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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Going the distance

Distance education can give students access to great teachers

My father was the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. He wasn’t always an especially patient man—which prompted him fairly often to “get on with things.” He dropped out of college and seminary two or three times, and always had an appropriate skepticism for academia. Which was odd, because folks who knew him tended mostly to take seriously his views on the task of education. In many ways, Dad was, until his death in 1978, the quintessential self-educated man.

Dad was also an early pioneer in the field of what has come to be called “distance education.” The term refers to educational settings where the teacher is not in the same room with his or her students—and maybe even many miles away.

And now, for better or for worse, the concept has suddenly become an elephantine player in the field of education in the current coronavirus crisis. Within the last few weeks, millions of students who had been trundling along in traditional classrooms have found themselves reassigned to “virtual” or “distance education” arrangements. And I know people are skeptical. We all still prefer that flesh-and-blood teacher at the front of the room. But our current experience should remind us: A virtual teacher, with all the limitations, is better than no teacher at all!

Dad got into distance education because of his passion for planting new Christian schools—and especially new high schools. The advantage of distance education, in almost every setting, is to make talented faculty accessible where they haven’t been accessible before. I saw it work. I got to be part of it.

Are there disadvantages? Indeed. But whatever limitations distance education might include, none are as limiting as having no teacher at all! That’s why my dad became such a fan. There were students who would get exposure to Christian teachers who, apart from this approach, would simply not get such exposure.

Don’t be overly skeptical about distance education until you’ve seen it up close.

Thanks to Dad’s dogged pursuit of the whole idea, several of us banded together to form the Cono Educational Network in the early 1970s. At its peak, CEN combined 16 Christian high schools in a telephonic cooperative designed to enable those schools to share their best faculty members with each other. Our 16 schools enrolled over 700 students and employed about 70 teachers.

The goal was to share those faculty so that, for example, the very best American history teacher from the 16 schools would teach that course to all the American history students—but not have to teach anything else. Similarly, the very best geometry teacher would teach all the geometry students—but nothing else. Each of the 16 schools contributed what everyone hoped would be one of that school’s best teachers. All 16 schools, theoretically, got the cream of the crop.

All this was delivered by the host teacher over high-quality AT&T lines to a learning center at the receiving school’s end. In that room, up to three classes might be going on simultaneously, but each student, equipped with his or her earphones, focused on the scheduled class while shutting out the others. My dad would say, “In one ear, and in the other.” Basic skills tests tended to confirm his optimism.

There were wrinkles. There were big wrinkles. The internet was still 30 years in the future. Our “electronic blackboards” were singularly undependable. Snow days in Iowa left students in Florida in a quandary. The 16 schools were scattered over two time zones, which were hard to reconcile.

But there were enough successes, victories, and lessons learned to prompt me to say, Don’t be overly skeptical about distance education until you’ve seen it up close. I am still blessed now and then to bump into one of my students from 1974. She remembers—with fondness, she says—that I was her logic teacher back then. In today’s topsy-turvy educational climate, that’s worth something.

American education—all apart from the coronavirus—has some deep problems. We may need some approaches as radical as the Cono Network to bail us out.