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Augmented Reality: Technology and Personal Presence

on December 21, 2011 , Print- 4 Comments

It was a genuine surprise, then—indeed, perhaps the greatest surprise of our year of focus group encounters—that arguably the most satisfied, engaged, and engaging group of learners we encountered were participants in the Fuller program that relies most heavily on online technology.

There are two understandable reactions to any new technology: enthusiasm and suspicion. There are plenty of both regarding the present and future effects of the Internet generally, and social media specifically, on seminary education. On the suspicious side of the ledger are many educators, and a few students, who lament the ways that omnipresent media erode attention (there is nothing so demoralizing as attempting to engage a class of students who have Facebook open on their laptops) and reward quick and shallow thinking. On the enthusiastic side must be counted those who see the potential for using the Internet to deliver seminary education to church leaders in the Global South who otherwise could never access it, as well as the institutions, most notably Liberty University in Virginia, that are creating online-only degree programs (without the blessing, at least for now, of the Association of Theological Schools) that require no time in residence at all.

For the most part one author of this report, Andy Crouch, has been firmly on the suspicious side when it comes to the pedagogical value of what could be pejoratively called “gnostic technologies”—technologies that allow people to pretend that bodies do not matter. The incomparable value of personal presence and the mentorship that happens in the best classroom and tutorial environments is what makes the best educations expensive, demanding, and time- consuming—and utterly worthwhile. Even at a strictly technical level, the amount of information transmitted and received in even the most cursory embodied encounter—even a five-minute conversation between strangers, let alone a fifteen-week course in a classroom—would swamp the data transmission capacities of the fastest network connection. Human beings, communicating with one another in each other’s embodied presence, are simply the highest-fidelity “high technology” we will ever encounter. To reduce that density of information even simply to video, let alone to emails and text messages, is to strip away the vast majority of our ability to communicate in depth and in ways that form one another.

It was a genuine surprise, then—indeed, perhaps the greatest surprise of our year of focus group encounters—that arguably the most satisfied, engaged, and engaging group of learners we encountered were participants in the Fuller program that relies most heavily on online technology. The Master of Arts in Global Leadership brings each cohort of students together only twice—for two weeks at the beginning of the course of study, and for two weeks at the end. In between all course work and instruction is done online—a crucial selling point for many of the farflung students, who originate from or are on assignment in countries on every continent.

Our conversation with the MAGL cohort who were in residence in Pasadena concluding their two-year program made it hard to sustain a categorical suspicion of online education. In fact, it made it hard to believe that any course should not include some significant elements of online education. Simply put, these students were reading, writing, and interacting with one another and their assigned course material in ways that most teachers can only dream about. The level of professional and personal integration with their course material was exemplary, and their enthusiasm for all aspects of the program was striking. Indeed, several participants who had also completed traditional, in-residence masters degree programs felt that the MAGL format was superior.

To be sure, student engagement is only one dimension of educational success. Students can be highly “engaged” and satisfied with their instruction without actually having had a transformative encounter with challenging ideas, peers, or professors. Are MAGL students thinking in more deeply integrated and sophisticated ways because of their program? Does a largely online program make room for that kind of education? Only a careful evaluation over time could say for sure, but it is at least worth noting that the richest and most lasting effects of graduate education are subtly but importantly different from simply having mastered material and integrated it into one’s professional practice. Still, our overall impression was that most faculty teaching in traditional classroom environments would be thrilled to see the level of student engagement that the MAGL cohort we met with exhibited.

To understand what may have made this program so successful in these terms, it may be helpful to reflect on the unlikely fate of one of the most gnostic edges of information technology, so-called “virtual reality.” For many years the advocates of virtual reality have envisioned technologically created environments—realized in science fiction in the form of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Holideck”—that mimic real life while abstracting entirely away from actual embodied experience. One of the most large-scale virtual-reality experiments to date is the online environment called Second Life, in which users direct their “avatars” through relatively realistic virtual worlds.

Augmented reality recognizes that the most meaningful experiences and relationships in human beings’ lives take place in the created world, and that no artificial, sub- created world will ever be able to approach the created world for richness, depth, and meaning.

The surprising development with virtual reality is that it has not been nearly as popular as expected. Indeed, even as computer processing power reached the levels where personal computers could render virtual worlds with a reasonable degree of verisimilitude, ordinary users resoundingly ignored Second Life and other immersive virtual worlds that offered an alternative reality. Instead the runaway Internet success of the decade was Facebook—an online service that is deeply rooted in people’s actual, embodied relationships with their friends. For all the carping about the superficiality of “friendship” on Facebook, the vast majority of Facebook users use it to maintain connections with people with whom they have (or have had) an embodied connection. Facebook extends the “real world” rather than inviting people to ignore it—and while Facebook’s valuation is approaching $100 billion, Second Life proprietor Linden Labs is widely rumored to be on the edge of bankruptcy.

