Colossian Blog
November 15, 2012 | Andy Saur

Article – Christian Learning in the Digital Age

Article – Christian Learning in the Digital Age


By Dr. Rick Ostrander, Provost, Cornerstone University
November 15th, 2012

At a recent Board of Trustee meeting at Cornerstone University, our marketing department produced postcards displaying information about the good things going on at the university.  Under the heading “Academic Excellence” was the statement, “All faculty and first-year students have received new MacBooks.”

That claim made me wonder:  Is there a connection between MacBooks and academic excellence?  If so, is it a positive or a negative one?  Or put more broadly, for a Christian university, does technology increase academic quality, or does it threaten real learning?  For all our discussions of faith and science in Christian academia, the more practical question of technology and education may be one of the most important for those of us committed to forming the next generation of believers.

[div id=”callout-left”]True education, in a Christian context, is about effecting a transformation of the learner, not just transmitting information or career skills.[end-div]I had both the impetus and the opportunity to explore this important question over the past few months.  Our university switched from PCs to Apple computers, and as a result our leadership team was invited to spend a day at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California to experience firsthand the wonders of Apple technology.  To prepare for such an event, I perused the recent literature on the disruptive innovations that digital technology is creating for higher education.  That literature spans the spectrum from celebration to lament.

For example, Cathy Davidson, author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, claims that rigid classrooms, one-way lectures, and multiple choice exams are making way for new forms of open-ended collaborative learning that are better adapted to today’s easily-distracted, internet-nurtured brains that constantly flit from one topic to the next.  For her class at Duke University, Davidson gave her students iPods so they could record lectures and listen to them while jogging or riding the bus.  Students decided on what topics the class should study and even ways to grade each other’s work.

Far less sanguine about these changes is Andrew Delbanco, author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.  Delbanco recognizes the value of new technology for online learning in areas in which there is a single right answer, but he questions their value in advancing “genuinely humanistic education.” (5) We have not yet, he observes, found a low-cost alternate to expert human teachers.

Of course, Apple itself is marching confidently toward this digital future.  As Apple officials informed our group, Apple has always sought to humanize technology in order to empower the individual consumer.  They did that first with computers, developing a personal computer that could be put in the hands of the everyday person.  Later they disrupted the music industry by empowering the individual listener to pick and choose what songs to buy on iTunes. Now Apple plans to transform education by empowering individuals to take greater control of their learning through technology.  As our hosts explained, learning occurs best when there’s collaboration, engagement, and exploration.  And those are the qualities that Apple technology provides.[div id=”callout-right”]…digital technology is less effective when it is called upon to create relationships rather than enhance them.[end-div]

So what’s a Christian educator to do amid such portentous changes?  How do we use technology without being used by technology?  As an academic leader and a Christian deeply concerned about nurturing the next generation of believers, I offer a few thoughts on the subject.

True education, in a Christian context, is about effecting a transformation of the learner, not just transmitting information or career skills.  As such, learning cannot be separated from personal relationships.  We learn primarily not from books, lectures, or videos, but from personal encounters with individuals in the discipline who have studied the subject in-depth and have wrestled with its complex questions and possible implications.

And in relational environments, technology can serve a helpful facilitating role.  My wife and I have developed our relationship over twenty-five years of marriage.  Technology helps us maintain and build that relationship.  We text and email each other often, and our texts often contain inside jokes and allusions that would be meaningless to an outsider.

Social networking fulfills a similar role in facilitating and strengthening existing relationships.  When my son spent a semester in Rwanda as a college student, Facebook updates were the best way—in fact the only way—for us to keep in touch with him.  I recently spent a week traveling by myself in China and Korea to visit other universities.  While sitting in the airport waiting to return home, it was comforting to scroll through my friends’ feeds on Facebook and be reminded of the web of personal relationships which I inhabit.

When it comes to education, digital technology can serve a similar purpose in strengthening and facilitating the communal learning process.  After a particularly lively discussion in class, I can follow up with an email on Blackboard that keeps the conversation going.  The class can use the social network to create study groups and share ideas on the assignments.  A professor can develop an online course for his or her students to take over the summer to keep making progress toward their degree.  These are just some of the valuable ways that technology can strengthen the learning process.[div id=”callout-left”]It would be difficult to envision Jesus carrying on his teaching ministry to his disciples apart from real, physical interactions.[end-div]

But digital technology is less effective when it is called upon to create relationships rather than enhance them.  Virtual interactions, if permanently divorced from real relationships, tend to be shallow and superficial, if not downright creepy.  Commercials for online dating services show happy couples cuddling together, not chatting online.

