Recently, I’ve learned a little bit about MOOC’s (Massively Open Online Courses). A MOOC is usually a course taught for credit at a university that is then opened to the public for free. The first serious MOOC was offered by Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun in Fall 2011 with 150,000 students. The New York Times just did an article about MOOC’s which lays out the basics of the history and theory. The big MOOC companies are Udacity, edX, Coursera, and Khan Academy. Theses organizations put on courses of their own or help universities bring MOOC’s to market. For most schools, MOOC’s are really just an advertising ploy. If you get 100,000 people involved in a course that’s a pretty big deal and maybe you’ll get some paying customers (er…students) out of it.
Now my specific interest is whether MOOC’s could be used to teach the Bible or biblical things. MOOC’s tend to lend themselves to very technical subjects like math, physics, computer programming, etc. In technical subjects, interactive learning assessments can be designed to check whether students are really learning since there is almost always a right answer and a wrong answer. But when it comes to the humanities (literature, history, art, religion, politics, etc.), knowledge is usually more “fuzzy,” for lack of a better term. Knowledge of successful political movements, of literary techniques, of what artist used what kind of paint, of theological concepts, does not have the same kind of hard edges that knowledge of formulas, equations, and computer code do. And with religion in particular, personal or organizational views/opinions/beliefs are often embedded in teaching and writing content so much that they cannot be separated from cold, hard, facts.
On the one hand, it seems to me that as the Internet and online education develop, theology and biblical studies will have to catch up. Theological educators of all kinds–from weekend warrior catechists to doctoral level professors–will have to change the way they approach education. It seems to me that the Internet is “democratizing” information at a very quick pace and that information is becoming more systematized by a crowd-sourced world. I think that has huge implications for religion. It used to be that if you studied at a seminary of a particular denomination, you only had access to the books in your seminary library and the denomination could choose to avoid putting certain books or journals in it, restricting the flow of information. But now, you can have access to whatever information you want anytime you want and no librarians can control who gets access to what. I think this kind of freedom is already re-shaping the religious landscape. When people have religious questions, they don’t go ask their pastor, they ask Google first. So to me, it seems that religious information will become organized, systematized and democratized in such a way that educators will need to re-think the way they educate.
On the other hand, I wonder if all this information-democratization process is good for religious education. I mean, can you really compress the Sermon on the Mount into a multiple choice question? There is something about theological education that is intangible, or perhaps, spiritual. It involves deeper movements of the mind and soul than solving equations or addressing technical matters. I think I could describe religious learning as involving the intuition–the indirect circuits of the brain–more so than deduction. Technical education, whether engineering or computer science, often deals with technical “problems” that need technical “solutions.” A great deal of the learning and the actual work of these fields deals with life on a problem-solution continuum. The role of the technician is to help clients get from one to the other. But in theology, philosophy, political science, etc., the role of the student and thinker is much different. The thinker must address the whole all at once, contemplating more wide-ranging questions of how everything fits together, what life really is all about and what my role in the universe is. Sometimes it seems that these kinds of issues cannot be crammed into a multiple choice question or a threaded online discussion, but require engagement with reality (say, through prayer or service), meditation (long, serious thinking), and conversation, in which those thinking about the same questions talk about how to understand the reality at hand and what to personally do about it. (E.g., if Jesus commands his followers to “go and make disciples,” how and in what way does that apply to me today? What should I do about it?) Can the type of intellectual movements required for true theological engagement happen in a MOOC?
Now, I know that at least one quasi-theological MOOC has been attempted. The Catholic Distance Learning Network is doing two MOOC’s. One is on “Online Teaching and Learning.” The other is called “Teaching Research Design.” The project is being led by Sebastian Mahfood of Holy Apostles College and the CDLN worked with Edvance360 to set up the courses. There’s an article about it here. The effort is interesting and I hope they report to the public the results of the project. I’m especially interested in their enrollment numbers. I can’t imagine they’ll get 100,000 students! However, the courses are not truly theological. Both of them seem rather technical in nature–not as much as computer programming–but technical in terms of education and research strategies. I’d really like to see someone offer a MOOC on “Christology” or “Biblical Hermeneutics” or something much more difficult to assess.
The areas in theological and biblical studies that would lend themselves to a MOOC most easily are those that are most technical. I think, for example, that biblical language study would be the first place for MOOC’s to go for theology. But I wonder if other technical subjects like Thomistic philosophy or bio-ethics or even comparative religions might be able to be taught through a MOOC. The other thing is that MOOC’s might just be a fad, but there’s so much momentum behind them right now that I think they’ll be with us to stay at least in some format. I’m interested to see what theologians and Bible scholars come up with when it comes time to make a MOOC. I hope that someone will figure out how to use the new format to teach a new generation of religious thinkers. So if you hear of any theology or biblical studies MOOC’s going on, post a comment here to let me know.