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Jesus, values and technology

Present or absent? (Photo by e³°°°)

John Dyer at Don’t Eat The Fruit frequently has thought provoking meditations on the values implied by or developed by technology. His latest is a non-review of a project to offer “a social-media application built for church“. It’s a non-review because John has not seen the project, but it’s more than a review because it asks useful questions about the relationship between faith and technology, questions that too often get overlooked.

Among the interesting and challenging things John has to say in his post:The Table Project: Values Driven Technology? There are a few lines I’d like to question (as well as hopefully pointing you to the post to read for yourself because I am NOT pretending to have summarised it for you).

The task for Christians is to figure out where the values built into a technology’s usage conflict with the values system Christ gave us. For example, Jesus models things like being physically present, having  times of solitude and focus, and memorizing Scripture. We, however, through the use of online technology have come to value being virtually connected, being always online, and using our phones to search for verses we don’t want to memorize.

I think this confuses what Jesus DID with what Jesus’ values were. Take “being physically present” this is often produced by pastors and theologians as a trump card to beat down those who want to teach by distance or even do anything churchy online. But was physical presence one of Jesus’ values, or simply a by-product of the technologies available? The only alternative to physical presence for any sort of communication in the first century was hand written, hand copied, hand delivered letters (or other documents). Jesus did not choose physical presence, he had NO choice.

But as soon as the Christian movement was at all established, still within the first century Paul (and others, but none seem to have matched Paul’s prolific, enthusiastic and effective use of the technology) started writing letters. Others began telling the gospel in writing… Even Jesus, when faced with a crowd too large for just talking (without an amphitheatre – more technology to distance presence) used a boat and the hills of Galilee as a makeshift amphitheatre.

The issue is not PHYSICAL but PRESENCE. The problem with Facebook, Twitter and the rest is not that they are not physical for they manifestly are! It is that they attenuate presence. (I have a string of posts discussing “presence” do read one or two). Basically presence is not binary. Two people can be in the same room, but barely mutually present. People can be at the four corners of the earth, but highly present to and for each other. It is presence that matters, not physicality!

Memorising Scripture is also potentially a problematic value, as Socrates points out in Plato’s Phaedrus the technology of (hand)writing destroys memory. The issue again is not the technology but (perhaps) how we use it. If we use our phones etc. to recall a passage whose exact wording we have forgotten this is potentially a good thing, for we may see the “verse” in context. The ancient who relied on memory often had little idea of context, we can…

Media and presence in distance education

For some people e-mail as well as offering the chance to think before "speaking" also offers a sense of "presence" (Photo by janetmck)

In this post I want to move beyond the earlier one “How’s my presence?” where I argued that presence is not a binary state, but a graduated one. We can be more or less present. Here I will summarise briefly some fascinating research by Steve Wheeler at the University of Plymouth, make some suggestions arising out of my understanding of his work, and so prerpare for discussing a course I am preparing and teaching in (a) future post(s).

Wheeler, Steve. “Creating Social Presence in Digital Learning Environments: A Presence of Mind?.” In Learning Technologies 2005 Conference: Combined Presence. Queensland, 2005. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.99.7721&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

Wheeler investigated 305 first year education students (272 females and 33 males so more women than would be typical in theology classes) most were mature students with full-time jobs, with a mean age of about 40. So apart from the gender imbalance not unlike the “distance students in my classes. They completed two sets of questionnaires, at the start of their studies and 6-9 months later.

Photo by timparkinson

The real surprise, it should not have been – with the usual 20/20 hindsight it makes good sense, was that students with different approaches to learning showed striking differences in their perceptions of “presence” in differing media. So autonomous and tenacious students had strikingly different perceptions and responses to face to face learning. Autonomous students “neither need nor experience a great deal of social presence” in this setting (p.6), while tenacious students do experience high levels. For e-mail the results showed similar tendencies. Curiously for telephone these figures tended to reverse, with autonomous students experiencing presence and preferring this medium. He speculates that this difference reflects an autonomous student’s need to feel in control of the process (student initiated telephone call).

At the least this means that different students will perceive “presence” differently with different mixes of media, and therefore a course that uses varied media will be more likely to promote a feeling of participation across any varied group of students.

neither need nor experience a great deal of

social presence

How’s my presence?

All present and correct? photo by Ed Yourdon

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!