On MOOCs and Monks

(I knew I kept this thing alive for a reason!)

Dan Ariely (of Predictably Irrational, inter alia) gives an assessment of his involvement with online education via MOOCs, from a PBS NewsHour segment. His experience tends to confirm my perspective about the role and future of MOOCs, so I was chuffed to hear from his quarter. Something he didn’t mention — that I brought up in a conversation with Kevin Werbach*? the other day — is that the very idea of a ‘course’ (defined in the terms necessitated by quantised, bureaucratic models) is itself alien to the online learning environment, which is more conducive to learner-led, associative, indefinite-duration endeavours.

I’ll bet that Ariely’s course is great, just as I would bet that Kevin’s online course is great. The cost of mounting such a course (especially one well-enough executed to compare with these) is, of course, non-trivial, and there are arguments and experiments to be made about the relative worth of a pound spent on a MOOC and a pound spent on making the most of an in-person educational venture — but online education isn’t going to vanish even if it’s prohibitively costly for many providers, so it may as well be done brilliantly by outstanding practitioners with deep-pocket support.

Last night, though, Tripp tagged me to comment on a HuffPo post by a former student of mine, Wayne Meisel. In response, I noted that Wayne has some good points, and some fairly serious mistakes.

I agree with Wayne that an intentional-community model makes a lot of sense for most seminaries; I used to suggest at Seabury that we should re-imagine the plant on a monastic model, with some residential brethren and some who come for formation, and whom we send out into the world. (I proposed renting a storefront in a particular neighbourhood which would serve as a satellite/lab for learning and serving in the hood.

I think Wayne is dead wrong about a topic on which I’ve been insisting all along: that seminaries should teach something other than theology (and its allied disciplines). I’ll begin listening to that one when someone suggests that a med school teach theology, or that a law school teach pharmacology. The implicit assumption is that theological understanding doesn’t matter that much, or that it comes automatically. “Their courses left something to be desired in terms of leadership training and skill development”? I don’t remember any courses at PTS that advertised themselves as leadership training. PTS is a theological seminary, one of the best in the world at teaching students deeply to understand the Bible and the theological tradition and the best practices in their ministerial vocation. ‘Leadership training’ is not irrelevant to that, but it’s no more central than it is in very many other fields, and is surely less important that, hmmmm, knowing what you’re doing as a Christian minister.

And by the way — where do we see the vast benefits of leadership training courses on Wall Street and in US government? It appears that the US has a shortage of leadership from pillar to post; it’s not really fair to assail seminaries for the problem (and simply identifying one’s favourite leadership guru doesn’t solve anything; Peter Drucker can only teach in one place at a time).

Luther Seminary didn’t falter because it should have been teaching leadership training; it faltered because it overspent on buildings and managed money based on the expectation that a boom would continue (as has been the case with other financially-troubled seminaries). But Wayne doesn’t say, ‘Avoid imprudent expenditures,’ which would seem to me a much more apposite lesson.

Joint programmes make a lot of sense; a different model for formation and community life gets at a genuine problem; but the heart of the problem that no one talks about is committing to excellence in theological education. Anything else simply papers over a more significant problem: ‘We have these jazzy community houses and leadership training, but if you go to our theological seminary you won’t actually learn much about Jesus and God and worship’.

MOOCs do terrific work of a particular kind; conventional university instruction does terrific work of a particular kind; seminaries can do terrific work of a particular kind (especially if they remember to concentrate on their historic strengths). Foundation executives can do good work of a particular kind, too. I endorse The strengths or failures of specific cases in one or the other don’t imply that others should be more like X or less like Y — if you want to suss out the future of online education, of seminaries, of universities, or whatever, it’s utterly vital that you pay attention to strengths and weaknesses, of capacities and purposes, and work from there. Even my preferred suggestion of an excellence-focused, monastic-model theological seminary has very significant limitations on the scope of its applicability.

‘One size’, as the Waitresses reminded us in the theme to Square Pegs, ‘does not fit all.’

* If you don’t know Kevin, he’s a legal studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, the impresario behind Supernova, the author of For the Win (not the Cory Doctorow novel by the same name), and a wildly popular and successful online teacher). That is: probably understands a thing or two about what he says.