Caution: Online Formation

You can learn anywhere, anytime, and on any available device!  That sounds very attractive to the busy parent.  Recently in a bulletin I saw a promotion of an online religious education program that stated the following: “N.’s on-line courses meet today’s students where they learn. Today’s generation thinks and processes information differently than their parents generation.  They have zero tolerance for delays, need information at their fingertips and respond best to interactive learning.  Online, interactive learning yields a higher rate of retention.”

Is this “fact” or marketing “hype?” Let’s look at each one of these assertions. .

Today’s generation thinks and processes information differently than their parents generation  – Yes, each generation learns differently, but what are the positive and negative results/effects of a particular generations means of learning?  I read an article recently that spoke of many issues that are arising due to our constant use of technology.  I want to share a little bit of that article:

Excessive tech usage, according to leading scientific publications, atrophies the frontal lobe, breaking down ties between different parts of the brain. Too much technology use also shrinks the outermost part of the brain, making it more difficult to process information. Erickson said this can affect the way people interact.

In some cases, people have become clinically addicted to technology.

Kimberly Young, a licensed psychologist and professor at St. Bonaventure University in New York, has studied Internet addiction disorder, or IAD, for the past 20 years.

“We’re all a bit too connected,” Young said. “We socially accept it.”

She’s found that IAD is just as dangerous as other drug addictions. Patients have the same poor social skills, grades and health because they can’t control the urge to be online. She’s treated people who have developed blood clots from sitting in front of their computers for hours on end.

This is one of my concerns about online learning–  It contributes to the excessive focus of learning from some type of screen – something “virtual” and not directly personal.  I’d like to address this point, but first let me continue with the bulletin promotion.

They [young people] have zero tolerance for delays, need information at their fingertips and respond best to interactive learning.

Doesn’t the lack of tolerance foster a greater impatience and greater self-centeredness?  Is it what is best for us to have our needs and desires met “right now”? In addition, do children respond best to in-person interactive learning or online interactive learning?  This topic is continually being debated.  The last line of the promotion said:

“Online, interactive learning yields a higher rate of retention.”

This has not been proven and according to the first article I referred to it would argue that retention is usually less when done online.  Our brains tend to be more distracted and less focused.

Dr. Jim Taylor said the following about kids retention:

Technology conditions the brain to pay attention to information very differently than reading. The metaphor that Nicholas Carr (who wrote an article called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains) uses is the difference between scuba diving and jet skiing. Book reading is like scuba diving in which the diver is submerged in a quiet, visually restricted, slow-paced setting with few distractions and, as a result, is required to focus narrowly and think deeply on the limited information that is available to them. In contrast, using the Internet is like jet skiing, in which the jet skier is skimming along the surface of the water at high speed, exposed to a broad vista, surrounded by many distractions, and only able to focus fleetingly on any one thing.

The concern of online learning is the impersonal nature of it.  Faith formation that is person to person is able to more fully engage a person due to the communal nature of it as well as a catechist’s ability to engage the learning in more concrete ways (e.g., activities).

We are social beings created for community and personal interaction.  Online learning lends itself to restricting that necessary component of social connection and concrete interaction with what is being learned.  That is not to say all online learning is all negative.  There can be positive benefits to a hybrid of online learning and communal gatherings.  There is, however, the temptation today to want to do something different (because many believe what we’ve been doing isn’t working) as well as provide parents who already have an over-scheduled calendar a way to avoid one more weekly commitment. But at what cost?

Children’s faith grows best when they have time to receive the message being proclaimed and allow Holy Spirit to move as they are actively engaging in a lesson.  Also, people learn best when they have the opportunity to respond when interacting with a person or persons as compared to a computer screen.  Twenty-first century catechesis can’t lose these two components if it is to thrive.  We have been created for community and to learn in a way that engages the whole person which is just not possible online as it is to the degree of learning that can take place when interacting in a concrete manner and person to person.

What are your thoughts?  I’ve love to hear from you!


(c) 2017 William K. O’Leary
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