Embodied Education and Online/Distance Learning — Some Preliminary Questions

James K.A. Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation sets forth an argument for embodied, wholistic Christian education. He argues that the dominant modern understanding of the human person is the human as primarily a “thinking person.” Christian worldview scholars, particularly from within the Reformed tradition, have cast humans as primarily “believing persons.” And while this is an improvement on “thinking person” it still casts the human as a primarily cognitive being. Smith suggests that the more wholistic approach is to adopt an Augustinian anthropology, wherein people are primarily “desiring people.”

In setting forth his case for the “desiring person” understanding of humanity, Smith explores the impact and power of liturgy or practices, be it secular or sacred, and how it impacts not only what we think (or believe), but also what we do and how we do it. Thus, humans are “liturgical animals” oriented by what they love (or desire). Our “thick” practices shape us, often in ways that we don’t consciously realize or acknowledge.

In light of this, Smith argues that Christian education should be primarily about formation, but in actuality, the majority of Christian education is instead merely about information. The result is that graduates from Christian and non-Christian institutions don’t really look all that different from each other. The college grad in North America gets a job, buys a house, gets married and lives their lives, becoming productive cogs in the wheels of the economy. And Christian grads don’t really look any different from their secular counterparts. Smith goes so far as to say that education that is baptized as “Christian” but is the same as secular education could in fact be “a way of domesticating the radicality of the gospel.” (218)

What does it mean to be Christian? Smith’s answer is to point us to the wise words of Stanley Hauerwas:

We are Christians not because of what we believe but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices. (220)

Smith then offers some examples of what embodied learning could look like in a Christian college that adopted “a liturgically informed pedagogy.” Each of the examples are based on the traditional classroom model, but my question, after reading his examples, is this:

Can a “liturgically informed pedagogy” be used in an online learning environment? How could an online class foster formation of the whole student rather than just being a means of transmitting information?

I’ve taken quite a few online/distance education courses over the years. Some have been fairly low tech: read the required textbooks, do the assignments. Some have been “mid” tech: listen to podcast lectures or watch video lectures, read the books, do the assignments. Others have been highly interactive: required online discussions in a forum setting that promotes dialogue not only between the student and the professor, but also between the student and the rest of the class. But, no matter which format was used, the desired outcome of the course was always, “do you know and understand the course material?”

I can’t really say that any of the online classes I have taken have formed me, or have had an embodied component. If anything, online classes are inherently disembodied. Being in a physical class, on the other hand, has definitely formed not only my thoughts (beliefs) but also my desires and my educational posture.

And yet, there are other areas in which online discussion has had an embodied element. As I continue to blog and to tweet, community is being formed, and the liturgy of the online world shapes my practices. That leads me to think that it is indeed possible for online education to be an embodied practice. I think the key is to not come at online education from the perspective of “technology is the wave of the future, let’s be innovative”, but instead the key is for the educators and developers of online Christian education to keep the question of embodied liturgical pedagogy front and centre. That may mean that each online class will look just a bit different from other online classes. It may mean that a cohort model is employed, like IWU’s online M.Div program, or it may mean that there is an emphasis on collaborative group work (like contributing to a blog or creating an online encyclopedia on the course material). Either way, online Christian education should not simply be an adoption of generic, secular online education models which are then just “baptized” as Christian.


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  • Dustin

    Wow! Great post and great interaction with Smith!
    I have trouble getting my head around online education precisely because of how the medium can form the student. On the other hand, it intrigues me to think about how online ed might re-inforce the role of the local church in overall Christian formation. That is to say, maybe online education can help to put the worshipping community–the Church–in the centre of the educational endeavour because students don’t have to uproot and relocate to study…
    That said, I think teaching would lose its attractiveness for me if it was all online….

  • Susan B.

    This is good Amanda and I like your question. My other question is to do with online education in general when it comes to being formative. While I understand the need for more online education in our society I do question how we can educate the “whole person” when there isn’t much face to face, personal interaction of the kind that can also teach us how to treat each other, particularly in a Christian context. Utiilizing what we learn as Christians in the context of community is very difficult to learn in online situations where contact with community is confined to the printed word and is missing the element of nitty gritty shoulder to shoulder contact. Online personalities can be developed that may not hold up in situations where we actually have to live together in community. I am curious what you think about this aspect of online education. I find it difficult to practise my faith in a complete manner strictly through written contact. We still have the ability to shut down the computer to be alone when we want to, to hide our “warts” etc. I am really interested in this change to education.

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