Similarly, an online course that is called upon to create the learning process rather than enhance it may be stretched beyond its capacity.  A course that exists solely among strangers may produce students who can pass an exam, but I question the extent to which such a course can nurture deeper qualities such as curiosity and critical thinking.  I can put my Reformation history lectures online; but it would be difficult for me to convey my passion for studying the Reformation apart from a real face-to-face relationship and dialogue with my students.

A few years ago I sat in a meeting in which an advocate of online courses remarked that we traditionalists needed to get over our “corporeal fetish”—by which he seemed to mean that we were too preoccupied with the physical body.  My reading of Scripture, however, seems to indicate that Jesus shared the same preoccupation.  He took on a real body, held children, rubbed spit in lepers’ eyes, and washed his disciples’ feet.  It would be difficult to envision Jesus carrying on his teaching ministry to his disciples apart from real, physical interactions.  I doubt that an online rendition of the Sermon on the Mount would have the same effect.

Ironically, the icon of the digital age, Steve Jobs, also valued real relationships over virtual ones.  As his biographer Walter Isaacson recounts, Jobs believed that real creativity arose out of face-to-face meetings and from the spontaneous discussions that occurred when people work in physical proximity to each other.  He even designed Apple’s headquarters to ensure that people from various units would run into each other randomly when eating, checking mail, or even going to the bathroom.  I would hope that as Christian educators adopt Jobs’s elegant devices, we also heed his advice about the primacy of personal interactions in producing the kind of deep learning that should characterize our universities.


Rick Ostrander (Ph.D., History, University of Notre Dame) is Provost of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He has written extensively in the areas of American religious history and education, and is currently exploring the challenges of Christian higher education in modern culture. 


