Education at a Distance—Electronically!

Published on: October 28, 2015

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“Education at a distance” began in Unity in 1909, when Unity received a letter asking for the first lesson in Unity’s correspondence course. Correspondence courses were, for more than a hundred years, a common method for studying all kinds of subjects. Students received lessons by mail, completed assignments, mailed those assignments to the correspondence school, and received evaluation from instructors.

When that first request was received, Unity did not offer a correspondence course, but instead relied on “live” classes where students and teachers met in a classroom. Within a matter of months, however, Unity had begun developing a correspondence course which formed the backbone of its educational system for more than 60 years. All candidates for licensing and ordination were required to complete the correspondence course. As late as the 1980s, candidates for Unity School for Religious Studies’ Ministerial Education Program were asked to study Foundations in Unity, a two-part study series that was published after the correspondence course ended in 1972. Today, anyone can access Unity’s Correspondence Course online at www.truthunity.net.

The Era of Online Classes Begin

Internet-based distance-learning began in Unity during the 1990s. Before the year 2000, all of Unity Institute’s SEE (Spiritual Education and Enrichment) Spiritual Development Program had become available through distance learning. As Unity Institute continued developing its master of divinity program, a number of courses were adapted for online study.

Although several SEE courses were offered during live sessions conducted by telephone, most distance-learning in Unity was of the asynchronous variety. “Asynchronous” means that students can access learning materials and complete assignments when it is convenient for them to do so. In asynchronous distance learning, “live” meetings are not required. Interaction takes place in discussion forums and through instructor feedback to students’ assignments.

Asynchronous distance learning works well for imparting some kinds of information. Even the most ardent advocates of online learning, however, recognize the need for “real time” communication. Unity Institute experimented with conferencing software that allowed students at a distance to participate along with students in a conventional classroom. The results were encouraging, but the technological challenges proved formidable, and the program was discontinued.

With the advent of Skype and other “face-to-face” Internet-based communication platforms, new possibilities for interactive education at a distance began to emerge. As Internet speeds continue to improve, and as high-speed Internet service becomes available to more people in more places at affordable prices, interactive “real time” distance-learning is now much more than a possibility. Some of us are doing it, and finding the experience very rewarding!

Sharing Classes Internationally Online

In 2006, I began working with Unity students in the United Kingdom (UK). I’ve made six visits to the UK, and I’ve taught classes for SEE credit during most of those visits. It has been a joy and a privilege for me to participate in the Unity education system with my British colleagues.

It takes careful planning to bring students together for Unity classes in Great Britain. Many have to travel quite a distance to the nearest Unity center. Some time ago, several of my British colleagues began holding meetings via Skype. As I became involved in some of those meetings, I began thinking that Skype did not offer the power we really needed. Members of the class could see each other, but it was difficult to share information other than verbally. I began looking for a more powerful platform, something that would allow screen sharing and file exchange.

A Google search on the term “videoconferencing software” results in more than 18 million “hits.” Finding the right software package can be confusing. Feature sets and pricing vary greatly among the available software platforms. I have worked with several higher end packages including Citrix GoToMeeting. I have also worked with a Skype premium package that allowed up to 10 participants on a single call. About a year ago, I discovered Fuze, a relatively new system at what I considered a reasonable price ($14/month). Recently, this package has been advertised at $20 per month, but Fuze has not raised my rate. Only the host of a meeting needs to have a Fuze account. Participants attend without charge.

One attractive feature of the Fuze platform is that it offers a free account where up to three users can meet in a video conference room. I began experimenting with the free account and discovered that conversations with British colleagues were easy to arrange and presented few technical problems. Fuze works on just about every kind of device, from PCs and Macs to tablets and smartphones using just about every operating system. I signed up for a “pro” account. After a number of tests, we scheduled our first live online class using Fuze for late October 2014.

