Distance Education: is it good enough?

by Jim Fox

Opponents of distance education degrees have effectively demonstrated that a classroom experience combined with personal mentoring offers the most excellent form of education. However, what is in dispute is not whether DE is ideal, but whether it is good enough to merit a Franciscan University degree, and whether it is better than the alternatives of no education or a pernicious education.

Whether It Is Good Enough

Perhaps the most illuminating part of the exchange between Dr. Crosby and Dr. Miletic is their discussion of reading St. Augustine. Here they debate how much is learned from the texts and how much is learned from the teacher. Dr. Crosby says that without the teacher’s personal presence the student learns far too little, and at least implicitly suggests that the student has more to learn from the teacher than the texts. Dr. Miletic says that when we read St. Augustine he challenges our thinking, we learn his values, and we develop intellectual habits by carefully following his arguments. Dr. Crosby says reading Augustine is enriching. He also says the difference between teaching via audio tape and the traditional classroom method is like the difference between reading Augustine and personal interaction with Augustine. Maybe so. But Augustine is dead, and most of us will not be blessed to have the likes of Augustine teach us in the classroom.

Further, the teacher of Augustine has rather less to teach than Augustine himself. What teacher would dare to say that what the student learns from him is equal to what the student learns from reading the works of Shakespeare, St. Thomas, Plato, Cato, Aristotle, Virgil, St. Paul? Or the words of Jesus Christ, the very Word? So we read their works, keeping in mind that when a man wishes to communicate for all posterity the breadth, depth, and nuances of his mind or someone else’s, he commits his thoughts to writing.

Having said all this, I am nevertheless well aware of the value of teachers. DE supporters fully realize that teachers play a critical role in the educational process. In fact, if DE is about anything, it is about extending the teaching of the teacher beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.

The crux of the issue is whether the teacher need be personally present to the student to teach him well. Critics of DE say that the intellectual virtues since time immemorial have been best cultivated by discipleship and the Socratic method, which is extolled in our Philosophy of the Curriculum. DE supporters, Dr. Crosby charges, “overlook…the personal element that is thereby captured is only a small fragment of the personal element that is available to our resident students.”

I think most DE supporters would agree with Dr. Crosby that a significant portion of the personal dimension of education is not conveyed through DE. But DE supporters maintain that what is conveyed is far more than the insignificant fragment Dr. Crosby makes it out to be. DE programs in general and our DE supporters in particular have focused their efforts on finding innovative alternatives to traditional educational and mentoring methods, precisely to make up for the diminished personal element.

The first step was the decision to use audio-taped lectures. The thinking was that although a man’s words, his volume, his tone, his inflections, his erudition, his reasoning, his ideas, his questions and his teaching, may strictly speaking convey only a small fragment of him, they convey an awful lot of what he thinks. Think how much depth and richness is communicated by listening to a radio broadcast. It is the same for the DE student listening to audio tapes, except that they listen to lectures when they are most ready to listen well, and can stop the tape at key points to consider the questions and ideas presented.

The next step was the development of extensive class outlines prepared with the oversight of the professor. Keep in mind, the DE student doesn’t merely read Augustine, he is taught Augustine. In DE, the teacher, who is presumably steeped in Augustine, points out critical passages, demonstrates the logical consequences of Augustine’s thought, challenges students to answer his questions at length, forces through juxtaposition the reckoning of Augustine with subsequent theology. Students are taught in DE through active listening, papers, tests, e-mail and phone conversations with the professor, and perhaps most importantly, by pondering the questions and ideas of their college classes for years.

Indeed, it is generally agreed that DE classes are good enough for undergraduate and graduate college credit, whatever else may be needed for a degree. Dr. Crosby himself teaches a DE class. Of course the sum is greater than its parts, so as a final step for a degree program, the most recent proposal from the theology department for the MA degree includes a requirement of six credit hours to be taken on campus. The minimum residency requirement per three-credit course would be three weeks.

“Admittedly some learning through DE is possible even for college credit, but this isn’t enough,” DE opponents may still say. “We are talking about the fullness of learning available while at a University.” I know of no study that proves a DE student’s education is somehow too educationally deprived to be worthy of a degree. Only theories have been offered to demonstrate this alleged disqualification. No actual evidence from experience has been offered that would prove this deficiency: not from experiences teaching DE, not from a single study of DE, not from the experience of a single professor here, not from a single student here or elsewhere. In fact, all the evidence offered by DE supporters, by DE students, and by DE professionals supports the proposition that DE classes are good enough.

“OK,” you may say, “but it isn’t as good as being here for most of the classes.” Granted. No one pretends that the je ne sais quoi of the classroom, campus and relationship with the professor-that physical, metaphysical and spiritual interaction between unique human persons-can be reduced to some particulars; that some mechanism can fully make up for their absence, or that there would be any meaningful way to measure the success of technological substitutes. For this reason, DE advocates at FUS agree that DE students should receive a different degree from resident students. To distinguish DE degrees from on campus degrees, DE students would not receive a degree in theology, but rather in theological studies.

DE vs. a Bad Education

Principles of education ought not be divorced from the realities of the world. The kind of education that a student might receive elsewhere-particularly in theology or philosophy-is misleading at best. When combined with discipleship and mentoring, it is patently pernicious. Theology and philosophy programs in most established institutions today strive to bring students to a profound level of doubt about any and all truth, save perhaps an ill-defined and parentless political correctness. I’ll cite just one example. At my own alma mater, Georgetown, “an institution in the Jesuit tradition,” Diana Hayes holds the position of associate professor of systematic theology. Ms. Hayes is a prominent figure in Call to Action, an allegedly Catholic organization which, for all intents and purposes, systematically opposes just about everything the Church teaches. Is this kind of mal-education really to be preferred to DE?

Let Them Drink Steubenville Water

Mr. May, a DE student, pointed out in his letter to the Concourse that many simply could not get a degree were it not for DE. They have jobs, families, and civic responsibilities. They are thirsting. But some want us to say, “Sorry you don’t want to drink the water there, but we can’t bottle our fresh spring water, so you’ll have to come here or drink nothing.”

DE students are not sacrificing an on-campus education at Franciscan University to get an education through DE. The DE department has abundant data to support this point. Isn’t it enough that we will be providing a good education for those who otherwise might not get it?


Through Distance Education we can serve the father of five on the parish council, the mother of three who wishes to raise her children in faith, the nun in the convent who wants to know her faith better, or the salesman like the one in my office the other day who is putting kids through college. If nothing else, let’s think more about them. A great chasm exists between the uneducated and the distance educated. It is the chasm between ignorance and truth. Finding ways to offer education to the uneducated isn’t enshrining mediocrity; it’s rising beyond our comfortable traditions, overcoming restraints, and striving to bring the truth to the student, so that the student-having learned to seek and discover the truth-can become the teacher and bring others to the truth. DE isn’t perfect. But educating those who would otherwise be uneducated or mal-educated it is definitely good enough.

Jim Fox is Executive Director of University Relations.