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Are online martial arts courses ethical?

Are online courses ethical?

I take ethics very seriously, to the point of writing a short book on them. As you may know I have recently begun offering online courses, in addition to the free videos on my wiki, and the books that I write. When I emailed my list about the Medieval Dagger course, I got this reply:

I'm sorry Guy but this kind of breaks my heart. Having come over from EMA and seen the damage internet dojos have done there. I honestly can't believe we are doing the same thing. Nobody can learn empty hand arts via video and adding weapons into the mix is just frankly dangerous. Surely you aren't recommending people train unsupervised with weapons.

Obviously I disagree with the premise that you can’t learn martial arts from a video (or a book!), and nobody has criticised my books in the same way (at least not to my face), so I replied:

I perfectly understand your concern, which is why it’s taken me 15 years to come around to the idea. But the simple fact is that my books have gotten hundreds of people started in their training, and my online (free) videos too; I don’t see any moral difference between this kind of course and the books I write. And this way I can actually keep track of the people using my material and assist them more directly. Do you object to my youtube channel too? I learned unsupervised with weapons back in the ’90s, working from old books- how is this any different?

If HEMA is possible (the recreation of historical martial arts from historical sources), then learning it from videos must also be possible. The danger lies primarily in mistaking watching a video (or reading a book) for training- in failing to actually get up and do it in practice.

Am I missing something?

To which he replied:

Yes I do object to all forms of internet martial arts teaching. I'm fine with it as a marketing and promotional tool to spread the word about the art/club but it should never be a teaching tool for martial arts (especially weapons arts). The difference is that you are profiting from something you know is inherently unsafe. This is a very clear and moral distinction. While you may be providing a superior product it sets precedence that will allow less reputable and unscrupulous people say well if Guy Windsor does it why not me? This is exactly what happened in Eastern Martial Arts. Of course you are not breaking any laws and I expect that I will be completely ignored but I didn't want it to go unchallenged. The economic narrative of the times we live is the only one people seem to listen to these days.

I wish you well.

This is a clear and damning accusation so I thought I’d run my thinking past you, my readers, and get your take on it. I’ve already run it past a couple of my friends who I can trust to tell me if I’m wrong, and they agree with me, but casting the net a bit wider seems like a sensible idea on an issue this serious.

The assumptions I see here are:

1) that you can’t learn martial arts from video, so selling such videos is fraudulent.

2) that it’s irresponsible to communicate weapons skills except in person

3) that while I may be able to break assumptions one and two, it recklessly opens the door to ‘less reputable and unscrupulous people’ doing the same.

4) that ‘I know [that my online courses] are inherently unsafe’.

5) that it is unethical to profit from these videos, though apparently giving them away would be ok.

I reject assumption 1 “that you can’t learn martial arts from video, so selling such videos is fraudulent” because it closes the door to anything other than direct, personal transmission of martial arts. Which means that this person, as a member of a HEMA club, is being at least inconsistent, because the HEMA arts he practises are derived from books, which are harder to learn martial arts from than videos. Who wouldn’t give their non-sword-arm to watch video of their historical master performing their art? And there is just no way to recreate HEMA without at least the instructor training ‘unsupervised’ by a qualified person, because somebody must be learning from a historical source for the “H” in HEMA to make sense.

Assumption 2 “that it’s irresponsible to communicate weapons skills except in person” is based on the idea that it’s inherently safer to be taught by an instructor in person. This might be true some of the time, but I know from experience that it is not true all of the time. Most of the worst injuries I’ve ever seen have occurred during properly supervised training of one sort or another (usually tournaments). And I’ve never heard of anyone injuring themselves working from any of my books or videos- or anyone else’s  for that matter. Sure, a competent instructor will tend to run safe classes- but will also push students further out of their comfort zones too. And accidents can happen in even the best-run classes.

Assumption 3 “that while I may be able to break assumptions one and two, it recklessly opens the door to ‘less reputable and unscrupulous people’ doing the same”, makes me somehow responsible for other people’s behaviour over which I have no control. That makes no sense, and I reject that out of hand. Of course I’m obliged to set an example, but as I think the courses I create offer good training, that’s the example I think I’m setting. Am I wrong?

Assumption 4, “that I know [that my online courses] are inherently unsafe” is simply false. I do not believe for one second that my courses are unsafe. If they were, I wouldn’t do them. If we start to get injuries on the courses, I’ll change them or pull them offline. But we won’t, at least not at any greater rate, and probably at a lesser rate, than injuries would occur with no guidance. Because let’s face it: people will train these arts with or without my help, and my courses emphasise safety above all other considerations. You can check this for yourself with any of my free courses: Knee Maintenance,  Arm Maintenance, and the Beginner's Longsword class.

