The Future Might Be Online, But Ours Is Still Firmly Residential

by The Rev. Dr Mark Dickson, Principal

We would all like to know what the future holds. Well, maybe not too far into the future. Just the next five or six years would be enough. This would help with all our planning, especially for ministry—not to mention business. Just knowing what the next year holds would actually be pretty amazing, given that the world has recently veered from one global crisis to the next.

As the prime minister of Canada in 2014, Stephen Harper spoke to the press about Vladimir Putin mounting a “slow-motion” invasion of Ukraine. That was eight years ago. We shake our heads. Back then, people already had a pretty good idea of what would happen. Even the military build-up on the borders of Ukraine was hard to miss. We all had months to make preparations for what was inevitable.

At the end of 2021, we could have looked each other in the eye and asked: ‘Well, what does the invasion of Ukraine mean for the world economy?’ I am not trying to be Captain Hindsight, but I really feel that we should have at the very least spoken about it. I am not alone in thinking about Chamberlain in 1938 waving his piece of signed paper, saying, “peace in our time.”

So the truth is that we could have prepared ourselves better because it wasn’t rocket science that an invasion would mean that oil prices would go through the roof. I’ve heard on major news that US$300 a barrel is not impossible. It makes one shudder.

None of the above is intended to say what is right and wrong about the present conflict. Instead, I intend to show that we can see where things are headed if we look carefully enough. This is a thought worth entertaining, especially concerning education in the digital age.

Almost everyone is vigorously promoting the value of online education, with a lot of money being allocated in the West for developing digital education in Africa. Thanks to The East African Cable System, our bigger cities have decent connectivity, especially in eastern Africa. There is also a growing concern to train Christian pastors for the thousands of churches that do not have trained leaders, meaning that there is a major drive to bring online education to the millions who live outside of our cities. But the attempt to bring the internet to people in those vast tracts of rural Africa will be hampered by the fact that two-thirds of Africa’s population still don’t have access to electricity.

Then again, it is also true that rural communities across the continent seem to make do, finding ways to keep their devices charged. They may not always have access to Wi-Fi or signal coverage, but they get by. Thus the lack of electricity and fast Wi-Fi is a problem that can also seemingly be overcome. That is to say, online education will not necessarily be restricted to large African cities. One answer has been to develop a portable mini-server that is taken on a geographical circuit from area to area, spending a day in each, and then connecting up to a satellite or local fast Wi-Fi and of course, receiving a battery recharge at the same time.

However, reading the future of online education in Africa correctly must go far beyond merely appreciating the incredible utility of digital media. True, the world would be in a much poorer space were it not for Zoom.

Furthermore, it’s inevitable that internet connectivity will only get better and faster, while even our most admired apps today will appear inadequate tomorrow. Yet there’s more to these developments than rapid change. What we must do is reckon with how Africa perceives the internet.

Almost half of the countries that abstained in the vote to censure the aggressor in the current European war came from Africa. Many people around the globe would be surprised to hear that. It seems to be assumed that ubiquitous access to social media should produce an outlook similar to what exists in the West. But this is not the case, rightly or wrongly. Many of these countries also severely restrict or even switch off the internet for internal political reasons and seasons. Suspicion about the role of digital and other media in fostering opposition to the ruling party is quite widespread across Africa, leading to various bans.

My point is not really about whether it’s right or wrong to control the internet. My point is that as we think about the future, and especially the medium-term future of online education, there are many practical realities demanding consideration. GWC may well offer something online in 2024. However, as to make a start in this direction, we remain committed by and large to a residential model.

GWC, therefore, faces the future with confidence, knowing that residential learning in a face to face setting will remain a high priority for African Christians. Outside of Africa, there are people who may have heard of ubuntu. Still, we know it as an indigenous concept that can describe a kind of human flourishing that occurs when people live together in a physical community. In its own way, ubuntu exerts its own influence in the discussion about online learning on this continent.

In 2022 many have still considered it worthwhile to travel down to Cape Town and enter into a theological community, devoting time to study with other future gospel workers, even if it means being away from home and country. A theological community is almost impossible to create online. But it is readily created, fostered, and nurtured at GWC.

GWC, therefore, faces the future with confidence, knowing that residential learning in a face to face setting will remain a high priority for African Christians. Outside of Africa, there are people who may have heard of ubuntu. Still, we know it as an indigenous concept that can describe a kind of human flourishing that occurs when people live together in a physical community. In its own way, ubuntu exerts its own influence in the discussion about online learning on this continent.

In 2022 many have still considered it worthwhile to travel down to Cape Town and enter into a theological community, devoting time to study with other future gospel workers, even if it means being away from home and country. A theological community is almost impossible to create online. But it is readily created, fostered, and nurtured at GWC.