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MOOCing Jesus

Does online education work? A new survey of college faculty by Gallup for Inside Higher Education offers an unstartling new answer: It depends. Here at ILYBYGTH, we have a different question: Does online education work for conservative religious colleges?

After all, as I’m exploring in my new book, conservative religious colleges have always had a different goal from secular schools. Instead of just hoping to prepare students for careers and intelligent life, conservative schools have also intended to bolster the faith of their students. They have worried that any change might lead them into a slow slide into secularism. As a corollary, most conservative schools have maintained stricter lifestyle rules over students than secular colleges have. Conservative schools have insisted that classes be led faithfully, not just competently. But can they do this in online classes?

The survey of faculty for Inside Higher Ed includes some interesting points. [You can click to get the entire report, but you have to register.] In brief, faculty remain unconvinced that online education can deliver equal results to old-fashioned in-person classes. Online classes might do a good job—in some cases—at delivering content. But most faculty agree: there is something important lost when face-to-face interaction isn’t a leading part of university classes.

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Source: Carl Straumsheim, “Online Ed Skepticism and Self-Sufficiency: Survey of Faculty Views on Technology,” Inside Higher Education, October 29, 2014.

The survey specifically excluded some of the schools we’re interested in, what it calls “Bible colleges and seminaries.” And none of the questions included anything about student faith.

But no one interested in online higher education these days can ignore the fundamentalist elephant in the room. Liberty University, a school founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, now claims almost 100,000 online students. In addition to standard online coursework, Liberty offers online spiritual help, too. Students can join online prayer groups and Bible blogs.

But this menu of religious fare does not seem to match the traditional goals of conservative religious colleges. At most schools, the faith of students has been the primary concern, not merely an additional click on a webpage. And most college administrators have been keenly worried about sliding into heterodoxy and secularism. In his brilliant 1994 dissertation about Wheaton College, historian Michael Hamilton explained this sentiment like this:

The paradigm that has dominated Wheaton through the [twentieth] century holds that colleges, more than any other type of institution, are highly susceptible to change, and that change can only move in one direction—from orthodoxy toward apostasy. . . . The very process of change, no matter how slow and benign it may seem at first, will always move the college in a secular direction, inevitably gathering momentum and becoming unstoppable, ending only when secularization is complete.

This mindset, I believe, is common among conservative evangelical schools. From Wheaton, to Biola, to Gordon, to more conservative schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty…all have worried that change will equal declension. All have been concerned, first and foremost, that novelty will lead faculty and students to abandon their faiths.

So here’s the question we wished Inside Higher Ed had asked professors at conservative schools: How can online education remain orthodox? How can the faith of students be preserved if student/teacher interaction is weakened?

And perhaps this is the toughest question for the folks at Liberty University: Has their wildly successful pursuit of online education changed their goal? Has Liberty abandoned its religious mission? Or, rather, could this massive online presence be compared to the televangelism of an earlier generation? Could the thousands of online students be seen as an enormous “mission field” for Liberty’s evangelical message?