department, Google’s book search is clearly on track to becoming the world’s largest digital library. No less important, it is also almost certain to be the last one. Google’s five-year head start and its relationships with libraries and publishers give it an effective monopoly: No competitor will be able to come after it on the same scale. Nor is technology going to lower the cost of entry. Scanning will always be an expensive, labor-intensive project. Of course, 50 or 100 years from now control of the collection may pass from Google to somebody else—Elsevier, Unesco, Wal-Mart. But it’s safe to assume that the digitized books that scholars will be working with then will be the very same ones that are sitting on Google’s servers today, augmented by the millions of titles published in the interim.

To read more click here.

I just found a very cool book for those interested in learning about and promoting online learning. It’s called “Theory and Practice of Online Learning” by multiple authors, though edited by Terry Anderson and Fathi Elloumi. Best of all, it’s free (supporting open source education, wow!)

Anyway, here’s the link to where you can get it:

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