There was a time when I would have said that it was impossible to teach the Craft properly over the internet. There simply is no substitute for hands-on experience, and I would have said that it is impossible to get that other than direct and in-person. But that time has passed. Technology has caught up to the need. I think it is possible to teach the Craft effectively online, and this article will suggest ideas for how to make that work, as well as point out some of the advantages and pitfalls.
Until recently, if you wanted to learn from a real-life Witch, you had to go hang around at your local metaphysical store and hope that one (who was being open about it) showed up. They were probably the only one you were likely to find, so you had to learn whatever branch of the Craft you were offered, whether or not it was a good fit for you. You had to do what they were doing, even if you didn’t like them. If you made enemies there, you were not likely to connect with anyone else. These things are not a problem with learning online. There’s such a great variety of Witchcraft and Pagan magickal traditions offered that you can pretty much learn whatever you want from whomever you want to learn from. You can associate with people and teachers that you like, and you can find the tradition that fits.
From a teaching perspective, you can reach a large number of people at once. This allows you to keep your expenses and extra work load down. With text formats, emails, Facebook groups and links, you don’t have to print off pages of handouts.
Your access to resources is simply better. You can direct people to YouTube videos or the Pagan Chant of the Month archive to demonstrated chants you like, instead of singing them over and over again yourself (especially handy if you don’t think you know how to sing!) Wikipedia or Google will answer most of your questions, and you don’t have to write a Samhain ritual whole-hock because you can probably find a decent one online.
You can also teach from anywhere in the world. I live in a town called Vernon in the Province of British Columbia, Canada. Have you ever heard of it? Didn’t think so. And yet, I can teach people all over the world. Now with Google Translator, you don’t even have to speak the same language!
You can learn (and teach) from the comfort of your own home so you don’t have to factor travel time into finding the time for occult study. So it’s possible to study in your pajamas and write lessons stark naked in the bathtub (I’ve done it.) This means there’s better access for people who find it difficult to travel, be it due to disability or expense. If you’re closeted, no one will know you’re a Witch except you and whoever you’re working with a couple of hundred miles away in cyberspace.
You can set up lessons in advance when you have the time, and schedule them to post in advance, meaning that there can be very little actual maintenance involved, and you don’t have to be available at any particular time, unless you establish that as part of the course you’re teaching. Even most online video events that are scheduled can be watched later if you missed it, so you can learn entirely on your own schedule.
One of the big disadvantages that I have run into with internet study is that it is easy to develop a lack of discipline. My coven bought a subscription to my premium blog here at Patheos and most of them are falling behind in their studies. Because you can do it at your own pace, it’s easy to be lazy about it.
Another potential disadvantage is retention of information. One of the reasons you copied so many notes as a high school student is because it helped you to memorize. When Witches all copied things out of hard-won library books into their Books of Shadows, I think it was easier to remember things like correspondence tables. Nobody bothers now for the same reason that no one bothers to memorize phone numbers; that’s what your cell phone is for, right? But having a list of symbols, herbs, colors, and their meanings and corresponding chakras and notes on the musical scale (and so forth) to call upon in your head makes coming up with new spells a lot easier than if you have to Google it every time. It tends to flow more synergistically.
Sometimes it’s really fun to get together with other people and do witchy stuff, and online, even in social media, it’s hard to find that same feeling of companionship.
Hands-on work is hard to apply to an online course. You can show people how to do things on your webcam, but it isn’t the same as taking their hands and guiding them through the process.
It’s easy to believe that seeing it on the internet, and reading about it, is the same as doing it. It’s not. Only actual practice will teach certain lessons and skills.
A lot of Paganism is about getting out into nature and finding the sacred there. How are you doing that if you’re in front of a computer?
Last, it’s nearly impossible to tell if you’re “getting it” online. You’re doing your practice individually and your teacher likely is never going to see it. I pronounced some of the words of the LBRP wrong for years without realizing it because I didn’t have anyone in person to tell me otherwise.
Ways to Avoid Some Pitfalls
Some problems are intrinsic to the medium. For instance, the “learning at a distance” factor will always be present. But there are some ways to avoid trouble. Here are some suggestions:
Use a Video Platform
Using a video platform gives you the chance to demonstrate things without being there. Even if you’re just using your cheap integrated webcam, it’s something. Film videos for YouTube; or use Skype; or make use of one of the new interactive video forums such as Spreecast or Google Hangouts if you want live class interaction and participation and the option of being asked questions. I use all of the above depending upon the circumstances. They’re handy tools that make up somewhat for the lack of live, in-person demonstration.
Use Social Media
Social media provides a small measure of the interaction that you don’t get if you don’t meet in person. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. Create a Facebook group so people can talk to you and maybe a Twitter account. Spread the word.
Publish on a Schedule
If people know when the next lesson is coming, they are more likely to be able to keep themselves on task, even if you aren’t there to act as a taskmaster. For my blog, I set each entry to publish on a weekly schedule in advance.
Make sure that you get your students to do their own hands-on work as well. There just isn’t any substitute for actual practice. Remember that different people learn in different ways. You have to give people the opportunity to experiment and do things for themselves rather than just read about it.
Make Use of the Resources
Be sure to show rather than tell whenever possible, or tell and show.
In my next column, I’ll detail some of the available internet resources out there for teaching the Craft and explain the basics of how to use them. I hope everyone is having a Happy Solstice!
Next column: Witches of Cyberspace Part 2: Online Teaching Resources