Witches have continued to rise to new standards in mentoring, worship, and merchandising. The isolation of practitioners all over the world has required creativity in finding ways to meet the needs of Pagans, Witches, and Wiccans who are unable to connect to others in their area. The safety of the Internet has given options to some who have previously been unable to find support with their spirituality.
Internet learning is a trend that is not strictly related to Pagan studies. Internet-based colleges, Continuing Education unit courses, and research, counseling, and other services are on the rise. The U.S. Department of Education’s most recent statistics on their Web site show that 56 percent of two- and four-year degree-granting institutions offer distance education courses, with 90 percent of public institutions offering distance education courses. In addition, the Web site lists that there were an estimated 328,000 enrollments in distance education courses by K-12 students during the 2001-2002 school year. These statistics reinforce how the trend in learning has advanced from the more traditionally accepted methods of the past. (http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/os/technology/facts.html)
It is easy to take for granted some of the resources that are available to those who live in areas where Paganism is common and flourishing. The San Francisco Bay Area happens to be one of those places where it is not unusual to have numerous open circles, the Berkeley Pagan Parade, a local council for the Covenant of the Goddess, and more coven options than you can count on your two hands. Amazingly, it is not like that in all places.
The Internet has become the most used resource among Pagans and has one of the main sources for research, books, and finding like-minded people. In addition, it provides a barrier between those whom we are meeting and ourselves, providing a security we do not have when going to open circles to look for people to work with.
There continue to be conflicting opinions about how one can receive effective mentoring and get the required training to be considered authentic in the community. The more online resources become available, more opinions against Internet based learning seem to build in some of the more “traditional” training communities.
Regardless of the differing opinions about what are acceptable training methods, it is undeniable that there is a need for people to receive guidance and support in ways that the community has not previously been equipped to provide.
Online schools and cyber covens have popped up on the Internet at continuingly increasing rates. The newest technology is beginning to provide more options for studies that are more accommodating for populations of priests and priestesses who cannot do more traditional training because of distance, families, careers, or any number of life obstacles. Online classes and even webcam-type interaction are filling some of these gaps.
There are pros and cons with all things, including training methods for degree studies whether online or in person. One thing that online studies have as an advantage over some of the in person training programs is the formation of solid written materials for students to learn from. There are traditions and systems out there that don’t have much of anything in writing and leave a lot of things open to interpretation in the learning process. Internet-based learning systems have to concentrate on passing on information through a written format. This can be very helpful in giving students a clear understanding of the tradition or materials and limiting the personal interpretation of study concepts. It also helps to establish the tradition’s legacy.
Part of the argument from Pagan elders against the concept of Internet-based training is that it does not assist with energy work and in person methods of worship. This is a valid issue and some online systems have been more successful than others in finding ways to address things traditionally done in person, including proper evaluation of a student preparing for elevation.
One thing it would serve us to ask ourselves is how relationships are formed and maintained through distance. Examples of families split by distance show us how maintaining healthy and meaningful interactions are possible. There are conveniences that distance does not afford, like driving over for dinner; but there are other ways of sharing energy and love regardless of proximity. Phone calls, instant messages, e-mail, letters, pictures, webcams, and the occasional in person visits have worked for families, relationships, and friends for years.
The more successful Internet-based learning systems have incorporated these same concepts and integrated them into their structure. Building successful mentor/student dynamics in an e-learning system should incorporate all the previously mentioned options. Using the various different formats for communication and connecting with those we are working with allows us to teach from all angles.
We are aware that while some people learn best through reading and using their analytical skills, others learn best through visual and audio aid. Combinations of written materials, audio communication via phone, visual aids, and the use of web video can all be appropriately covered for the student. In essence this is maximizing all of the potential inside the arena of learning.
Like with cyber high schools and Internet-based college courses, constant contact is important for the learning environment. In person contact creates memories and experiences that serve as clues to access information in our thought pattern. E-learning styles take this option away because the only triggering memories would consist of looking at an email box or printed materials from the computer that all begin to look the same.
Due to the handicap created by the inability to share the type of bonding experiences that we are accustomed to, it is imperative to increase contact in an attempt to fill the void. The increase of contact cannot be one-dimensional, like more e-mail. E-mail serves its purpose but does not give enough information to grasp onto in the development process. Adding color to the black and white of a computer screen with words can greatly enhance the ability to feel connection.
E-learning school-based courses usually have a certain amount of in person appearances, contact hours, or internships to address this. The connection is what makes the difference between just reading from a book and learning from someone else, in addition to the student’s ability to ask questions (which they cannot do with a book either).
One of the last parallels I would like to make between college Internet learning and distance spiritual mentoring are the concepts of boundaries and clear expectations. Just like with courses from higher learning institutions, Spiritual mentors and distance learning courses need these very fundamental things. With college courses it is understood how many courses you must attend, what things are expected to advance, and what the consequences are if you do not comply (e.g., being dropped from the course).
This allows students to be accountable for their own learning and responsible for the outcome. When boundaries and expectations are clear, there is a mutual understanding, prior to any concerns being raised, that gives others the choice to decide if this is an appropriate choice for them.
If the expectations are that I have to call my mentor weekly, turn in assignments on time, work with a learning partner, and demonstrate a certain level of competency, then I know exactly what goals I am looking to achieve. I would be able to take that information to evaluate my level of commitment to the process of learning. This evaluation process happens with all systems of learning but the lack of in person contact and shared energy could make it easier for the student and teacher to slack off from their agreement.
In any community where growth is abundant and where we want to continue the uprising of access to training, we must consider our strengths as well as our limitations. If we believe that energy is connected to all things and all things are of energy, then there are no boundaries that our training cannot cross. Energy and knowledge, just like love, cannot be stopped by cement, walls, or distance.
*written in 2009