Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are becoming ubiquitous in the news and in the educational blogosphere, but they have not yet penetrated the world of theological education.  

Why? The reasons vary. Some leaders in theological education undoubtedly wonder how they could possibly benefit from MOOCs — if MIT attracts 160,000 MOOC participants in a single term, how can that translate to the tiny world of seminary education, where there are only 70,000 students at all schools combined? 

Other seminary leaders might think that maintaining a MOOC must be too expensive or complicated. Still others may feel that engaging in MOOCs would be a departure from their institutional missions. 

The reality, though, is that MOOCs provide opportunities that our world is missing out on — the extension of the institutional mission, the attraction and retention of students, and the earned media coverage that comes when an institution offers a class to a massive student body.

One MOOC’s story

In the fall of 2012, Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, where I’m vice president of administration, hosted its first MOOC in partnership with the Catholic Distance Learning Network of the Seminary Department of the National Catholic Educational Association. We partnered with Edvance360, a learning management vendor, bringing together 64 participants from across North and Central America to create a relational learning experience. As the middle of 2014 approaches, Holy Apostles now has six semesters of experience offering MOOCs and has developed a great deal of versatility in the production and implementation of them, offering around 10 courses each term, of four to six weeks’ duration. For a description of the current courses, see www.hacsmooc.cc

Our effort to launch MOOCs resonates with an article that recently appeared in the online periodical Inside Higher Ed. Small institutions, say authors W. Joseph King and Michael Nanfito, “can use MOOC technology to continue creating and sustaining their collaborative tradition.” (See www.bit.ly/IHE-MOOC.) Just take the “massive” out of “massive open online course,” they argue, and you get a model for course delivery that can be extremely useful for small liberal arts colleges (and, I would add, for small theological schools).

In this case, size really does not matter. What matters is the attention given to cultivating a community of learners within a particular theological tradition to help them advance their formational goals. 

The gold standard

Theological schools are different from purely academic institutions in the sense that relational aspects are already part of our institutional cultures. In addition to intellectual formation, we pursue human, spiritual, and pastoral formation. Our goals in these formational areas are in part defined by our need to build relationships with others in order to proclaim the Gospel and nurture Christian disciples. Our ultimate trajectories are pastoral, and the intellectual, human, and spiritual formation that we provide helps us navigate toward these trajectories. We’re not trying merely to communicate a body of knowledge; we are building leaders for church and society.

For theological educators, the retention rates of the large university-based MOOCs are not acceptable. Stanford University’s first MOOC had 160,000 registrants and a 20 percent completion rate, whereas MIT’s first course had a completion rate of only 4 percent. Some observers see these low completion rates as a good thing — the courses are meritocratic, giving everyone a chance and allowing truly motivated students to learn. 

But I think theological educators can do better for our constituents — our current and prospective students, their families, their congregations and parishioners, and our alumni. Our constituents have specific needs and interests. They have formational goals and need the relationality that only small institutions really know how to provide. Small MOOCs can support these students. 

Perhaps theological schools should measure success in a way other than through high dropout rates (which are a result of unlimited access) combined with rewards for those with the self-sufficiency to stick to the program. Instead, we can focus on the methods of collaborative engagement that our theological institutions do best, measuring our success in ways that allow us to respond immediately to continuing formation needs.

If we know, for instance, that our alumni are dealing with new issues for which our schools could not have prepared them while they were students, we can address this gap through the offering of a MOOC on that topic. Targeting a MOOC at graduates, we can invite current students to participate as well, opening the way for them to interact with practitioners in the mission field. The experience can make their classroom education much richer. 

MOOC it happen 

From our institutional self-studies, we know which program areas need strengthening, and we may be trying to strengthen them in several ways already. MOOCs are a tool that can help too, largely because of their versatility. A MOOC does not have to be a semester-long course, as Holy Apostles College and Seminary has demonstrated — it can be six or eight weeks. It can be presented in the form of a “MOOC-inar” — an extended webinar, lasting several weeks, that integrates live presentations with intermediate periods of online collaboration among participants.

Furthermore, MOOCs don’t have to be expensive or time consuming. Most theological schools already have formational materials that they use for on-campus workshops. These materials are probably already digitized and simply need to be repackaged for online delivery in MOOC form. 

Similarly, many theological schools that already have sufficient educational technology may not need to hire a consultant to facilitate the launch of their first MOOC. Given that MOOCs rely on the participants themselves to work through the modules, they need little supervision. A faculty member assigned to host a MOOC simply needs to be a responsive presence within it, to provide for the needs of the participants as they arise. 

Press the MOOC button

Now that the residency requirement has been lifted for M.A. candidates at some theological schools, seminaries should be leveraging the use of distance learning tools to advance our missions. MOOCs are one way to begin doing this. I would encourage any institution with an interest in extending its mission to try this—to experiment with focus groups, to start small, to dream big.

To view a short video by Sebastian Mahfood about MOOCs, see www.bit.ly/SeminaryMOOC

A plug for our provider

Many institutions already have learning management systems, but some are limited in the number of users who can participate without incurring additional charges. 

Fortunately, Edvance360, the learning management system that hosts the Holy Apostles College and Seminary MOOC, is offering free hosting, packaging and development, and technical support to any theological school that wants to develop a MOOC on their system. Sign up at edvance360.wordpress.com/mooc/

Just as the seminaries that offer MOOCs can earn positive attention from the media, so do companies like Edvance360, whose business model includes gaining positive media attention through support of charitable institutions like theological schools.


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