From the beginning, our distance learning experiment has proved successful and fulfilling for both students and instructors. We have completed three SEE Spiritual Development courses for credit. We have also conducted a leadership course in communication using a hybrid model where some of the sessions were conducted in a traditional classroom and others using Fuze. Lately we’ve been having online Bible discussions that are not for credit. We’ve also used Fuze for conferences, and in the near future some business meetings will be conducted using the Fuze platform. All of our meetings can be recorded, and the recordings can be archived for later viewing. The recordings are streamed rather than downloaded, so there’s no long wait while a file is transferred from one computer to another.

Certainly we have experienced some technical difficulties, but we’ve always been able to resolve them. Someone without reasonably fast broadband Internet (3 Mb per second or higher, preferably higher) won’t be able to establish a reliable connection with Fuze. Also, someone using the Windows XP or Windows Vista operating systems will have difficulty using Fuze. Participants will have the best possible experience using a downloaded app specific to their operating system, but it is possible to view a Fuze meeting from a web browser. Anyone who is able to open a webpage, navigate to a site, and send an email will have no great difficulty using Fuze. While it is possible to connect to a Fuze meeting by telephone, international telephone charges make this an impractical choice for our transatlantic meetings.

Our meetings have included participants from different cities in England and Scotland, as well as from the United States. Some participants have gathered in groups at a single location. Using a large screen television and an inexpensive conferencing microphone has provided a good experience in these situations.

At many of our meetings, the technology has become nearly invisible. That is to say that participants are able to immerse themselves fully in the learning experience. Conversation becomes completely natural, without the “can you hear me now” interruptions caused by unsteady connections. The meeting leader can share documents from his or her computer, including documents created during the live session. The meeting leader can also allow other participants to share documents from their computers.

Long-Distance Business Meetings

As we continue to use Fuze, we know that we will develop new strategies to enhance our learning experience. We will also be using Fuze for business meetings. While I was in England last spring, I attended a board meeting of our Unity of Independence ministry using Fuze. In September, I will begin serving as a board member of Unity School of Christianity, UK. I will be able to attend meetings from my home in Missouri.

Will conferencing systems like Fuze completely replace the “live classroom” experience? Not really, but videoconferencing allows meetings to take place that could not, because of distance between participants or for other reasons, have taken place without it. As Unity Worldwide Ministries prepares to assume responsibility for educating ministers, licensed Unity teachers, and laypersons interested in deeper Truth study, videoconferencing with systems like Fuze will open new possibilities for involving more people in more places in our educational system, and in the work of Unity Worldwide Ministries.

Tom Thorpe
Rev Tom Thorpe is minister at Unity of Independence, Mo., and adjunct faculty at Unity Institute and Seminary.

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  • Gregory Porilo

    Amen to that! I have had the pleasure of attending several of Rev Tom’s classes using the Fuze network and can confirm its success. I hope that many more ministers and teachers will be guided to use this invaluable networking tool.

  • Carmen-Venus Baerga

    Thanks Rev. Tom. I appreciate your time and dedication in making your knowledge and experience available to us. I am motivated and will explore this valuable alternative in teaching my classes and in conducting meetings. Again, thank you! Blessings and Peace, Carmen-Venus Baerga

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  • danshafer

    As a long-time technologist, I’ve been interested in distance learning for many years. The tool I settled on a couple of years ago is Maestro Conferencing (http://maestroconference.com/). This is a great Web-based tool that allows phone call-ins and supports a great many presentation modalities. Its most unique feature is the ability to auto-create breakout sessions of any arbitrary number of students/attendees. Those in each small group can hear only each other during these sessions but the instructor/host can “wander” from group to group, eavesdrop, kibitz, help, etc. You might take a look at it. It got its start by hosting a bunch of New Thought and self-improvement gurus and is still used by a great number of such folks.

    • Kristen Preud’homme

      Thanks for the comment and sharing your experience. I’ve shared this with our education team leaders and appreciate the suggestion.