Coffee Talk #41
September 6, 2001
By Rick Walston, Ph.D.

Table Of Contents

Of Bricks and Mortar: A Real Education?

How is it that we have somehow made a fantastic illogical leap in our minds that "brick and mortar" = education?

Inside this university building, someone is teaching someone else that . . .

"Biogenesis, a term coined by British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, is a fundamental concept of biology that means that life comes only from the reproduction of living things, and that species can produce offspring only of the same species."

Inside this coffee shop, someone is teaching someone else that . . .

"Biogenesis, a term coined by British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, is a fundamental concept of biology that means that life comes only from the reproduction of living things, and that species can produce offspring only of the same species."

Now, you tell me, which students--those in the university building, or those in the coffee shop--got the better education?

Answer : The two are the same . . .

The ridiculous notion that somehow lectures in a building with brick and mortar lead to a better education than lectures not in a building with brick and mortar "came home to me" in a conversation I had with a "traditionalist."

Old, Tired Arguments
I was engaged in a conversation with a man who was arguing with me that a true education simply could not take place outside of some sort of "school building."

Knowing his theological persuasion, I "set him up."

I asked him if he knew "Dr. So-and-so," a professor of Bible and theology at a certain, traditional (brick and mortar) seminary.

"Oh, sure! I don't know him personally, but I know who he is! I've read some of his books. He's a fantastic scholar. Do you know that he has one of his master's degrees from Harvard?"

I responded, "Yes, I did know that one of his master's degrees is from Harvard, and I wholeheartedly agree with you that he is a fine and outstanding scholar."

Then, I went on to ask him if he felt that a student would get a good, solid, and legitimate education under Dr. So-and-so. He readily conceded and said that sitting under this scholar would "absolutely lead to a top quality education."

So, now that I had "set the trap," I asked him if he knew of a certain off-campus, and unaccredited university. Yes, he was aware of the school, and he let me know that he considered it to be "substandard, precisely because there was no campus and no residency requirements."

So, I asked him, "Can a person get a real, legitimate, and top quality education from this off-campus university?"

"Absolutely not!" was his response.

So, it was now time to "spring the trap" on him: "Well," I said, "did you know that Dr. So-and-so actually teaches for this off-campus, university . . . and his students are getting the same information from him at this off-campus university as they are at the on-campus seminary he teaches for?"

He was dumbfounded and speechless. He sputtered a bit, and finally conceded that if Dr. So-and-so was teaching for this off-campus university, then the students working with Dr. So-and-so through this school "might" get a comparable education . . .

I asked, "What do you mean, "might"?
--Is it the same professor? "Yes."
--Is he teaching the same subjects? "Yes."
--Is the work done by the students on-campus and by the students off-campus are all inspected and graded by the same Dr. So-and-so? "Yes."

Well then, how could it be only a "might"?

You cannot possibly think, can you, that just because one student is sitting in a building with brick and mortar and one is off-campus, AND even though every other thing in the educational process is exactly the same, that the one sitting in a brick-and-mortar building is somehow by the fact of bricks and mortar getting a better education?

He was stumped . . . he squirmed a bit, and then he said, "I just feel like people get a better education in a traditional school."

I said, "That's fine. Just please explain to me how that's true."

"I can't," he said, "but I just believe it."

So, I asked him, "Well, do you believe in the Easter Bunny?"

He chuckled and said, "No."

"Why?" I asked. "What makes one believable and one not . . . since, after all, you say that it is a matter of just believing."

Old, Tired Argument # 1

Then, he pulled out the most tired argument of all . . . one at which I find difficult not to laugh out loud . . . he said,

"Well, in a traditional, on-campus school, the students have access to a library and interaction with other students."

I will not give you the entire conversation (word for word) that he and I had from this point, but I will give you the gist of my response:

First, when I completed my traditional, on-campus school, accredited D.Min., I did not go into the school's library one time. Not once. And, per my unscientific survey of some of my fellow students, most of them had not gone into the library either. And, the few who said they did, went in not to do research, but to simply look at it and see what it looked like!

The fact is that 50 years ago . . . and even 25 years ago . . . libraries were used far more (and were more useful) than they are now. Today, books are easily accessible to students who want to purchase them, or for those who simply want to review sources.

