MOOCs and the Future of Open Online Religious Education

If you scan the list of MOOCS at, Coursera, EdX, and similar places; chances are that you will see science, technology, education, and even a variety of humanities courses. So far, I have not noticed many theology MOOCs, although I have seen a few religious studies ones. With that in mind, I just saw the news that Dallas Theological Seminary is offering a MOOC that focuses upon a study of the Book of Matthew. To the best of my knowledge, that was the first such MOOC (or so I thought). I decided to test that assumption with a simple Google search and that was all it took to prove me wrong. Below is the short list of MOOCS and new events that I’ve surfaced so far.

Digital culture is a fast-growing part of 21tst century Christianity. While I don’t write about it much on this blog, I have studied cyber-spirituality and the role of digital culture in Christianity for almost sixteen years, giving an occasional invited presentation on my work to groups of pastors, theologians, and theological educators; sometimes putting together an article on the subject.  I’ve also done some consulting about online learning for seminaries and faith-based colleges.

Setting up camp in the digital world and leveraging distance (and now online) learning has a long tradition in religious education. In fact, if we were to study first century Christianity, one could make a strong case that distance (or at least blended) learning played an important role in the education and outreach of that era. It may be no surprise then, that online learning is a growing part of seminary education and the education of many Christian colleges.  Liberty University Online, for example, has over 60,000 online students, many studying theology and religious education.

What about the open online learning movement?  That also goes back to early experiments in the 1990s.  In fact, one of my colleagues, Dr. Harald Tomesch, was offering free (and some for a fee) online live Bible and theological lessons using an early live audio chat tool in the 1990s. Similarly, I’ve met dozens of others before the 21st century who leveraged synchronous and asynchronous online tools for free and open religious education.  We can add to that the many seminaries and Christian colleges that invited online self-directed learners to follow lectures through iTunes U and YouTube, not to mention the myriad of pastors who record and distribute their sermons via video podcasts, vodcasts, or some other form of video sharing.

It is worth noting, however, that most (but not all) of these open religious education efforts focused upon real-time tools or audio/video-recordings that gave dominance to the leader/speaker/presenter/authority. I point that out to note that this is likely the focus of the MOOCs in the list above as well. This is just an educated guess, but the first Christian MOOCs are primarily content distribution, with less emphasis upon designs that promote instructor-learner, and learner-learner interaction. I suspect that these early efforts have yet to maximize the power of current instructional design research and the full creative spectrum of the broader open learning movement; including things like project-based, game-based, peer-to-peer, guided practice, or rich feedback channels that allow students to check their understanding and check their progress. This is happening in some traditional online courses, but not as much with the early open learning movements that I’ve seen so far (If you know of some examples, please share them as a comment to this post.).

As religious organization begin to better understand the affordances (and limitations) of massive open online learning, I expect to see them start to build more significant open online learning experiences, MOOCs (as well as small open courses) that truly engage the learners, build online community, leave room for learner autonomy and personalization, capitalize upon social media and the read/write web, provide room for peer-to-peer learning, and leave room for the messiness that often comes with deep and “sticky” learning. This will not be comfortable for many or popular with others, as there is a high priority upon correct teaching. And yet, I am convinced that this the only way to get at deep learning.  Once this happens, then perhaps we can come up with a new acronym.  How about MOORE (Massively Open Online Religious Education)?






Posted in blog, education, MOOC, Open Learning, spirituality

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

9 thoughts on “MOOCs and the Future of Open Online Religious Education

  1. Jacob Corzine

    Next question:
    Is there a clear line between a MOOC and a “traditional” online course? How much is in the word “massive”? Does it mean lots of students, but tutors instead of interaction with actual teaching professors (I read the MOOC Seminary article..)?

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      The “massive” and “open” are the distinguishing factors. Massive may mean a few hundred to tens of thousands (potentially larger). Given such a size, this means a very different course design and student experience. There is, for example, little to no one-on-one student-instructor interaction. That sort of mentoring that might take place in a small class is absent. In the course design, there is usually a series of plans that allow for other forms of feedback for the learner. This might be computer-generated feedback in the form of ungraded quizzes that allow one the check one’s understanding on a given topic. There might be peer feedback, activities that have students “grading” or giving feedback on one another’s submitted work. Similarly, there are a few experiments with crowd-sourced feedback, where your work could be anonymously “graded” by a number of others and there is some algorithm to get at a grade or to at lest provide a collection of narrative or qualitative feedback. With some of the MOOCs at EdX (started by Harvard and MIT), I understand that some of those use large numbers of TAs and students are assigned to smaller study groups with a TA facilitator. There are also rubrics or checklists provided to check your own understanding. Still others provide “answer keys” at some point to see how you are doing. Note that almost all MOOCs are not for official college credit, but are more for a person’s individual growth and development (more like a scholarly Bible study than a formal course in the case of a theology MOOC). As some are considering the use for more formal purposes, there will likely be more use of test proctoring software that might include remote video monitoring for a high stakes objective computer-graded test.

      I should also note that there are two very different camps with MOOCs, and they distinguish between cMOOCs and xMOOCs. There is a section in this article that explains this difference ( The course design will be very different depending upon the instructor’s (and/or designer’s approach).

      The other distinguishing factor is the “open,” which people define differently. At minimum, open is freely open/available to participants. So, if people are restricted from participating or are charged a fee, then they would not be open any longer. Some purists mean that it is entirely open, no registration or log in required…it is just out there on the web. As you may expect, there are a number of other ways that people define open, but at minimum, there is a general understanding that these are free and openly available to anyone who wants to take them.

      The “online” part is self-explanatory and the “course” simply means just that, a course of study.

      I anticipate more creative uses of MOOCs blended with other types of learning experiences. So, imagine a MOOC combined with options for smaller group “residency” experiences for students who want to somehow earn credit or some credential as a result of their learning. Or, there are some community colleges where students in a traditional college course sign up for a MOOC, but they come to the traditional class for additional guidance, small group instruction, and formal assessments (papers, tests, projects, etc.).

      • Jacob Corzine

        “cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication.”

        So… that means that in a cMOOC, the student might be given materials to read, but then encouraged/expected to engage in a conversation with other students; and there may be no form of objective evaluation?
        And in an xMOOC, there’s perhaps more likely to be recorded video lectures – also reading materials – and evaluation in the form of homework assignments or examinations?

        Or am I oversimplifying that?

        One other question:
        It seems to me like the extreme “xMOOC” wouldn’t be bound to any kind of start and end date, but could be begun at any time. Does that *break* the concept? Or am I misunderstanding it?

        • Bernard Bull Post author

          Yes, wrote you wrote captures the distinct “spirit” of an xMOOC versus a cMOOC. With these sorts of terms in education, they are sometimes helpful guides, but they are rarely precise. Some xMOOCs do sometimes still use quite a bit of peer interaction, even peer evaluation; but it all tends to be much more scripted and directed. All of the MOOCs (x or c) that I’ve looked at closely still choose to have start and end dates.

          I was just re-listening to this interview with George Siemens, who was a pioneer of the cMOOC ( I appreciate how he describes things in terms of the course “center.” In traditional courses (including an xMOOC), the content is pre-selected and distributed to the learners, and they learn it. In a cMOOC, the learners help to create, locate, and distribute relevant text/content.

    • Jacob Corzine

      I read it. It kind of makes it seem like the concept appeared by itself, and the question is still open as to whether it can be successfully be monetized.

      If it can’t be, is there any reason to think it’ll continue to develop? Or is the monetization critical to success?

  2. Jacob Corzine

    So — what does an institution or a professor get out of offering a MOOC? I’m trying to understand why they do it.

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