Article – Christian Learning in the Digital Age

 

By Dr. Rick Ostrander, Provost, Cornerstone University
November 15th, 2012

At a recent Board of Trustee meeting at Cornerstone University, our marketing department produced postcards displaying information about the good things going on at the university.  Under the heading “Academic Excellence” was the statement, “All faculty and first-year students have received new MacBooks.”

That claim made me wonder:  Is there a connection between MacBooks and academic excellence?  If so, is it a positive or a negative one?  Or put more broadly, for a Christian university, does technology increase academic quality, or does it threaten real learning?  For all our discussions of faith and science in Christian academia, the more practical question of technology and education may be one of the most important for those of us committed to forming the next generation of believers.

True education, in a Christian context, is about effecting a transformation of the learner, not just transmitting information or career skills.
I had both the impetus and the opportunity to explore this important question over the past few months.  Our university switched from PCs to Apple computers, and as a result our leadership team was invited to spend a day at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California to experience firsthand the wonders of Apple technology.  To prepare for such an event, I perused the recent literature on the disruptive innovations that digital technology is creating for higher education.  That literature spans the spectrum from celebration to lament.

For example, Cathy Davidson, author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, claims that rigid classrooms, one-way lectures, and multiple choice exams are making way for new forms of open-ended collaborative learning that are better adapted to today’s easily-distracted, internet-nurtured brains that constantly flit from one topic to the next.  For her class at Duke University, Davidson gave her students iPods so they could record lectures and listen to them while jogging or riding the bus.  Students decided on what topics the class should study and even ways to grade each other’s work.

Far less sanguine about these changes is Andrew Delbanco, author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.  Delbanco recognizes the value of new technology for online learning in areas in which there is a single right answer, but he questions their value in advancing “genuinely humanistic education.” (5) We have not yet, he observes, found a low-cost alternate to expert human teachers.

Of course, Apple itself is marching confidently toward this digital future.  As Apple officials informed our group, Apple has always sought to humanize technology in order to empower the individual consumer.  They did that first with computers, developing a personal computer that could be put in the hands of the everyday person.  Later they disrupted the music industry by empowering the individual listener to pick and choose what songs to buy on iTunes. Now Apple plans to transform education by empowering individuals to take greater control of their learning through technology.  As our hosts explained, learning occurs best when there’s collaboration, engagement, and exploration.  And those are the qualities that Apple technology provides.

…digital technology is less effective when it is called upon to create relationships rather than enhance them.

So what’s a Christian educator to do amid such portentous changes?  How do we use technology without being used by technology?  As an academic leader and a Christian deeply concerned about nurturing the next generation of believers, I offer a few thoughts on the subject.

True education, in a Christian context, is about effecting a transformation of the learner, not just transmitting information or career skills.  As such, learning cannot be separated from personal relationships.  We learn primarily not from books, lectures, or videos, but from personal encounters with individuals in the discipline who have studied the subject in-depth and have wrestled with its complex questions and possible implications.

And in relational environments, technology can serve a helpful facilitating role.  My wife and I have developed our relationship over twenty-five years of marriage.  Technology helps us maintain and build that relationship.  We text and email each other often, and our texts often contain inside jokes and allusions that would be meaningless to an outsider.

Social networking fulfills a similar role in facilitating and strengthening existing relationships.  When my son spent a semester in Rwanda as a college student, Facebook updates were the best way—in fact the only way—for us to keep in touch with him.  I recently spent a week traveling by myself in China and Korea to visit other universities.  While sitting in the airport waiting to return home, it was comforting to scroll through my friends’ feeds on Facebook and be reminded of the web of personal relationships which I inhabit.

When it comes to education, digital technology can serve a similar purpose in strengthening and facilitating the communal learning process.  After a particularly lively discussion in class, I can follow up with an email on Blackboard that keeps the conversation going.  The class can use the social network to create study groups and share ideas on the assignments.  A professor can develop an online course for his or her students to take over the summer to keep making progress toward their degree.  These are just some of the valuable ways that technology can strengthen the learning process.

It would be difficult to envision Jesus carrying on his teaching ministry to his disciples apart from real, physical interactions.

But digital technology is less effective when it is called upon to create relationships rather than enhance them.  Virtual interactions, if permanently divorced from real relationships, tend to be shallow and superficial, if not downright creepy.  Commercials for online dating services show happy couples cuddling together, not chatting online.

Similarly, an online course that is called upon to create the learning process rather than enhance it may be stretched beyond its capacity.  A course that exists solely among strangers may produce students who can pass an exam, but I question the extent to which such a course can nurture deeper qualities such as curiosity and critical thinking.  I can put my Reformation history lectures online; but it would be difficult for me to convey my passion for studying the Reformation apart from a real face-to-face relationship and dialogue with my students.

A few years ago I sat in a meeting in which an advocate of online courses remarked that we traditionalists needed to get over our “corporeal fetish”—by which he seemed to mean that we were too preoccupied with the physical body.  My reading of Scripture, however, seems to indicate that Jesus shared the same preoccupation.  He took on a real body, held children, rubbed spit in lepers’ eyes, and washed his disciples’ feet.  It would be difficult to envision Jesus carrying on his teaching ministry to his disciples apart from real, physical interactions.  I doubt that an online rendition of the Sermon on the Mount would have the same effect.

Ironically, the icon of the digital age, Steve Jobs, also valued real relationships over virtual ones.  As his biographer Walter Isaacson recounts, Jobs believed that real creativity arose out of face-to-face meetings and from the spontaneous discussions that occurred when people work in physical proximity to each other.  He even designed Apple’s headquarters to ensure that people from various units would run into each other randomly when eating, checking mail, or even going to the bathroom.  I would hope that as Christian educators adopt Jobs’s elegant devices, we also heed his advice about the primacy of personal interactions in producing the kind of deep learning that should characterize our universities.

 

Rick Ostrander (Ph.D., History, University of Notre Dame) is Provost of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He has written extensively in the areas of American religious history and education, and is currently exploring the challenges of Christian higher education in modern culture.