Virtual Christian education?

Higher education has used virtual schooling for years. And with so much of culture already customized, individualized and in the grips of isolating technology, it shouldn't surprise us that K-12 education would discover and promote virtual schooling. Whether or not this is a good thing – particularly for those parents desiring a Christian education - remains to be seen.

Perhaps the greatest promise for virtual learning is in the hope it might bring to students in developing nations, where all the assumed elements of education in many cultures are non-existent or marginal. Virtual learning is resourceful and flexible, and another great tool in an educator’s toolbox, especially in our global village. But virtual schooling is also appearing closer to home.

A recent Religious News Service article illustrated this trend among people of faith, especially those who already homeschool their children. In the article, virtual schooling is described through the eyes of Roman Catholic, Muslim, Mormon and Jehovah's Witness parents, all of whom praise the development of K-12 virtual schooling for the ways it counters so many negative elements they've found in traditional schooling, while giving them more time to instill faith in the lives of their children. Many parents appreciated the well-developed curriculum, but also noted that keeping the children at home provided a safe place where students are protected from foul language, bullying and the negative influence of non-believing teachers.

Typically part of the public-school system, virtual schools are developed by state-certified teachers and are standardized in terms of curriculum and testing. Grade reports and transcripts are part of the process. Some call it homeschooling on steroids.

But what are we to think about virtual learning as a replacement for traditional Christian schooling in a particular community of faith at a real location?

Virtual education may attract the attention of parents who presently enroll their children in Christian schooling, primarily as a way to save money while schooling them in faith at home and church.  While considering this choice, parents in Christian schooling should remind themselves that free, virtual education also comes at a cost. All education is faith-based, developed from a perspective on life and a view of the learner that permeates curriculum, the choice and delivery of material and desired outcomes for the education. The best Christian schooling supports the home and the church in developing disciples of Christ through a nurturing community of role models in the faith, a thoughtfully integrated curriculum that delights in creation and sees children as creative image-bearers of God and fosters linking student gifts with the challenge of service to God in His world. All of this may come at a cost, but most significant investments in the lives of others aren’t free, and always worth it.

I’m also struck by a subtle but formative element missing in virtual education: the sense of place, the importance of locale occupied by so many unlike those with whom kids live each day. What’s missing in virtual education is the daily exposure to a physical space - unaccompanied by parents - where students encounter custodians, office managers, principals, teachers and peers. There’s something about physical place in a real neighborhood with its own dynamics and needs for children to notice, a place to dwell outside their dwelling as a microcosm of the world. This seems to me the best education for equipping students of faith for engagement in the world they’ll find before and after graduation, whether the choice is a missional engagement in public education or Christian schooling.

For Christians it is ultimately about being in the world for the sake of Christ, after all. That’s virtually hard to do, and hard to do virtually. When it comes to schooling that stretches and challenges because of the sense of others unlike yourself, in a location that takes you out of your comfort zone, there’s no place like school - not home.

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