Assumption 5, “that it is unethical to profit from these videos”, though apparently giving them away would be ok, is also simply false. It is demonstrably safer to charge for the videos. It dramatically reduces the number of people using them (about 20 times as many people have signed up for my free knee maintenance course, than have paid to join any one of my other courses), and the payment selects those people for seriousness- nobody is going to pay for a course like these and then just dick around dangerously. In addition, it means I can put the safety guidelines at the very beginning, and exhort all enrollees to watch/read them. This is vastly safer in principle than the weapons training videos I’ve had up for free on the internet for the last 7 years or so (and yet, no reported accidents there either).

But this is a matter of safety, and ethics, so I’m not inclined to just take my own opinion as gospel. What do you think? I’ve put together a short survey for you to let me know. Please be honest: I will take nothing personally, and I will keep your answers 100% confidential. And please note, I'll be checking this form regularly, but I might not see your comments on social media, so if you want me to take your opinion into account, please use the form or the comments below.

And please do share this post – it's really important that I get the opinions of people outside my usual fan base.

[Update, May 30th 2017]

As you can see from the pie chart, over 93% of the 236 respondents think that online martial arts courses are or can be ethical. Of the tiny minority who said No, almost all of them had misread the question. I know this because of the 9 No responses, 6 had comments that made it clear that they were in favour of the courses (such as “The entire premise that the person sent to you is ridiculous.”). Two Nos left comments: one with the opinion that “Fencing needs to be taught in person”, and the other was clearly under the impression that I am offering online certification (I'm not). I contacted all 7 of the ambiguous Nos, and in each case they told me they were in favour of the courses. Of course, it's possible that an equal number of Yesses were intended the other way, but not one of the other comments is negative, so I doubt it.

If you ran a poll amongst plantation owners in 1820s Louisiana, I imagine that 100% would vote that slavery was ethical. So ethics are not really a matter of democracy; and readers of this blog are clearly not a representative sample. But given that my community appears to agree with my gut, I'm happy to continue offering the courses.

Thank you to everyone who has completed the survey, and have read, commented, and/or shared this post. I'll leave the survey open, to see if this changes in any meaningful way over time.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

27 Responses

  1. Hi Guy,

    I agree with your assessment, and I’m going to add another point to assumption#3: the genie is out of the bottle. The internet is already a thing. HEMA training videos are already a thing. You cannot stop anyone from producing a crappy or dangerous video course. What you can do is produce a good one that sets the bar high for anyone who want to enter that arena. You can also provide a good option so people who don’t have access to a physical school aren’t stuck with poor video options.

    I will say that I suspect training with a good instructor in person is always better than trying to self-train from that same instructor’s videos. But I am also certain that there are instructors out there bad enough, that a student would be better off with a good instructor’s video.

    1. Video instruction was a primary tool we used to get our club up and running. Books are good, video showing someone going through the motions of a technique as they understand it are better. Taking what you see in that video and trying it out to see if it makes sense when you actually do it yourself is even better still. Best is a deeply experienced instructor that can walk you through this, but not everyone is lucky enough to live close to that kind of a resource.

        1. Hi John,
          the issue isn’t whether the courses work, it’s whether they are ethically acceptable in the first place. I think it’s pretty obvious that movement can be learned more easily from video than books; the question is, is teaching people martial arts over the internet ok?

  2. I live in a geographically isolated area where there are few options to learn without travel. I use you and Ilkka’s classes to keep my material relevant for our small group. Time, money and effort went into making the online content. It is reasonable to be compensated for that effort. The online.material also helps clarify ideas presented in your books.

  3. I am just someone who is interested in the subject. I do not practice martial arts nor am I a swordsman.

    To me ALL information is valid. There should be no such thing as information that you are not allowed to know. So, it seems to me that the only ethical point, in all this, is how you present it. Meaning, as long as you honestly present/teach the information and honestly lay out the dangers then there is no ethical problem.

    Example: If you made swordsmanship look too easy or downplayed the risks, dangers or possible injuries, then that would be unethical. But, if you honestly showed those things or went one step further and showed how much safer the activity was if properly practiced, then that would go a long way towards ensuring the safety of the people trying to learn.

    On a personal note, I love to read. I have learned many things from books. But I also realize that learning is not the same as really being in the place or doing the activity. I don’t see videos as being any different.

