Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Turning God and Learning into Commodities

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 28, 2000

Students are customers, congregants are customers, patients are doctors, priests, and professors need to be salespersons.

Well this is an interesting issue, isn't it? Because both the clergy and academia do not want their offerings to be depicted as consumer products... and yet, as the dynamics in both disciplines change, the temptation is there.

I read recently a fascinating exploration of religion on the internet, "The Soul of Cyberspace" by Douglas Groothuis (at Amazon, see 964709931/sr=8-1/ref=aps_sr_b_1_1/002-4990097-4162454). The consensus among clerical webmasters was that while the internet is an excellent vehicle for distributing information, certain elements of religion - such as, say, communion - require a physical presence. This echos what a lot of university professors are saying.

Both priests and professors have maintained an uneven relationship with their charges through the years. Both are in a position of power, though that power has waned through the industrial age. Both have a claim to unique knowledge and insight. And both, not surprisingly, believe that their personal intervention is required to enable the passing of the torch.

In the information age - much as was the case in the Gutenberg age - all that changes. Online information sources place the reader much closer to the information, just as printing placed the Gospels much closer to the people. Course designers and developers translate arcane concepts into easily accessible learning packages, simulations, and websites, just as German, French and English translations of the Bible increased accessibility to the masses.

Obviously we are going to see a parting of the ways, and the older schools see the new regime as cheap and crass, attacking not only the substance of the now popularized discipline, but even the language in which discourse is conducted, as above.

Imagine what the old Papacy would have thought about religion in the twentieth century. Bill Graham on T.V. Bibles distributed in hotel rooms. Prayer meetings. Evangelism. Hare Krishnas in the airports. Religious books and artifacts available at the local shopping mall. Jesus rock. The Pope-mobile. The sanctified and holy become crass and commercial.

And in the same light, imagine what the old school Scholastics of the Sorbonne would think of education and learning in the industrial age. Classes of thirty taught from cookie-cutter teachers' editions. Ed MacMahon hawking magazine subscriptions. Tom Peters making the lecture circuit. Pep rallies. Glossy university calendars. Hooked on phonics. Halls of academe should not have to advertise - yet - there it is.

In both cases, with the shattering of the old order and old orthodoxy which came with the wider access to (and production of) information, the people suddenly had a much greater freedom of choice. Before Gutenberg, a nation generally practised only one religion, and that religion was lovingly passed through the careful hands of the clergy. There was one school of learning, relentlessly Aristotlean, which depicted one reality, one system of logic, one path to academic virtue.

With fragmentation came choice, and with choice came the need to evangelize, and with evangelization came the commercial aspects of contemporary religion and education. Deny if you will, but I could pile your desk with commerical media from both academic and religious sources.

The internet represents a new level of choice for people. Where before they could choose between a small number of local academic institutions, and one of a few learning streams, they now may choose any academic institution in the world and select from a vast array of learning methods and learning goals. If a person can learn to program a supercomputer by virtue only of their own efforts - and believe me, they can, I speak from experience - then that person can exercise much more discretion and choice in the selection of his or her learning opportunities.

Small wonder, then, that we hear people saying, "Students are customers, congregants are customers, patients are customers." You will hear more of this, not less, and it is of a kind with expressions like "we are moving from government to enterprise, from health to wellness, and from education to learning," as KPMG consultant told a group of elected officials recently (see <>).

What is happening is that we are seeing people make choices right at the class (or congregation) level. Just as people want to choose for themselves which verse of the Bible they will study today - which verse is relevant to their here and now - so also they want to choose which learning materials, which learning style, which degree of interactivity they wish to use today.

And those institutions which offer people choice, be they religious or secular, are those institutions which are more successful, if by successful, at least, one measures the number of adherents (and we could ask the Zorastrians whether this sort of success matters at all). If the purpose of the church is to save souls, then the church will have to offer choice, for otherwise those prospective souls will find salvation elsewhere. This is a matter of fundamental import for the church, and one suspects, for academe as well.

The key here is choice. In the parlance of the new post- industrial environment, people who make choice are called 'consumers' or 'customers', recognizing that they express their choice in interest and income. To reach people who make choices, institutions by necessity must place those choices before them - this is called advertising. And just as financial compensation has always been a component of church and school, today's language recognizes this more explicitly, because poeple more than ever before are able to determine how much - or how little - they wish to pay, and whether they want to tithe, make a weekly offering, or donate to the Christmas fund for Ethiopia.

I personally think that defenders of centralized and controlled learning are on the way out, and the reason I believe it is because they are not able to place the best choices before people. Given a choice - which even ten years ago I did not have - I would choose self-directed learning over paced and directed, cheaper learning over expensive, relevant courses over irrelevant.

Defenders of the faith have to show why a laying of the hands is essential to their art - an impossible challenge, because it amounts to quantifying the aethereal.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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