internet monopoly

I heard rumors of this during the summer when Christ Alone encountered problems on amazon.com. The site refuses to stock books that don’t offer sufficient margins, which is why many books are not available for two to three weeks.

Today’s New York Times explains that Amazon is attempting to cut out publishers and agents and publish the books that they sell. My guess is we’re headed for a world in which everyone can cheaply publish their own books on cheap paper with cheap editing. As Garrison Keillor said, soon everyone will have written a book, and they will sell exactly five copies to family and friends.

Since I’m feeling pessimistic, I also don’t think we’re too far from the time when most education is received online. This has several advantages, such as cost and convenience, but it promises to offer inferior quality. If you disagree, look at the advertisements for online education, and notice what they’re selling. It’s always convenience (get an education without leaving your home!), rarely quality. The next student that tells me their online class was better than their oncampus experience will be the first.

The other downside to online education is that few professors want to do it.  Online professors often become glorified graders. Once their material is uploaded, they merely service the course, which amounts to responding to student posts and grading student work. No one I know put in the effort to receive their Ph.D. so they could grade online courses.

So, when education moves entirely online, it will also remove the incentive for any seminary student to study beyond the M.Div. We may soon encounter the day when we have very few doctorates in Bible and Theology, for the simple reason that they just aren’t worth the sacrifice. If the church should lose her theological leaders, well, that can’t be good.

24 Comments

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  1. I’ve got to agree with you about higher education. It has changed quite a bit in the past few decades and is becoming more of a commodity than a formative process. Grades are inflated and what you used to be able to do with a bachelors you now need a masters. There is a lot of money in education which actually doesn’t help. And from what I’ve observed, that money doesn’t to to the teachers, many are still struggling to get by.

    What I anticipate is the system will eventually hollow out but education itself will change. From large accredited institutes it will move to smaller settings where you don’t get an accredited degree but you do gain the skills you need. I’m not sure how our economy will react to that. I think they’ll still want paper but they will also prize skill.

    And I think you’re frighteningly right about anything beyond an MDiv. It seems to me that the field for teaching in a seminary is extremely competitive already. Remove more and more classrooms and it just won’t be worth the money or effort.

  2. I think the problem has more to do with the way online courses are offered at the college and seminary level and a little less to do with the fact that the course is online.

    My wife and I work as online teachers in a competitive environment. Market forces can cause you to gain or lose students dependent upon the quality of your course. She currently teaches English grammar and composition to something like 200 home-educated grade school kids. Quality control is assured by home-school moms, notoriously frugal and demanding in their denim jumpers.

    The principal difference between the courses we teach and the ones offered in higher education is that we teach live, interactive classes and the colleges offer recordings with the occasional email or phone call with the professor. Higher education is also in a position to require that students take an online course to complete their degree requirements, which increases the school’s income. In order to get the substance of the degree, you also have to endure the fluff that comes with it.

    I do realize there are limits to the online setting, both for grade school children and seminarians. In my opinion, if the problem the seminary faces is how to increase revenue through online courses, maybe the solution is better online courses.

  3. What if GRTS gets ahead of the curve and begins to offer a combined online/limited attendance or online/live classroom program. Beats getting shut down by the new culture!

    Another thought, if churches can offer multi-site services, couldn’t GRTS use the churches technology (which I am sure GRTS taught them how to use) and teach hundreds more the Word of God? Wait, the profs would probably hijack this media and go right to the people…more squeezing out the middleman pastor! Then again you probably don’t have a cool band so no problem. Now if you could just build up a huge twitter following… Just could not resist, sorry…well not really:)

  4. I received a phone call two weeks ago seeking to sell an online service that would assist the church I serve with our discipleship and training programs. The sales caller noted that increasingly churches are moving their discipleship programs away from interpersonal settings to these online tutorials, because busy pastors just don’t have the time to spend with the various individuals. Instead, it is so much easier to make a single video that that membership can access at their convenience.
    I wept.
    Since when did discipleship training become data download instead of “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you”? And what great sacrifices are made when we remove ourselves from the presence of others? O the benefits to my Christian growth that came from guys who were willing to sit with me weekly and teach me the Word of God and Christian living! So much of that is lost if we move discipleship to online videos!
    I could not help but hear significant overlap with what you are saying. One of the parts I value most about my seminary education was the classroom time. Interacting and debating with other students; watching how seasoned professors work through difficult questions and problems; listening to prayers about the benefits and passion for God that arises out of what most Christians deem esoteric theological points; even watching professors interact with each other; all this I will value into and throughout eternity. May God preserve seminaries from the online black hole that seems to suck everything into its abyss.

