Online training – what should you ask?

People far away from other groups and teachers often wonder about online training, and what it has to offer. The answer’s a little complicated, but sums up as: there are some things (mostly facts and the things you could learn from a book) that can be shared online, but that there are other things – and they may be very important things for a particular path or practice – that can’t.

First, a quick list of questions to think about – and then some larger points to think about.

What are you looking for?

  • If you’re looking for structured ways to learn, consider whether there are local options, or whether one of the books with a more structured approach might work for you.
  • If you want community, check out the active online Pagan forums: you’ll get a wider range of opinions and advice, generally for free.
  • If you want company while learning, see about starting a book group on one of those books on a widely-used online forum (see the bottom right sidebar for places that might work.)
  • If you’re interested in a particular tradition, learn about what their requirements are – some traditions may offer distance options, but require repeated face to face contact before initiation. Check with independent groups in the tradition – there are frauds out there who’ll claim a tradition they can’t actually teach or share.

Ask …

What qualifications do they have for teaching this material?
And how can you verify those with someone other than their current students? If you were training with someone in person, you’d want to ask this question, and it’s even more important online because you have fewer tools to help you evaluate someone. If they taught themselves, you need to pay even more attention to the other questions below.

How much individual attention do you get from the instructor?
And how detailed are the replies to your questions? Some places, you get substantial personal feedback – substantial responses with things to think about or taking you the next step in understanding a topic. Some places, you get a not-very-useful paragraph once or twice a month. And some places, you may just get a checkmark on completing an assignment.

How many students does each instructor work with at once?
As a number of mainstream educational programs have demonstrated, it’s possible to teach a wide range of subjects online. But it can be a lot more time consuming, because reading and writing a response takes most people more time than just talking through it.

What is the general level of communication?
Communicating purely online is challenging! To teach well online, the teacher needs to be comfortable writing clearly but quickly, so they can answer questions promptly. A few typos are normal, but if you see lots of problems communicating, someone is very short with you, or they complain that it takes them hours to write a reply, think again about studying with them online.  You’ll be setting yourself up for frustration.

What are the requirements on you?
Do they expect you to complete a certain amount of material every month? What happens if something comes up for you? Is there support if you have difficulty? What are the arrangements for cancelling any payments if you need to stop for any reason (say, a major change in your life, a significant illness in your family, etc.)

How can you get to a detailed idea of what they have to offer?
Is there a way for you to get to know them, see sample classes, etc. without making a big financial commitment up front? A short list of topics covered really isn’t enough – you want to see something more like a full course outline, a sample introductory course, that kind of thing.

How unique is the information you’re getting?
Is it general material you could find yourself in books? Or is it specific material that isn’t easily found elsewhere? Most traditions will have some general information (much like what’s here on this website, covering things like basics and terms and other common concepts), but you should also have an idea of what unique material there is, and how it fits with what you want to focus on. If there isn’t any unique material – why them and not a book?

How is the material you learn connected?
Is it lots of little separate lessons, or do they tie into each other and build on each other. If it’s lots of little lessons, they may be taken from a lot of different sources, so…

How does this course identify where they got their material?
All of us learned from somewhere. A religious course doesn’t need to do full academic citation, but they should be giving you some idea of where their material came from, what sources they find useful, and so on. Some online courses have just copied material from public websites or other discussions, and claimed it for their own. That’s certainly unethical, often illegal, but also actually dangerous, since they may not be able to explain questions, or notice important safety concerns if they don’t know the material well.

Does this program help you understand how what you’re doing fits into the broader Pagan community?
Do the classes mention how other paths do things? Do they encourage you to do some reading about other paths and religions, or to participate in general forums or local events that suit you? Some online programs do – but some are very insular and discourage students from talking to other Pagans. That’s often a bad sign for a variety of reasons – check out the CARE pages for more reasons why.

How does the money relate to the amount of time/attention you’re getting?
What are their values around money and training? Is the amount you’re paying reasonable for the amount of feedback they say you’re getting (and in line with those values?) Check out my page about charging for training for more.

And finally, what do other people say about this course?
Find a general Pagan forum or two, and ask around about the course you’re interested in. You may find people with a range of experiences with that program, or with other ideas of what to pay attention to.

Going deeper:

There are some broader issues you may want to consider when deciding if online training is a good fit for you. I’ve got another essay that talks about some of the core considerations in more depth.

[last edited January 14, 2011]

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