    As to your responsibility, if you do what I mentioned above, then you are ethically covered. While you should be concerned with people’s safety and the best way to present the information, you are NOT responsible for someone’s stupidity or an accident. No one made them watch the video or try anything in it. That was their choice.

    I didn’t go into each point you laid out because I feel the only ethical dilemma is your intent and the validity of the actual content.

  4. Greetings Guy:

    1- “Can’t learn from a video”. HEMA people have been doing very much more, with very much less, for many years now.
    Incomplete and cryptic treatises, etc. Ideally, one should have access to a qualified instructor, in-person, but not always possible. Given that one offers a disclaimer, and given that the viewer maintains intelligent caution, responsible adult behavior, and an understanding of the limitations of distance-learning, it’s a good starting place.
    2 – “Irresponsible to communicate weapons skills by video” . Same thoughts as #1. This is the commenter’s personal value judgment only.
    3- “Opens the door to less reputable people”. I refer you to the open sewer that is the Internet! No stopping that. Offer thoughtful, faithful examinations of the art, and by comparison, the distinction will draw itself, between the scholars and the charlatans.
    4- “Online courses inherently unsafe”. Same thoughts as #1. And nothing in the world for the past 100 years is as unsafe, as getting behind the wheel every morning! But we all choose to do it….
    5 – “Unethical to profit” . If it’s legal, than as they say: “whatever the market will bear” and of course “caveat emptor”
    Best Regards and keep up the good work
    Chris Palagi
    Worcester Historical Swordsmanship

  5. It cannot be any more unethical than selling martial arts books. In either case, you aren’t there to make corrections. Perhaps somebody can make a case for not selling online courses or books, but if one is acceptable, then the other one must be.

  6. This is a drive-by comment… I think you missed a critical point early on. “Empty-hand” martial arts are vastly more difficult to learn than weapons arts. I agree that a beginner can’t learn them from a book or video. Mastery lies down a long path in the presence of a trained sensei.

    Other than that point, I applaud your efforts.

    Hanshi Bruce Clayton
    (Author of Shotokan’s Secret at Amazon.)

  7. Hi Guy,

    I find the arguments in support of your stance right on. #3 strikes me as being as silly as saying it is irresponsible to make a video of a car because it might encourage people to do bad things with a car.

    A good video is better than a good book. A bad video… well it’s a bad video, it might be worse than a book.

    It does make me wonder if the old Masters encountered this type of criticism when they published their books. One could make the same arguments about making a book vice teaching in person as the above examples use for not making videos.


  8. Videos are excellent sources to learn from. Gain mastery from? Probably not but having a good book to study from and finding videos, that are live demonstrations (sorta), go a long way in helping people learn the art.
    It’s just another layer to educate yourself.

    Apparently, this detractor has never watched HEMA videos… All the ones I’ve seen (yours, Christian Toblers, Agilitas) all have warnings. And anyone that has a lick of common sense should realize that learning ANY martial art of any stripe is inherently unsafe.

    These are the complaints of either a) someone who has had a bad experience and now assumes everyone else operates in the same manner or b) just likes to complain about everything based on “safety and fairness”
    Everything he’s worried about can be applied to in-person instructors. There are plenty of bad, unsafe, unethical and downright scumbag instructors out there.

    Being online vs in-person makes not a lot of difference.

  9. It’s 2017. Not everyone can fly to the UK to take a class with you, but we can read your books and articles, we can watch your videos. We can absorb that information, take it outside, try it on the pell in the alley and then on our friends. It’s not perfect, but then, what is? I – and I suspect most others who use your materials – read/watch them as a supplement to physical training we are doing on the local level.

    The guy who wrote to you comes from an Eastern Martial Arts tradition. Japanese martial arts schools were started by people who didn’t want rival schools to learn their secrets, because then someone might use them to beat them. The practice gets stratified in tradition and before you know it, I can’t get someone to teach me how to perform tea ceremony! Seriously, two years ago, a well meaning friend gave me the email address of her old tea teacher and I initiated contact. He said, “You should come and watch a class first.” “Great, when can I do that?” “You should come and watch a class.” “Of course. I told you I want to. When and where is one happening? I’m serious about this.” 48 hours of the Zen chirping of crickets.” Hello, when and where will you be teaching tea so I can observe and meet you?” No further response. Sorry, Sensei, I can’t afford to hire a detective just to hunt down your particular mountaintop and have enough left to pay you for lessons as well.