  5. Prof. Wittmer,
    As a student currently involved in an online class with you and will most likely end up taking a few more with you, I’m curious how I should interpret this post? As a student who will in all reality receive a lot of online education due to circumstances, I want a good education and have some hopes of going on beyond my MDiv which I will eventually receive. I’m just a little troubled by these comments.

  6. Most students have laptops. They could just bring their laptops to campus and do the online cource in class. Best of both worlds eh?

    Seriously though, you are correct that no one wants to complete a Ph.D. just to be stuck teaching online.

  7. Brian:

    I think the thing to take away is that life is full of trade offs. We are social creatures, and so I would enjoy getting to know you in a face to face, classroom environment. If that isn’t possible, then online can still provide an environment to learn certain kinds of material. It’s not as enjoyable for either of us, but if you are motivated, you can still acquire a good education.

  8. Fair enough! If circumstances did not dictate otherwise, I would love to pick up and move to Grand Rapids, I love it over there! Yet, as I consider what I am going to do, I can’t help but thing that this is what the Lord has for me. As someone who is soon to be doing church planting and who feels a call to the area I’m currently in, I feel online is good because while I’m learning I get my hands dirty! Yet my position or perspective is not one I think you are pushing back against, I think my scenario is unique. Considering it from you perspective, I absolutely empathize with you though! Despite your reservations, I hope to learn a lot from you in these classes, and any opportunities I can get to peak in on a class on take one on campus I surly will!

  9. There is nothing new under the sun, however, I wonder if the increased ease to share and manipulate text has contributed to a lower view of the written Word. Ours is a virtual world.

  10. I saw the blog title, and thought I could throw the dice and buy up Boardwalk…wrong monopoly. As one who has taken a number of online classes, I’ve found the experience to be interesting. The reading portion of the learning was much the same, and the feedback on semester paper projects was similar as well. But, the lack of face-to-face contact and community with my peers and professor was a big “negative”. The conversations in a classroom setting are far more authentic. In the classroom setting, if you participate there is a sense of vulnerability that is lacking in the online setting. In the online setting you can check your own work multiples times before clicking “submit”. In the classroom, once you say something, it out there for the class to hear and offer feedback. While not the perfect setting, the online classes have allowed me to progress towards my degree. Now, if someone out there would like to offer me a job that has flexible hours, and decent pay…I could take classes during working hours, and not have to wait around for an evening class or take the online version of the course. Do not pass Go, go directly to Jail!

  11. Hello! You are being a little hard on online education. After all one gets out an education what he or she is will to put into it…in the way of effort to learn. I attended 10 schools above the secondary level, all the way from a small denomination college up to an Ivy League University. One of those ten schools was distance learning, correspondence practically as some would call it. That degree a Master’s in Counseling from Liberty University which involved two mini courses taught on campus during one week sessions and the other courses were by video tapes of lectures and tests administered by a local Associate Superintendent of the County School System who mailed the them to Liberty. It was the toughest degree I ever earned (and I have five and work on number six). My wife thought I was going to have a heart attack before I finished it. How good was the degree? Well, I had four other degrees earned in three schools with course work in a total of nine institutions. Thus, I had the wherewithal to compare the work in the last degree. Also I had a state exam given to Counselors with Masters in the school systems of the state. The required score at that time was 490. My score was 560. So off hand I would think that distance learning as it was then called or online as now can be as valuable as the effort the student puts into it. I would add, however, that I was used to doing independent research. E.g., 6 years of research in Church History and some 3000 5×8 notecards covering more than 250+sources. 2 years on I Cors. 13 and 2000 5×8 notecards and over a 100 sources.

    As to books now that is a tragedy..Our society is becoming so visual and yet we are losing the wherewithal of reading, study, and the intense thought that the scholar, scientists, etc., must give to subjects and issues.

