|(Photo: William Mbugua, S.J.)|
The phenomenon that is massive open online courses (MOOC) was recently brought to my attention by an acquaintance. These are courses being offered online by different universities, and most importantly, they are free. You do not have to be a registered student from the university to take them. It means you can take free courses on your own time through prestigious educational institutions such as Stanford, Columbia, or Case Western Reserve. As I have been assigned to post-secondary classroom teaching at this stage of my Jesuit formation, this seemed to hit a nerve.
It is quite impossible, nor is it my intention, to give a comprehensive review and critique of MOOC in a short blog entry. Furthermore, I want to acknowledge some obvious positives that MOOC literally brings to the table on which rests one's computer: it creates learning opportunities for those who would otherwise not have access to such resources due to geographical, temporal or financial reasons. It is possible as long as internet access is available, and that one is willing to diligently persevere through the course. I merely focus on one issue: what clear advantage does a teacher-student interaction in a physical space bring?
In a way, this no longer seems to matter much, given how many professors choose to upload their lectures online for their students, and how many students zone out into the worldwide web during class time. I do think, however, that physical presence of teachers plays a key role. This may not mean a whole lot if we think of education is a nonphysical transfer of knowledge from one source to another. It is somewhat akin to the way Neo learns in the film The Matrix: plug him in, download the data, and he masters Jiu Jitsu within ten seconds.
This is a convenient but ultimately unsatisfactory view of education. We are not computers. We are more than that. We are composite beings of body and soul, and our physical body necessarily plays a part in everything that we do. Even learning. Here, I would like to bring in an Ignatian term called cura personalis. It is Latin for “the care of the whole person”, and it is part and parcel of the Jesuit way of approaching education. Teaching is not just about feeding the “minds” of the students with information; it is about the formation of the whole person. What else is going on in their lives? How are they doing as a person? How can I, as the professor, help them grow as a person?
Some may suggest that cura personalis can be done through the internet: if a student wants to ask me for an extension, this can be done either through e-mail or a video conference. This is true, but it is also a purely functional perspective. While I think such cybernetic means can act as supplementary tools, it cannot replace the organic interaction between two persons in person. It cannot replace the stressful “can I come talk to you right now” moments; it cannot replace the random fifteen-minute chats that I have had with my students in the hallway; it cannot replace the coffees that I have had with them.
There is a Chinese saying, yī rì wéi shī, zhōng shēn wéi fù (a teacher for a day, a father for life). While this is often used to emphasize the respect that students ought to have for their teacher, the reverse should also be true: a teacher ought to devote his time, attention and care to the students as if they were his own children. Of course, one does what one can; but the message is clear enough. I imagine that a parent-child relationship that is solely based on online interactions would not be an adequate one, let alone a good one. So it is with teaching.
More importantly, cura personalis is rooted in the spiritual reality of bringing Christ to students. While “cyber ministries” such as this blog are quite common nowadays, they are but supplementary. The Word is made flesh and dwell amongst us; the Word cannot be downloaded. The Word is made incarnate, and the Lord communicates with and transforms us in ways that a typed e-mail or a video conference cannot. There is something very powerful about meeting or bringing Christ in those whom we meet in person. It allows us to operate through a medium in which we can truly be ourselves.
This is a call for us teachers to avoid compartmentalizing our Christian duties, in leaving the spiritual, personal stuff to the counselors, chaplains and campus ministers. Bringing Christ to others through cura personalis is not just another extra duty in the job description that furthers our burdens; rather, it lightens our yokes and brings us joy.