    Thank you for making so much information available. I’m a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Frankly, rapier training in our organization is all over the map. “Rapier” fighting in our organization started as a weird mishmash of stuff-that-you-can-sorta-make-work with an assortment of foils, epees and fiberglass driveway markers 50 years ago. We *do* have better equipment and resources available nowadays, more people are studying historical styles, we have a rule set to try to keep everyone safe, but at the end of the day, we’re amateurs. We do the best we can with what we’ve got.

    A couple weeks ago, the Fencing Center in San Jose, CA hosted an Italian Rapier class being taught by a friend of a friend of a friend. I was told I should go. I hoped I wouldn’t be laughed off the floor for wearing my SCA kit. I made a few dumb mistakes during the drills out of sheer nervousness, but by the time we got to free sparring at the end of the evening, I acquitted myself well for my level of skill. When they found out I had a katana simulator in my gear bag, silly photographs ensued. Smart teachers understand that the gateway drug doesn’t matter if it gets someone in the door.

    Guy, you’re getting people in the door, even if that door is electronic. You’re making historical material accessible. You’re publishing information on breathing and keeping knees healthy AND how to prevent common fighting injuries. What you’re doing means more people learning historical sword arts.

    Thank you for keeping that door open.

    Lisa Joseph, Alameda, California

  10. I can’t see the point of this post.

    Given that the people seeing this will almost all be people who look at your blog, there is a decent degree of selection bias here – that is, if someone reads your blog, they will be pro-internet-resources. This feels sensationalist, too. It’s the sort of thing that hits emotional buttons in people who research and train in HEMA.

    As well, you place your own rebuttal alongside the letter. Instead of giving people the chance to see it and then asking them to form opinions, you feed people opinions, whether intentionally or not.

    The survey is… short, at best. You ask for an email address and give a single-line box for feedback. It feels disingenuous, like a way to feed people an opinion and push your new online course rather than a sincere request for feedback.

    I train with many people who admire your work. But this blog post feels dishonest to me, and unworthy of a scholar such as yourself.

    1. Hi Matt,
      sorry you feel that way. If you’d like to suggest further questions for the survey, I’ll be happy to incorporate them (if they seem sensible to me).
      Of course this is a biased sample of the population, but the only opinions I’m interested are from people who are a) interested in HEMA, b) know what an online course is and c) are not trolls. I have to collect emails on the form to prevent it being hijacked by pro or con contributors posting more than once.
      If it hits emotional buttons, well, that original email exchange upset me quite a bit, so I’m not surprised.

  11. Let’s see what others think about this topic:

    “Also know and note that one cannot really talk about fencing in a meaningful manner or explain it with written words, as some might like. You can only show it and instruct it by hand.”

    MS 3227a

    1. Well enough, although the ancients didn’t have the internet. There’s a vast deal of difference between a woodcut and a video.

  12. Mr. Windsor,

    Please continue to share your knowledge of swordplay in all different types of media. I am the father of a 5 year old boy, he and I have been spending twenty minutes to an hour daily whacking each other with foam swords for the last couple of weeks. Since we can learn while playing I have been coaching him on foot work I learned from boxing, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu. The only sword play advice I have for him is to “control the center”. I am pretty sure I learned this sage advice from a fantasy novel where the young hero was controlling the center while counter attacking with the “flying crane searches the reeds for the worm” or some other nonsense. Realizing my insufficient knowledge I checked the almighty Google and downloaded samples of a bunch of sword fighting books. After reading the first couple chapters of a dozen books I found one that opened with a realistic, safe, and moral approach to distance education. Your book stressed starting with the basics of movement, footwork, strength and flexibility. You carefully highlight the risks and what you feel is the best way to mitigate those risks. Quality instruction is always important and hands on quality instruction is hard to beat. I humbly submit that your analysis of the assumtions is correct and not only are your online classes moral and ethical, but also critically needed tools to grow your new, old art. Is online training the best way to learn any physical activity. Clearly not however sometimes you have to do things with the tools you have. A wrench makes a bad hammer but the nail still gets driven in.

    Oh bye the way, before we get into the whacking we now do stretches, warm-ups, falls and movement drills. It takes us about 10 min to get to the whacking and the laughing now. Thank you.


  13. Thank you all for your comments- the supportive ones are lovely to read, and the more critical ones provide food for thought.

    1. Hey Guy! You may want to tick the box that disallows people giving multiple responses to the form. Once I submitted it asked me to submit another response.