  12. Jonathan Shelley October 18, 2011 — 7:32 am

    Mike,

    Don’t you have an assistant who could do the grading for you? Then, you would really be getting paid for the use of your name – Wittmer brand theology. Better get a trademark on that.

    In seriousness, though, I think you might be stereotyping online courses and students. Some students take online classes because they think it will be easier, and other students take online classes because their schedule dictates it. (And some schools offer online classes as a way to make a quick buck and some offer online classes as a way to help students succeed and complete their educations.) Students who are just looking to coast through a class will do that in a traditional setting as well, so they really aren’t losing anything. But the students who want to do well, who really want to learn and are willing to put the effort in, can get quality curriculum online. It is a trade off, since the value of the classroom interaction is lost, but the ability to bring quality biblical and theological education to those whose schedules do not allow for daytime classes is, I think, worth the trade off.

  13. Jonathan, I think you may be missing my bigger point. If, and when, education goes mostly, if not entirely online, there will eventually be a scarcity of qualified instructors to teach and oversee these classes (ask yourself if you would right now be applying to doctoral programs if you believed that teaching only online courses were in your future). I think we can debate whether education will move mostly, if not entirely, online, but the idea doesn’t seem that farfetched (see the link about Amazon which started this post). So putting aside the pros and cons for the student, there is the issue of theological leadership which I don’t hear anyone mentioning yet.

  14. Mike, I agree that there is a trend toward online education and it might just be the wave of the future. Time will tell. But I don’t think that the shift to online education will necessarily lead to a scarcity of qualified instructors. (To answer the question as to whether I would apply to PhD programs, please see the reference letter request in your office.) I can imagine several scenarios that will still require highly qualified instructors, most notably the development of virtual classrooms, where the instructor is giving a traditional lecture through video interface with students around the world. Beyond that, though, the need for theological leadership will never go away, so those who are gifted and called to such positions will find new homes, possibly in the churches or parachurch organizations. One potential benefit is that the lack of teaching opportunities might actually thin the herd, as it were, and leave us with only the best and brightest theological leaders. I guess I’m more optimistic about the future of online education and the potential it has to generate new opportunities and learning environments.

    All that being said, I think another important point of your post is that students need to be discerning about where and how they study. One fear that I have about the current online model is that it greatly increases the teacher to student ratio, meaning that it is even more difficult for professors to know their students and for students to engage professors directly. It is sad when seminaries become degree mills, and one potential downfall of online degrees is that it increases the likelihood of this happening.

  15. You can learn lots of things in lots of ways, but Biblical education is really supposed to be about discipleship. I have taught people things over the phone as part of our ministry, but there is no way that is a substitute for the godly men that the Lord put in my life during Bible College and Seminary. Again it is not that one cannot learn doing correspondence or online class -but they cannot be discipled in any meaningful way. Paul taught Timothy because Timothy was with him. He learned not only information but a godly life. Maybe Life Together’s image given by Bonhoeffer is the exception and not the rule, but those men learned more than stand alone information. They learned about Christ in both word and deed from those who had learned it before them. Distance education has its uses, but it should never become normative for our schools in training upcoming ministers.

  16. O! But it will. It will become normative, especially if the economic collapse that has been planned for comes off on schedule and we are reduced to 80% unemployment with starvation in the streets and civil war over no food on the supermarket shelves. I pray for he economy not to collapse and for a renewal to take place, for a Third Great Awakening to begin in this generation and continue for at least one thoughsand generations.

  17. I’m trying to imagine Jesus doing an on-line ministry with the 12 Disciples…. I will not say there is no place for on-line instruction, but discipleship is at best incomplete without that face to face, one on one interaction… Also, in a seminary setting, is the goal of teaching only the transfer of information? Is not spiritual transformation also an even more fundamental goal? If there was any spiritual transformation in my life from my seminary experiance (I did not graduate.) it happened in the classroom where I was able to see the heart and passion of my profs; profs whose teaching was not only academic and intellecually challanging but also pastoral, reflecting a pastoral heart and concern for us as students.

    What may happen is the academic instruction may indeed take place on-line, but it will be the student’s pastor or elders or whoever who will need to be more involved and oversee that in all the deludge of factual knowlege and academic and intellectual growth, spiritual transformation and increasing maturity continues to take place in the life of said student.

