When we discuss flexible learning (we call it “distance” but many of the students live near the college but become “distance students” in order to study at flexible times) many of my colleagues worry because theology is a discipline that requires personal engagement and distance students “inevitably” do not get that, and so also inevitably receive a second rate formation. I think my colleagues are wrong.
[Before I get into that, though, just a note that this view often means that people are willing to “try harder” – as the old Avis ads used to say, “we’re number two so we try harder”!]
Back to the issues of personal engagement: the discussion usually ends up focused on “presence”. On the view I am critiquing, presence is a binary concept, either someone is present or they are absent. In education the model of this view is the school register.
But is it true? Take the example of two people in the same room. They can be more or less present to each other. Imagine me sitting on the couch typing on a laptop, perhaps writing this post, Barbara is sitting at the desk playing Scrabble with our son in the Isle of Man. despite the distance he is more present to her at that moment than I. Unless I attract her attention. A casual remark in such a situation may well elicit a response, but often only a half aware response, like the “Uh Huh” with which I responded to much of the catalogue of their day that preceded this domestic scene. “Uh huh” indicated less than full attention on the account of the things various people said in an examiners meeting she attended. On the other hand another remark may get through and elicit full attention, and suddenly we are fully present to each other. Presence is not binary but a variable (and, at least conceivably) measurable quantity.
This everyday recognition has significance for flexible teaching, if presence is not binary, then “distance students” are not inevitably disadvantaged, even in this area!