Monday, April 11, 2005


Instant Messaging and distant degrees (or students)

I am blogging here on a post by Tim Bulkeley on "Instant Messaging and the Distant Student".

I am a distant student or, as the University of London puts it, an "external student".

I definitely commend Tim for trying out this. I think that one of the greatest deficiencies (or perhaps the greatest deficiency) of the External BD program at the U of London is the absolute lack of interaction with teachers. This is fairly demotivating, as you are left with just some "study notes" (which can be of course more or less good, depending on the subject), no formal assignments to do, no online access to a university library (although this is now mentioned on the web site; but by no means am I sure how to get access to it), and, once per year, a set of written anonymous examinations. You don't even get to know why you were given your marks, i.e. where could you have done better. (incidentally, this is also why I very much appreciated the feedback and the interactions I received from readers of this blog re my notes - feedback from students, pastors, and professors, none of which, quite sadly, from the University of London.)

Now, I care little for the marks themselves, although I try hard to get the highest possible ones: I don't study theology for my "professional future" (see below), or because it is a required path, or because I want a title, and so on; I do this because, as Aquinas puts it, "manifestum est, secundum omnem modum, [sacram doctrinam] digniorem esse aliis [scientiis]": the syllabus of this degree, and the examinations, should allow me to get a deeper understanding of the subject: deeper, I mean, compared to what I would be able to get, were I studying entirely on my own. But sometimes I have the impression that all boils down to having a more complete reading list. This is a pity.

I am of course not so naive to expect to have teachers willing or able to adopt Origen's pedagogical method toward their students (as described for example by Gregory Thaumaturgus), especially with external students. But I remember from my University times that what I always hated was to perceive University like, as we would say in colloquial Italian, "un esamificio" (a place where you go just to be examined, get your marks, and eventually your degree).

I think Tim's idea is a genuinely good one. My professional experience is outside the field of theology: I am a physicist, working on distributed software technologies, and we use forum boards, instant messaging and similar tools quite frequently. With regards specifically to IM, it seems to me that, in a context similar to Tim's, it can be invaluable especially if there is a clear scope: that is, if it is used not just to voice one's mood; there should be, if not a moderator, at least a commonly held view of what the goals are, and of the topic being discussed; this requires of course organization.

And there should also be some clarity on roles and pre-requisites: if we are discussing say one's paper on topic X, everybody is supposed to have read the paper in advance, to have set aside some time so he/she can actively participate in the chat and not just lurk while reading email, googling around or doing other things, and the author is the one who is supposed to answer questions (some prepared in advance, some coming in "real-time"). If questions cannot be answered right away, a further session is scheduled, or a paper update is delivered. The chat can be saved so it can be examined later, to try and see what went well, what wrong, where focus was lost, what is the follow-up, etc.

The distinctive sign of IM is interactivity, and this is where one should concentrate: typnig errors are not important, as long as the discussion flow can continue. I remember that I used to have 1-1 meetings with a manager of mine via IM, and we were discussing there projects status, issues, questions one could have for the other, etc. The difference with a phone call is that if I need to point to an online resource, or to a resource I have in my computer that I think is relevant to the discussion (simple example in Tim's environment: textual variants, taken e.g. from a Bible sw one has installed), I copy/paste it in the chat box, which is something I obviously can't do via phone; not to mention the fact that when we do phone conferences in an international environment, we always have the problem of sound quality, which severely affects the interaction especially of non-native English speakers. Timezones can be a problem (they are for us, when we have to interact e.g. with US-based colleagues), in which case either an email-like solution is used, or an accepted time is found; but that is of course no different with phone calls.

Is this feasible for an "external" University degree in Theology? I surely hope so, if one cares for the knowledge that is being transmitted through the degree. I would go as far as to say that this is much more important for a theology degree than it is for others (cf. Aquinas' quote above). Does it scale? It definitely depends on the organization you have, and on the effort you put into it. The U of London, which claims to have a total of 32,000 external students, says on its website that in the year 2002/2003 there were in total 133 external students enrolled for the Bachelor of Divinity, plus another 87 for the Dipl. Theology. I don't know the numbers for individual courses (say, Church History to CE 461, to take one I studied for this year), but I suspect one would come down to manageable figures, if there was interest and will.

So Tim, if you read this, keep up the good work!

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