As far as purchasing books, new and used books of all kinds may be purchased through the Internet (on-line book stores). In fact, I was amazed recently to discover that an Old Testament commentary set that I had purchased at a "regular" book store was being sold through an on-line book store for about 40% less--and, yes, it was a new set, not used.

Next, multiple hundreds-of-thousands of pages of primary source materials are available for free, accessible through the Internet (and more is being added daily). And, frankly, I have found that locating certain, primary research materials is far easier on the Internet than in the library.

Next, what town or city does not have a library? Besides the easy access of the Internet, you can go to your local, town (or city) library and do research there. And, libraries have "inter-library loans." So, if you want a particular book and cannot locate it in your local library, chances are, they can borrow that book from another library, have it shipped to your local library for your use. And, if your local library does not have it, and if they cannot locate it through Inter-library loans, the chances are pretty good that the school's library won't have it anyway!

Actually, and this is a very important point, students who learn how to do serious research at home, through the various options that are available to them are far better equipped to continue their research as their lives progress than are students who have learned only how to access their school's library.

When Joe Student graduates from On-Campus University in Michigan, and he moves back home to Oregon, he will be unable to do the same kind of research that he did on campus (if he actually went to the school's library at all) because he will now be many miles away from the library of On-Campus University.

However, when Joe Student graduates from Off-Campus University in Michigan, and he has never left his home state of Oregon, he will be equipped to do the same kind of research that he did as a student because he will have learned how to do serious academic research from his home (via the Internet or local library research and inter-library loans).

The fact is simple and undeniable: the idea that students get a better education from an on-campus school because they have access to the school's library while those working through a Distance Learning school get a poor education because they don't have access to the school's library is simply fallacious. In fact, I believe that when the Distance Learning program is done correctly, and students are successful in their degree programs via Distance Learning, they get a better education, and they are better equipped to be life-long learners.

Old, Tired Arguments # 2 & 3
Next, he said, "Well, students in traditional settings have more access to their professors and other students."

Been There. Done That: First, after having experienced 13 years of being a student in both traditional schools (for about eight years) and Distance Learning schools (for about five years), I reject the notion that Distance Learning students have less access to their professors.

In fact, in my time, both as a student and as a professor, I have found just the opposite to be true.

Obviously, I cannot speak for all students and all professors (but then neither can the traditionalist that I was talking to), but many of my students have consistently told me that they have had far more access, both with regard to immediacy and duration, to me as their professor than they ever had with any of their former professors at the traditional schools that they had attended.

While some on-campus students who become the "Teacher's Pet" may have had lots of time with their professors, the reality is that most students spend very little time with their professors outside of class . . . and, inside class, the student is not getting one-on-one mentoring . . . rather, the student is simply occupying space while the professor often lectures about the same materials that are found in the required reading texts! In fact, "in-class studies" can be a colossal waste of time.

A colossal waste of time example
I remember one professor I "sat under" during my my traditional, on-campus Master's degree program . . . he would assign various texts (none of which were accessed via the school's library, but, rather, purchased at the local book store). Then, each time we got together, he would simply repeat what the text books said! Then, there would be a final exam at the end of the 12-week quarter, and we students had to write a term paper.

The colossal waste of time was this . . . by week four of the quarter, I (and most of the other students as well) had read all of the required texts and had written my term paper for the class. All I needed at that point was the final exam. But, I was required to attend every class (class attendance was part of the grade), which is a seriously ridiculous notion since most of the students were there in body but not in mind. Many of them would bring books from other classes to study while this professor would drone! So, for the remaining 8 weeks, we would have to endure the jowl-flappings of Professor Like-to-Hear-Himself-Talk.

This may not have been so excruciating if he had varied from the texts that we had already "consumed" and written on. Finally, after at least 8 weeks of wasted time, he'd give us the final exam, and we'd hand in our term papers, which had been collecting dust for weeks. The exam, predictably, covered a small portion of the materials that were found in the texts that we had read.

In another class, the design of the class was very much like the one described above. However, in this particular class, students would have no end of fun in getting the professor to talk about things that had no relation to the topic of the class. Some of the students would actually dig into the professor's personal life to find out his favorite hobbies or sports, likes and dislikes, and then they would bring up these topics during class. Out of a 12 week course, often 6 weeks were spent discussing things that had no relation to the class whatsoever. And, make no mistake about it, this is often the venerable "on-campus" educational system.

