If you scan the list of MOOCS at Canvas.net, 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.
- Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary – How to Read and Study the Bible MOOC
- A MOOC Seminary? – This is not a MOOC, but it is an interesting article where the author muses about the future of seminary education.
- Christian Colleges Try Massive Open Online Courses – The interesting thing about this article is that is doesn’t actually give any list of MOOCs at Christian colleges, but it the author wrote it back in 2012, so it at least demonstrates that people were thinking about the idea.
- Ligonier Connect – A MOOC on the Prophets & Poets was launched in May, 2013.
- Crown Online offered a MOOC on the New Testament during July and August of 2013.
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)?