  14. The context of EMA is completely different from HEMA: First of all, we can find EMA all over the world and for quite some time it has been thought that Westerners did not knew how to fight or were inferior fighters from Asians, specially in my country, where HEMA is quite unknown, This will make some of the martial arts world kinda follow some EMA moral rules. However, in EMA, to feel accomplished, someone can feel such with just a blackbelt which is insufficient in HEMA: to consider oneself a teacher or master, a lazy person will just want a blackbelt, even without knowing how to apply some basic technique. In HEMA, not only there is no Universal method for gradtuation, graduation alone is useless due to the philosophy of constant sparring, which will render the lazy unethical person’s accomplishment quite short lived.

    I thoroughly believe myself that EMA can be learn at distance, but it would be looked upon badly and lazy, that is why all serious people surrender to it’s morality and go straight to a dojo or gym, but i cant help myself to think this is, in some way, sort of a marketing from EMA masters to keep their dojos filled.

    HEMA is born from the use of books and rookies, like myself a year ago, need all help we can find. There are no quality clubs near me, no one that truly studies my favorite weapon: the rapier, and the treatises are not very pratical concerning drills, if it weren’t for videos, free or not, not just for rapier, for all weapons we could find, my region would be doomed to have adventurers roaming in the HEMA world without any proper theoretical training.

    These adventurers could make a profit with videos, but that is why, in the context of HEMA, we need people like you, Windsor, to make videos of your own: HEMA is unknown still and rookies without any teacher with experience need help from capable trainers to contrast with these adventurers. And the difference between a capable teacher and an adventurer is quite self evident, even in EMA. So much, that these adventurers prefer to keep a low profile, only showing up in competitions but with little exposure. Some people in HEMA or EMA will prefer the charlatans over the real deal, but we can not convinve everyone who is right and who is wrong, they will learn through sparring, and if they reject sparring in the HEMA world they basically confirmed they don’t do something right or are against discovering what they do wrong. Plus sparring is just too much fun to ignore, so their practice would be boring even.

    I don’t know if the opinion of a rookie matters, but I hope you keep being this brave, Windsor, experienced people tend to forget their humble beginnings and that HEMA has not yet reached a global popularity. More still. rookies can profit from every help avaiable and charlatans will always exist, that is why it is important to produce teaching content, to make a stand against them and offer something of quality for those that don’t have access to it.

    Again, keep up the excellent work.

  15. Keep it up Guy There is enough idiots out there posting rubbish on the net and its refreshing to see people such as yourself posting quality videos so keep it up. My knees don’t know themselves since I started doing your knee maintenance stuff so that’s the proof for me.

  16. Hi Guy – I’m an EMT and SAR (Search and Rescue) volunteer. Our training DOES involve life-and-death situations — and a lot of the training is online. FEMA (the US Federal Emergency Management Agency) offers its HazMat courses online, and many of their emergency procedures training courses. Yes, there are also in-person sessions, and any examinations or certifications require in-person demonstration of skills. But online training is a valuable learning tool, one that’s increasingly used.

    It also has a benefit you haven’t mentioned. It provides a universal baseline. When I say I have taken a particular FEMA course online, other professionals in the field know what I am supposed to know. That doesn’t mean I’m competent in those skills, but at least we have a common baseline. This is valuable, and something you DON’T get when self-styled “Masters” open their training salons.

    I have also, in a completely different field, come up through an apprenticeship system. I have met people who acquired similar skills on their own, and/or from books. They spent a lot of time making errors – as did I, but my master corrected mine. Their errors persisted; mine were (mostly) fixed. We sometimes say that anyone can learn to do something from a book, but it takes time with a master to see what we are doing wrong and fix it.

    It would be utterly wrong for someone to complete your online training and then call themselves a Master, or open a salon, with that as their ONLY training. But that is not what you are offering or encouraging. And in fact, my coaches encourage us to partake of courses like yours; it saves them explaining things over and over again. Thank you.

    1. My point in mentioning my apprenticeship is that I DO think that in-person instruction is far superior to do-it-yourself efforts – but you CAN learn a lot on your own. And frankly, a good video with the sort of ongoing interaction that you provide is much better than reading about it in a book. Still not a substitute for in-person guidance, but we don’t all have the opportunity to regularly train with a master. And as I said, my teachers like us to have access to training videos, as supplement to what they are doing. On occasion, if they disagree with something in the video, it provides a straw man to argue against! That, too, is valuable.

      1. Good point- it is always better to be able to actually cross blades or forearms with a teacher. But as there’s only one of me…

    2. Sure. One thing I’m explicitly NOT offering with these courses is certification. That only happens in person. But I can see a day when for distance students, completing an online course could become a prerequisite for signing up to an in-person certification course.

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