Now, obviously, not every on-campus class is as bad as the ones with Professor Like-to-Hear-Himself-Talk and the other one described above, but, frankly, unless one is a beginner in college and in the topic he/she is studying, most classes are at best little more than a rehashing of the text materials, and at worst they are often a colossal waste of time.

It was no surprise to me that one student who was graduating that year with his B.A. in Religion said to me, "I feel like a fraud." When I asked him what he was talking about, he said, "I don't know my topic very well at all! I'm not even sure what I learned from this bachelor's program." In jest, I said, "But, I'll bet you know Professor So-and-so's favorite sports teams." He just smiled weakly and said, "Yes, I do."

Next, the idea that a student's education is somehow better because of the fact that he/she has student interaction is also unproven, and in fact it might be just the opposite. Most "student interaction" is not about academics. It is about pizza parties, music, trips to the mall, sports, extra-curricular activities and so on. Most "student interaction" is more often an academic distraction, keeping one from academic work.

However, if one wants to argue that this "social dimension" of pizza, parties, music, trips to the mall, sports, and so on, is lacking in the Distance Learning school, I will agree.

However, most students who are in a position in their lives to earn degrees through Distance Learning schools are not 19- or 20-year-old kids. Most (97% or more) of the Distance Learning students are older adults with families and full-time jobs or ministries. They are not at that young age where they are attempting to find "social student interaction." All of the CES students are people who are fully engaged in social interaction through their churches, careers, professional societies, and families.

In fact, they have neither the time nor the desire for the typical "young adult" college hijinks and running around. They have jobs or ministries to do, lives to lead, and families to raise. Their education is not about finding time to have "social interaction with other students." It is about gaining knowledge and becoming more proficient in their jobs, careers, ministries, etc.

So, do Distance Learning schools lack the "student social interaction" of traditional, on campus schools? Yes . . . thankfully.

Besides, anyone who has spent any time at all communicating in topical newsgroups will know that if one wants quality interaction, one need only subscribe to a newsgroup that deals with the student's topic of study. I have subscribed to several theological newsgroups over the years, and I have had far more constructive conversations and theological interaction from them than I ever had with my fellow students at the on-campus schools that I attended.

The Twist

Good Distance Learning studies are actually harder than traditional, on-campus studies. And, the student, rather than learning less, actually learns more. Successful graduates of good Distance Learning schools learn to learn. They learn to research (yes, without an on-campus library). In fact, since they are not sitting in a classroom where the professor "spoon feeds" them the information that they are to learn, the Distance Learning student must be a good researcher and become sort of both the professor and student. He/she must do the research, learn the information, and adequately present that information (e.g., in a term paper) to his/her professor.

Distance Learning students are far more intimately engaged in their field of study than their on-campus counterparts. How do I support such a statement? Easy: Whereas the Distance Learning student must research for himself/herself, the on-campus student gets "spoon fed" information weekly and rarely actually digests the information as well as the student who has done the actual research of the topic.

Next, Distance Learning students must be self-motivated. They do not have a certain time to be at class (or be docked a grade for lack of class attendance). Distance Learning students must set time aside and be faithful to do the necessary research, otherwise, they will fail. However, in many cases, on-campus students must do little more than show up for class, make a half-hearted effort to show the professor that they are awake, and endure the lectures. In many cases, schools have a policy of grade inflation, and students who merely show up for class will pass . . . even if they don't actually learn anything.

I think that it is a telling fact that many of my own students have told me that they have learned far more from their time at CES than they did in traditional settings, even when they spent far less time with CES than with other, on-campus, traditional schools. Very often in traditional, on-campus schools, there is an agenda; students merely have to learn to parrot what the school believes and they will graduate (many times, with honors). At CES, students are asked to think. Not only that, but they are allowed, and even encouraged to think. I know that may seem like a radical concept for a seminary.

In conclusion, this is not a formal paper on the two educational process methods, on-campus and Distance Learning, and so I have rambled a bit. But, those who have done both traditional, on-campus studies and legitimate, serious Distance Learning studies have found that the simple equation of "brick and mortar" do not necessarily equal education.

So, instead of a classroom surrounded by brick and mortar, I'll see you at Starbucks.

Send comments about this, or any, Coffee Talk to Rick Walston at:
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