  18. As a current GRTS student I cannot begin to imagine taking all of my classes online. Thus far I have taken one on-line class and I did not like the lack of contact with the professor. My prof answered questions in a timely manner, but it drove me nuts that I also didn’t have quality discussions with my classmates and my professor. Posting in an online forum is just not the same as a heated discussion or the give and take of a conversation.

    I may be the weird one, ask my six siblings and they will confirm that, but I like to learn what makes my professors tick. It surprises me to learn that someone has Amish relatives, another repairs cars for a car mininstry and he has recorded an audiobook. It makes them more “human” then a name on a screen. To me that means a ton. Further, in person they seem more concerned about me as person then the person I communicate with via the internet. My on-line prof never said he was praying for his students or was interested in hearing our prayer requests. In person that is so much different…the profs seem truly interested and concerned. Really how can you train pastors without personal interaction? What if Christ had trained his disciples without personal interaction?

  19. Mike McCrumb–me, too! Expecting to hear of a new way to play Monopoly, I didn’t know why he would be talking about Amazon at first.🙂

    I’m slow. But Mike (Wittmer, that is), aren’t you the guy who talked to me about self/custom publishing? Have you changed your position or do you still think that’s a viable option?

    I’m still gathering an opinion.

  20. Shannon: I think it’s becoming a more viable option all the time. The biggest question remains quality. Insiders tell me that Amazon’s books aren’t always printed on the highest quality paper or with the highest quality look, and as they eliminate more of the competition that will only get worse. There is also the issue of editing, and how quality authors such as yourself will be able to stand out from the swarming millions of poorly conceived and punctuated books. Publishing looks increasingly like the wild west, for better or worse.

  21. Thanks for the ‘such as yourself’.🙂 Good input, and thanks for being a ‘pioneering’ thinker.

  22. To those who are wondering what would have happened if Jesus trained his disciples online – seminary profs are not Christ! Unless I’m mistaken, Jesus did not start a school of any kind. But since he did most of his teaching to transient mobs who came from far and wide to hear him, maybe his ministry wasn’t so different from an online forum after all.

    But the question of discipleship does remain, to which I reply: Isn’t it the responsibility of the governing body that has confirmed this individual on the path to ordination to provide the personal mentoring that we are assuming from seminary faculty? Perhaps I’m missing something, but we didn’t come to seminary to escape the church or those who had been mentoring us in our spiritual growth. I would expect the pastor/congregation/consistory/classis/bishop/whatever that identified this person as one gifted and called to the ministry to shoulder the responsibility of mentoring, discipling, and nurturing the gifts of this person, not a professor that you might only know for a semester and then move on. Is one likely to receive any meaningful discipling in a lecture class of 30+? Perhaps a select few will. But anyone seeking to be a minister in the body of Christ and is attempting it without the support of a church who has covenanted with the individual for the journey of ordination, that person is likely to falter whether her classes are online or not. But the person who is supported, encouraged, and led by a church through the process of ordination to service in Christ’s Church will most likely be successful regardless of the classroom forum.

  23. One random thought….in the Oct. 15 issue of “Library Journal” there is an editorial discussing the issue if online degrees for those persuing degrees in Library and Information Services.

    WTS_Fan: You state: “Isn’t it the responsibility of the governing body that has confirmed this individual on the path to ordination to provide the personal mentoring that we are assuming from seminary faculty?” Just a side note that not all of us at GRTS are on the path to ordination and further some churches do a lousy job of mentoring and discipleship.

  24. @WTS Fan & CQ,

    I fully agree the area of a seminary student’s discipleship is indeed a primary responsibility of the student’s home church. And I can also agree some churches do a not so sterling job or no job at all in that regard.

    I look at the discipleship I received from my seminary Prof’s as, for lack of a better term, incidentai (sp); an informal discipleship that came in the course of classroom interaction and personal interaction with the instructors. Looking back many years latter, I’ve come to value thiose times and the example of a pastoral heart that was the spark behind those occassions.

    All that to say, it is hard to imagine how those special moments in the seminary experiance can be facllitated in an on-line course.

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