As for pursuing shoemaking as if it were a quasi-religious endeavor I would have to say that it depends upon how you define "religious." If we think of it in a canonical or liturgical sense, well yes, being based on certain time tested precepts and techniques that have evolved over relatively large spans of time, one would and probably ought to follow a well marked path to whatever level of knowledge one aspires to. Certainly as a teacher to deviate or discount those principles does no favor to the student. But this is a reality in any human endeavor...all science, medicine, even Art, is grounded in fundamental and "eternal" principles. We often don't want to admit to the canonical nature of these pursuits in the erroneous belief that it limits our creativity. There is an old oriental wisdom that postulates infinite freedom within four small walls---which says a great deal about the true nature of creativity and the human mind.
If one means something bordering on mystical or metaphysical when applying the term "religious," I would submit that nothing takes one into the realm of mysticism faster than the dismissing or discounting of traditions and "foundational principles," etc.. Or, if not the mystical, then at the very least into the realm of smoke and mirrors and "luck."
I am, of course, an empiricist by nature and all that I say here is informed by that basic nature. But I recognize...and stipulate...that all human endeavor that is worth doing is inevitably coloured by some level of speculation and philosophizing. Without it, life itself becomes rote and mundane. Shoemakers have always known this and have always been known as "philosophers." It is something the work, when approached in a respectful manner, draws out of you.
On a more practical level, the real problem is not the machinery or tools or or lack thereof, but the lack of flexibility in a curriculum. I can easily imagine a situation where a student conceives a question, or questions, that go beyond what is offered in a online course. I can imagine that because even in a three week, eight hour-a-day setting such as we offer, such questions arise. Fitting the foot is one example that comes to mind. Nothing short of one-on-one, personal attention can address such issues and more often than not even in a hands-on, intensive course with a teacher, something gets lost or left on the table.
How many times have we seen, right here on this board, a student who encounters a problem with fit...or with a machine...and with the best will in the world and half a dozen accomplished makers trying, no satisfactory answer can be reached?
Teaching...conveying a body of complex and maybe even "hallowed" knowledge...is a personal thing. It requires a level of commitment from both parties that transcends ordinary, casual interaction. One of the most compelling reasons this is so, is that it is not just facts that are transferred from one individual to the other but the passion and respect as well. Without it no one can excel, much less hold onto the vision over the time spans necessary to achieve something more than casual understanding or ordinary proficiency.
That there are students who want, or will settle for, "ordinary proficiency" is understandable but shortsighted. A good student will eventually surpass the abilities of a good teacher. But that has to be a real, if unspoken goal, on both sides of the table or the whole exercise devolves into a massive waste of time and money. That or the sort of dilettantism that gives rise to finger painting classes at the local community center.
It has been said that shoes can be made with a knife, a fork, and a hammer. Of course if we define shoes a little more loosely, we could substitute bone awls, flint knives, and strands of carefully worked tendon. At that level, however, classes seem superfluous almost. After all, our Paleolithic ancestors didn't have access to "books on tape" or online classes.
I don't doubt that moccasins can be, and are, amazingly complex and functional forms of footwear. But they are as the trilobite to the terrier--an order of magnitude less evolved and less refined than the bespoke shoes of today.
So, accepting that premise, it sort of begs the question, doesn't it?...where do you want to end up? I would guess...in fact I would place a bet...that there isn't a master shoemaker posting to this board that did not make sandals before he made shoes. We all start somewhere and moccasins are a good place to start. But every one of those master shoemakers are masters, simply and necessarily, because they were not satisfied with that level of sophistication.
I am of the opinion that whenever human beings pursue knowledge it is not only inevitable but meet and right that ever increasing levels of subtlety and nuance become the focus of that pursuit. It is the only way to transcend ignorance.
Maybe....just because I have taught this subject for the last 25 years...I have a bias that leads me to deplore anything that smacks of "good enough" or stasis. That a student would, in any wise, be satisfied with any body of knowledge that does not throw open the doors to growth is unfortunate. That a teacher can or might, deliberately or through simple indifference, close those doors is deplorable.
If an online course can be set up that addresses all of these concerns, then I say go for it. If the teacher is mindful of these concerns, more power to him. And if he can hack the nearly continuous drain on his time and attention that such a long distance relationship implies...perhaps with multiple individuals....without dumbing down his curriculum, he deserves a medal.