Joel Belz – Learning can happen, even at a distance


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, April 1st. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next up, WORLD Founder Joel Belz recalls his experience with an early version of distance education.

JOEL BELZ, COMMENTATOR: My father was the ultimate do-it-yourselfer.  He wasn’t always an especially patient man—which prompted him fairly often to “get on with things.” He dropped out of college and seminary two or three times, and always had an appropriate skepticism for academia. Which was odd, because folks who knew him tended to take seriously his views on the task of education. 

Dad was also an early pioneer in what is now called “distance education.” The term refers to settings where the teacher is not in the same room with his or her students—and maybe even many miles away. 

And now, for better or for worse, in this current coronavirus crisis, the concept has suddenly become a huge player. Within the last two or three weeks, millions of students who had been trundling along in traditional classrooms have found themselves reassigned to “distance education” arrangements. 

Dad got into “distance education” because of his passion for planting new Christian schools—and especially new high schools. The strategic advantage of “distance education,” in almost every setting, is to make talented faculty accessible where they haven’t been accessible before. And I saw it work. I got to be part of it.

Thanks to Dad’s dogged pursuit, several of us banded together in the early 1970s to form the Cono Educational Network. At its peak, the Cono network combined 16 Christian high schools in a telephonic cooperative designed to enable those schools to share their best faculties with each other. Our 16 schools enrolled over 700 students and employed about 70 teachers.

Each of the 16 schools contributed what everyone hoped would be one of that school’s best teachers. All 16 schools, theoretically, got the cream of the crop. All this was delivered—live and two-way—by the host teacher over high quality AT&T lines to a learning center at each receiving school. Each student, equipped with his or her earphones, focused on the scheduled class. My dad would say: “In one ear, and in the other.” Basic skills tests tended to confirm his optimism.

Were there wrinkles and disadvantages? Indeed. You would laugh if I told you about some of them. But whatever limitations “distance education” might include, none are as limiting as having no teacher at all where one is needed. That’s why my dad became such a fan. And it’s why millions of students this spring are finishing this semester with their first exposure to distance education. 

There were enough successes, victories, and lessons learned to prompt me to say: Don’t be overly skeptical or judgmental about distance education until you’ve seen it up close. I am still blessed now and then to bump into my students from 50 years ago. They remember—with fondness, they say—that I was their logic teacher back then. In today’s topsy turvy educational climate, that’s notable. American education—all apart from corona-virus—has some deep problems. We may need some approaches as radical as the Cono Network to bail us out. 

I’m Joel Belz.


(Photo/iStock)


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