It seems very possible that the real “reality” technology story of the twenty-first century will be not virtual reality—decisively disconnected from the world of bodies and personal relationships— but augmented reality, in which technologies are used to enhance and sustain embodied experience rather than replace it. From a Christian point of view, this makes theological sense in a way that virtual reality never will. Augmented reality recognizes that the most meaningful experiences and relationships in human beings’ lives take place in the created world, and that no artificial, sub- created world will ever be able to approach the created world for richness, depth, and meaning. Technology’s role, including information technology, is not to replace this world but unearth its latent wealth of potential.

The MAGL model—two weeks of intensive, embodied presence followed by two years of online communication—is augmented reality at work. It uses online technology to its maximum potential, but embeds it in the midst of rich encounters between full persons, in person. While this is not the only model of how to augment reality successfully using social media, it is a particularly striking one.

We believe the future for seminary education—all seminary education, not just “online” education—is augmented reality. The gains in student engagement, the opportunity for in-depth discussion, and not least the capabilities that online instruction provides for evaluating student understanding of subject matter, are too great to be ignored. (Nor is the substantial additional workload it imposes on faculty—but why would we expect that real educational gain could come without real work and cost?) At the same time, we believe “virtual reality” education—programs, that is, that minimize or eliminate personal, embodied contact—falls far short of what any serious seminary ought to seek to provide. Virtual reality will generate mere and superfluous credentials, not real trust. Augmented reality, when crafted carefully in light of Christian convictions about human flourishing, learning, and leadership, can be a great gift to true education.

4 Comments on Discussion Point 6: Augmented Reality: Technology and Personal Presence
Phil SDecember 20 2011 at 10:26 AM

As someone who has an undergrad in Youth Ministry and latrer completed the Certificate in Youth Ministry at Fuller (6 classes, which like the MAGL, revolved mostly around online learning while in full-time ministry) I agree that the value of the online classes, lectures, and online discussions were far greater than what I've experience in physical classes. You post and interact on your time without the worry of the clock telling you when class ends and when you must get to the next class, job, or family. Further, people develop more efficient and concise statements of what they believe which also saves time, not to mention people are more polite in sharing when they know the professor will see it. I have and still am wrestling with whether an actual Master's degree is beneficial to me or not, especially as it involves relocation from the ministry I am a part of. Of course, discussion #7 also acknowledges the tension between seminary and the ability to be trained outside of seminary with the abundance of quality resources. I have little doubt in my mind that if Fuller had a Master's Degree (MAT, MDiv, etc) that was able to be done completely or mostly online I would be doing it 1 class at a time.

MichaelDecember 06 2011 at 00:50 AM

I'm impressed by the evolution of the "seminary of tomorrow," but it looks like most of the focus groups are filled with artists and pastors, as well as a few others sprinkled throughout. One thing that I would hope to see in these groups, and that I would highly encourage (for what ever that's worth) is an expert in manufacturing. If there is any place where attention to detail really makes a huge impact on operations,and where business practices really make all the difference in the world, it would be in running a warehouse or manufacturing facility. Particularly, I am pleased with the teachings of Lean Six Sigma, particularly the pillar of continuous improvement. Technology is great, for now...but point eight is about being adaptive, and if the seminary is going to be successful in the long run, you need to look beyond what is working "right now."

Matt NormanNovember 29 2011 at 12:01 PM

As a MAGL graduate I and not surprised in the least by your discovery about online learners. As Dr Freeman posts above it is empowering to be able to study at such a high level with other ministry leaders while remaining in your ministry context. The experience of emersion with a core group for 2 weeks at the beginning of the degree sparked deep relationships with people scattered the world round. This spark was nurtured into flame as we engaged online almost daily for 2 years in deep learning conversations and reflections. We learned from professors, each other, our ministry context as we implemented learning in real time and from each other’s ministry contexts as we shared about what was happening in our lives and ministries.

The structure and flow of the classes enabled creativity as we engaged with course material as well as material that we discovered through our everyday work and brought that back to the courses. Never did I realize that I enjoyed research until I realized that what I was doing was indeed practical. The academic research begun in the MAGL continues to be the foundation for the practical work that I do every day in missions.

Robert FreemanNovember 11 2011 at 14:52 PM

As one of the principal designers of the MAGL and as its current Associate Dean, I would like to augment these comments on augmented reality. I think that everything that is said here is true of the MAGL experience but I feel that you missed the most important distinctive that results in the high levels of engagement and integration that you observed. It is not just that the MAGL augments seminary education by putting it online, but that the entire degree (including our adult learning educational philosophy, admission requirements, cohort structure and delivery mechanism) is designed for in-service leaders. These are people who must be serving in leadership while they study part time and who have already had significant ministry experience. It is the in-service nature of our students (made possible by “augmented reality”) that creates such engagement and integration. In-service leaders come to this experience knowing the ministry questions that motivate them to study but also discovering that they need each other as a learning community as much as they need “answers.”

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