Suggested Posts
Reflections on Unity
May 24, 2017 | Josh Webb
Reflections on Unity
As a soon-to-be college graduate who is looking forward to heading out into the world, I’ve realized that I’m inheriting an American society that is more polarized than ever. Republicans hate Democrats, Democrats hate Republicans, and all of us are suspicious of those Independents. As I think about where I may find my next church home, I often read the statements of faith that many churches now publish on their websites. I ask myself if it’s a liberal church or a conservative church. I wonder what position their members and leadership take on gay marriage or evolution. Sometimes, from just a simple glance at a church web page, I uncharitably conclude that, “These aren’t the type of Christians I want to worship with”. I assume that I am not alone in this. Yet are we not one church? Do we not eat at one table, kneel at one cross, praise but one name? Across political, socioeconomic, and geographic divides, all Christians claim the same good news: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us and was resurrected. How, then, do we account for the incredible differences in opinion among Christians today and what exactly do we do about it? The Apostle Paul compares the church to a human body. Like a human body, the body of Christ is made up of many parts. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul writes, “Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit”. Each part of the body brings a different perspective, a different understanding, and has a different role to play. But no part can function on its own and all must work together to survive. Even in the tremendous diversity of the body, by God's power there is unity. This unity in Christ has been hard to see in recent times. Christians of differing theological understandings have resorted to schism and isolation rather than attempting the hard work of confronting conflict. And while it may seem easier for rival factions to simply go their separate ways, where is the Christian witness in running from difficult situations? Is our belief in God's power so small that we cannot fathom the bridging of our differences? Is our commitment to Jesus' command to love one another really so weak? Paul's words admonish our actions: "The eye can never say to the hand, 'I don’t need you.' The head can’t say to the feet, 'I don’t need you.'" Our Christian witness is not found in our ability to agree on all things. We are not called to be a church of mindless clones. That is the witness of human culture, which forces individuals to choose between agreement or exclusion. Instead, our Christian witness is found in the fact that we are one body of many disagreeing parts. Our witness is found in our diversity, in our humility, in our graciousness, in our love for God, and in our love for one another. This is something the world cannot offer, for only God can hold together such a messy, marvelous body. As it is written in Colossians 1:17-18 (TCF’s namesake verse), “in Christ all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church ….” Even with Christ as the head, disagreements will still exist among believers. But Christians have a choice when it comes to conflict in their churches. And when we choose to let Christ hold us together, we choose to receive the blessing of his saving grace and the power of his resurrection. The spiritual death that is enmity, division, and suspicion can be turned into a renewed life of love, unity, and understanding. I've seen it happen in my own life. I work at a church whose theological and political leanings differ from mine. Over the years, I've found myself becoming more critical and less gracious in my thoughts toward my church. But God has been working on my heart, and while I still don't agree with some of my church family, I've started loving them in a new way. Instead of loving my church family despite our disagreements, I've somehow come to love them because of those disagreements. I'm beginning to realize that my brothers and sisters who disagree with me are not some sort of trial or hardship, but an example of God's grace in my life. How else are we to experience God's grace and power if not through his ability to renew our lives in the midst of conflict and disagreement? I have been blessed with the time I've had as an intern at The Colossian Forum. My experience here has helped me come to a new understanding of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. As I move forward into this next chapter of my life, I pray for opportunities to put this new perspective into practice, trusting that all things truly will hold together in Christ.
Schools Bridging Faith and Science
May 17, 2017 | Jennifer Vander Molen
Schools Bridging Faith and Science
This article originally appeared on May 8, 2017, in Convivium, a publication of CARDUS: Thanks for the mention! Controversy over religion and science is nothing new. That’s certainly true in the world of education. Indeed, a recent commentary in the Washington Post lamented 60 examples of what the author called “anti-science education legislation” that could affect what American students are taught regarding the evolution-creation debate and global warming. We may even see the odd flare-up of such conflict in Canada. So, it’s not surprising that public skepticism abounds regarding the ability of religious schools – evangelical Christian schools in particular – to teach science. However, new research by the Cardus Religious Schools Initiative (CRSI) at the University of Notre Dame offers evidence that such skepticism is ill founded. In their newly released paper, Blinded by Religion? Religious School Graduates and Perceptions of Science in Young Adulthood , researchers Jonathan Schwartz and David Sikkink examined religious school graduates’ orientations toward science. Using the latest Cardus Education Survey data from Canada and the United States, they analyzed graduates’ views on a range of subjects, including science, creation vs. evolution, and the number of science courses taken. They found that graduates of religious schools do sometimes hold distinct views on science as compared to public school graduates. But these distinctions aren’t uniform across the board. Neither are they the kinds of distinctions that would inspire popular caricatures of religious school grads as simpletons who believe in a flat Earth. In fact, when it comes to taking science courses, you’d be hard-pressed to find much difference between Canadian religious and public school graduates. Controlling for family background and parental education, Schwartz and Sikkink found that “students at private religious schools enroll in science classes at a similar rate to public school peers in Canada.” The distinction in the United States, meanwhile, is that only homeschoolers (religious and non-religious) were the least likely of all students to have taken courses in biology, chemistry, or physics, or to have had at least three science courses throughout high school. There was little to distinguish American graduates of private Christian schools from their public school counterparts in that regard. What about attitudes toward scientists? You might expect some animosity towards them from religious grads, but you wouldn’t find it in Canada. “Generally speaking, Canadians hold scientists in similar esteem regardless of their high school educational context,” say the researchers. It’s a slightly different picture in the United States. There, graduates of evangelical Protestant schools tend to be less trusting of scientists and assign a lower value to their social contributions than public school grads do. That’s a difference to be sure, but hardly a unique or problematic one from a social point of view. The battle over whether to teach creationist critiques of evolutionary theory is certainly sharper in the United States than in Canada. And that seems to emerge in the research as well. “In Canada, school sector does not on its own increase an individual’s belief in literal versions of creationism, but the U.S. case differs,” write Schwartz and Sikkink. American grads of evangelical Protestant high schools were found to be “more likely to adhere to a literal version of creation than their public high school peers.” What they couldn’t determine, though, was whether this was the result of teaching in science class, or an indirect result of the students’ religious and social lives. In short, it will take more research to draw conclusions about whether these schools actually make much difference in graduates’ creationist views. What about perceived conflicts between religious beliefs and science? On this question, both in Canada and in the U.S., there is little evidence to show that the type of school a student attended affects their likelihood to sense a science-religion conflict. However, the researchers did find that the more high school science courses Canadian students take, the more likely they are to perceive a conflict between science and religion. Notably, though, that holds regardless of which type of school they attended. So, this could be the result of a cultural difference between Canadians and Americans. While the science-religion conflict does not come up in a big way in this research, that’s not to say that perceptions of conflict don’t exist. Some educators are taking steps to equip themselves to handle such issues in the classroom, as evidenced by the creation of the FAST (Faith and Science Teaching) Curriculum developed by the Kuyers Institute and The Colossian Forum. The curriculum aims to help teachers lead their students into studying the intersection of faith and science, possibly reducing perceptions of conflict in the process. Meanwhile, William T. Cavanaugh, DePaul University theology professor, and James K. A. Smith, editor-in-chief of Cardus’s public theology journal Comment , have co-edited a new book that tackles related issues from a different angle. Evolution and the Fall examines the implications for a Christian understanding of creation and the entry of sin into the world if the widely accepted view of humanity’s evolutionary origins are true. Its provocative premise lays bare issues that Christians will inevitably have to deal with. All in all, we do see some differences between graduates of private Christians schools and public school graduates. But they aren’t all that stark or as shocking. If anything, this latest piece of CRSI research is perhaps our strongest indicator yet that Christian schools in Canada and the United States don’t have as troubled a relationship with science as many would expect. What’s more, there are efforts within the wider Christian community to bridge what perceived gaps do exist between faith and science.  In time, the research and bridge-building efforts may increase understanding and support for the vital place that religious schools hold in the education systems of both Canada and the U.S.