An Overview of Distance Education
A detailed and thorough explanation of the field of distance education is well beyond the scope of this post: after all, i'm engaged in an three-credit overview course dedicated to this topic. But one fundamental characteristic is "planned learning that normally occurs in a different place from teaching" (Moore and Kearsley (2005)). Though the Internet, both as information technology and as media, has forever changed the nature of this kind of teaching and learning, some kinds of education-at-a-distance have existed as long as written communication and instructional purposes have coexisted.
Holmberg (2005), in describing the beginnings of distance education, notes
... letter writing for the purpose of teaching is probably as old as the art of writing itself. It has been suggested that the espistles in the New Testament testify to the very early existence of distance education, but this is questionable as here we seem to have clear evidence only of one-way traffic, i.e. of a presentation of something meant to be learnt. Nevertheless in St. Paul's letters there are some references to occasional feed-back through messengers from the congregations he was writing to (Titus in II Corinthians 7, Timothy in I Thessalonians 3 etc.).
This brief but intriguing comment led to the following reflections, which were addressed to Dr. Holmberg (who is currently teaching our on-line class).
Was Paul a distance educator?
Without minimizing the rest of the important content in chapter 2, I was intrigued by your brief introductory comment: "It has been suggested that the epistles in the New Testament testify to the very early existence of distance education ..." (Holmberg 2005, p. 13). Your own position on this subject is not fully clear to me: you describe it as "questionable" but then go on to cite some evidence to support it.
I saw some interesting parallels between this very early example and Keegan's definition (Keegan 1990, p. 44), which you cite in chapter 1 (Holmberg 2005, p. 9):
- "quasi-permanent separation of teacher and learner": when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he had never been there before (Rom 1:13), though later he was under house arrest there for a period of at least two years (Acts 28:14-31). Likewise, in the case of Paul's letter to the Colossians, he had never met them (or the Laodiceans, to whom the letter was also directed) previously (Col 2:1; Col 4:16). So clearly he was separated, for significant periods at least, from those whom he was instructing.
- "the influence of an educational organization": this is harder to demonstrate, both because the modern notion of an educational organization did not of course then exist, and because Paul's intentions are better understood as spiritual rather than purely educational in nature. However, the pattern of Paul's travels bears testimony to his systematic establishment of churches (composed of Christian "learners") in major cities of the Roman empire, supported by a group of followers with the same objectives (Allen 1962). While his admonition to his disciple Timothy to entrust his teaching to "faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2) probably falls short of a formal educational organization, clearly he did not intend his letters to be used for "private study" or "teach-yourself programmes". Certainly his teaching at the Hall of Tyranus in Ephesus (Acts 19:9-10), though in the model of face-to-face rather than distance education, points to an approach that went well beyond casual instruction. This is perhaps less surprising given that he was a native of Tarsus, which was known for its university, and had formally studied under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a well-known teacher of Jewish law.
- "use of technical media": there can be no doubt Paul used printed (hand-written) media extensively to communicate his teachings to others.
- "the provision of two-way communication": your own comments here clearly establish the feedback from learners in Corinth (via Titus, 2 Cor 7:6-15) and Thessalonians (via Timothy, 1 Tim 3:1-6).
- "the quasi-permanent absence of the learning group throughout the length of the learning process so that people are usually taught as individuals and not in groups": here Paul's approach most noticeably departs from Keegan's definition, since all evidence points to his "students" meeting together in house churches. While this individualism may characterize the current practice of distance education, it is not clear to me that this is a necessary feature.
The evidence seems substantial to me, therefore, that Paul could indeed be reasonably described as, while likely not the first, certainly one of the best known early distance educators. Though his purposes went well beyond education per se, examining his life and activity puts Keegan's definition of distance education in a new and interesting light.
Allen, R. (1962). Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or ours? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Keegan, D. (1990). Foundations of distance education. London and New York: Routledge.
Holmberg, B. (2005). The evolution, principles and practices of distance education. Oldenburg: Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg. [no URL available as of 2005/06/05]
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