This essay focuses in more depth on some deeper issues around online teaching and learning. It’s not meant to say “Yes” or “No” – but rather to be realistic about what you might and might not be able to learn.
(Much of this essay is based on an article I did for the Ecauldron.com newsletter in 2005, though I’ve added some further notes and ideas.)
What text can – and can’t do:
Most of the online witchcraft/Pagan courses I’ve seen are heavily text based (sometimes with illustrations). This means that they can only teach things that can be put into words or pictures. Someone can be a good teacher without being a good writer.
There are lots of different writing styles. Some work well online. Others don’t. Different styles can work best for different topics. Writing for beginners is different than writing for people familiar with a topic. It’s fairly easy for a decent teacher who’s also a decent writer to teach factual material online (information about a particular culture, folklore, history, etc.) It’s harder to talk about practical or experiential learning.
Let’s take working with herbs as an example: Online, it’s possible to share facts about it, and even pictures of what the herb should look like at different stages. You can share safety concerns easily through text. However, it’s much harder to teach someone to make a herbal preparation (especially something like a salve or lotion that takes some practical skills). And it’s definitely harder to learn to identify plants if you can’t hold them and smell them or taste them. (And in an online class, people may not have access to the same plants or at the same time of year.)
The same goes for teaching energy techniques or ritual methods. In in an online class, you may not think to mention a particular impression or feeling. You may not have words for it. In a face to face class, a teacher might notice a glitch even if you can’t find words to explain it.
Text-based teaching (as online classes pretty much have to be right now) puts us in a intellectual mindset. This works great for some kinds of learning, but not for all. Part of designing a good course is making sure you’re using a format that suits the material.
Learning lots of factual material is a very intellectual (Air) space for us to learn . But learning to do ritual needs to draw on lots of different kinds of learning experiences – not only our intellectual understanding, but how we move in a space, how we feel, what we sense. The same is true for divination, for meditation, and for other parts of many paths. Those things may need different learning settings and experiences – many of which are harder for a teacher to facilitate online.
One example here is someone learning to be a teacher or a nurse or a librarian. There are online programs that teach the (many!) facts involved in these professions. But the ethical programs also require that people get experience working face to face in the field, with people who can mentor and guide them, so that people can learn the very important skills that you can only practice face to face – whether that’s managing a classroom of students, talking to a patient and getting them to calm down, or getting to what someone really need to know to solve their question without coming across as rude or clueless.
How good is the teacher?
Successful online teaching means that the teacher has to know their subject, and be comfortable communicating about it online. Unfortunately, a number of online classes don’t manage this well.
In a number of online schools, the people teaching the introductory material have only been doing it a very short time, and have only been studying a short time as well (a year or two, often). That means they often don’t have much practice dealing with less common questions, concerns, or problems. They know what works for them, but not necessarily what works for people with different learning styles, backgrounds, or preferences.
Other teachers of online classes have extensive in-person teaching experience. However, their online interactions sometimes show that they’re not very comfortable communicating online, or with people from a range of different backgrounds, technical abilities, or communication styles.
Sometimes they aren’t very familiar with online group dynamics. Maybe they aren’t good at reading for tone, or using tools to help avoid misunderstandings. They don’t always understand the different ways people interact online. These types of problems can definitely get in the way of learning.
There’s nothing wrong with informal or casual writing, as long as the meaning is clear and the student can find the information they want or need. The problems start when there’s confusion, ambiguity, or poor communication.
Finally, sometimes people claim skills or training they don’t actually have. For example, people have claimed to offer training and initiation in the Gardnerian or Alexandrian traditions solely through online interactions. That just isn’t how those traditions work. If you’re interested in learning about a particular path, research the path first.
The question of time:
Most people write more slowly than they speak. It therefore takes the teacher more time to write an email than to have that discussion in person. How much information can they share, especially if they’ve got other obligations (a job, family, or other commitments)? In a face to face class, other students hear all the questions, answers, and discussion: there’s less repetition and the conversation goes faster.
How much does the teacher go beyond the pre-written material? If you ask a question, do you get a quick, superficial answer, or a more involved one? Do you get some pointers, or are you brushed off? I’ve seen a number of very generic, superficial answers to questions. Often, there’s not even an acknowledgement that they’re doing a surface answer and there’s to more learn about that topic. That’s not very good teaching.
These days, there are many books out there on a variety of Pagan topics. What does this class or this teacher offer that books don’t?
In some cases, the answer’s obvious. They’re teaching how a specific group does things, or they’re providing information that isn’t readily available in book form (such as some Kemetic online classes do). This is an excellent reason for an online class. Classes can also offer a chance to talk to like-minded people.
In other cases, the answer is harder. Sometimes people put a lot of time and effort into their material, but what they’re teaching is available in a number of other sources. What added value do you get from the class? Access to an involved, experienced teacher who’s good at communicating online or an ongoing active community are great reasons to take a class. But is that really what you’re getting?
How does the teacher decide if you’ve learned something? Many students like feedback. However, a lot of online classes use some flawed evaluation methods.
Some classes use multiple choice questions. These may be easy to answer if you’ve read the material. To test true understanding and analysis, you usually need other kinds of questions: short essays or some application of the material.
However, it’s also easier to grade and correct multiple choice or short answer tests than it is to grade even short essays (ask any school teacher). If you’ve got one volunteer teacher, 20 students, and lots of questions, that can take time. On the other hand, more in-depth questions and responses generally result in better understanding.
What happens if you’re trying to teach skills, not just knowledge? How do you tell (online) if your student is able to ground, center, or do various ritual or energy tasks? Some kinds of assignments from the teacher (keeping a journal, describing the process, asking them to teach the method they use in their own words) give a much better idea than others.
What does completing the class really mean? If you’re learning for yourself, this may not matter. If you’re expecting benefits or recognition in other parts of the community, that may be a different question: others in the community will probably look at what you know and can do, rather than trusting certification from an online school.
If you’re looking at a course, think about what you really want. Are you looking for information, community, or help with a specific topic? Can you find those things elsewhere? If you want interaction with a teacher, does that course really provide it? Or would you better off reading books and finding a forum to discuss them?
Once you look at specific courses, does a particular teacher know what they’re doing? Do they have a reasonable amount of experience? If they’re new to teaching, what support do they have?
How do they communicate? Do they seem secure, even if you ask questions? Do they seem to understand and use subtlety in their online writing? Or is everything very concrete?
Does the course seem fair to the teacher, as well as to you? Trust your instincts. If something seems odd or weird, don’t make commitments until you’ve figured out why. Take the time to find the right place for you.
[last edited January 14, 2011]