Education, Access, and the Future of Christian Learning

English: Boys getting computer class near Baro...

I love Christian higher education.

I have two degrees and spent time on three different campuses in three different states. I couldn’t begin to put a price tag on the skills, knowledge, insight, connections, processing abilities, and friends I acquired through this seven and a half year process.  The interesting thing is though future students may not have to put a price tag on their educations.  It may be free (or at least really, really cheap).

That’s right.  Free college.

Click here or here if you don’t believe me.

It’s called Coursera.  Coursera is a “massive online open classroom” operated through a combined effort by Stanford, Michigan, Penn, and Princeton.  It currently offers around forty courses on everything from robotics to Roman mythology.  Last fall 140,000 thousand people took Stanford’s Machine Learning class through Coursera.  Many were just curious and dabbled, but 13,000 did enough work to pass.  13,000!

How does it work?  Video lectures, powerpoint presentations, and interactive quizzes are uploaded.  Questions and comments are submitted and sorted using a like/dislike system.  Thus, good questions and points are sent to the top of the pile while spam or bad questions jestisoned to the bottom.  Projects and papers are assigned and submitted as in any other class.  From the teaching end, the professor does quite a bit of “front-loading” but after that the class runs essentially on automation the rest of the semester.

Those who complete the courses are given certificates of completion.  There are even plans in the works to create a system for those completing certain classes with employers seeking workers with those skills.  The program has been so successful, Harvard and MIT are launching their own competitor called edX.  Their first course, MIT’s Circuits and Electronics, has 120,000 enrollees.

But don’t colleges already offer online courses?  What’s the difference?  Good question.

The difference is Coursera and edX are open to absolutely anyone for free.  100% free.  “There’s a tsunami coming,” said Stanford president John Hennessy of the program.  He’s right.  It’s revolutionary.  Anyone in the world with online access will soon be able to learn essentially anything from the best and brightest academia can offer, for free.  There will probably be nominal fees one day, especially once employers get involved.  But compared to the skyrocketing price of traditional education, it will be peanuts.

Where does this leave the brick and mortar, residential college system?  You can be crushed by the tsunami or you can surf, and “it’s better to surf,” says Coursera designer and Stanford computer science professor Daphne Koller.

Critics say programs like Coursera cannot replace the credentials bestowed by a well-rounded liberal arts degree.  True.  Certainly residential colleges will always have a market and certainly make invaluable contributions to both their students and communities.  But are we really to think students and employers will turn a blind eye to spending less time and less money for going to school when they can be quickly and cheaply prepared for even highly technical specialties?  Doubtful.  If governments and businesses continue to subsidize education, which are they going to opt for?  Exactly.

Which brings me back to Christian higher education.  Are we ready?  If Christian colleges aren’t careful, they could quickly price themselves out of the market.  While a huge majority of American college students are getting certified for advanced professions online for free in say two years, or at least spending a much shorter amount of time in traditional classrooms, our Christian institutions could be stuck still offering only four year programs for tens of thousands of dollars.  They will be inaccessible.

So where is the Christian Coursera?  It’s time to get New and Old Testament, theology, worldview, counseling, bible teaching, ethics, church history, and more online for free.  The potential impact these classes contain is immense.  Imagine the biblical knowledge at our fingertips.  Imagine the hunger it could awaken  in this world unlike anything seen in many generations as people across the globe breach access to the depths of scripture and history probed by godly scholarship.  Imagine the new perspectives from these new students scholarship may come to appreciate.  Imagine the businesses, workplaces, and families transformed.

Imagine how a Christian Coursera could impact church ministry.  Those in countries where church life is restricted by law or geography could learn the bible in a structured way like never before.  Pastors could be discipled without ever leaving the church which ordains and invests in them, whether that church is in suburban Atlanta or Southern Sudan.  There might be no more going off to seminary never to return.  There might be no more churches burned by pouring into seminary students for three years only to see them take off for greener pastures upon graduation.  Instead, those showing promise for ministry could be discipled by a pastor in their home church all while being taught by the best theologians in the world.  The possibilities for kingdom advancement are literally endless.

Like I said, I love Christian higher education.

It’s time to make it available for everyone everywhere.

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13 thoughts on “Education, Access, and the Future of Christian Learning

  1. So wait. If people don’t pay for education, who pays the educators? The Church? The government? If it’s the government, do they get a say in what is taught?

    1. Good questions. I don’t think anyone knows completely how this is going to play out yet. However, based on the articles I have read here is what people are saying – the schools will still make plenty of money. It will come from employment finding services, ads, and student fees. Remember there is likely going to be way fewer colleges. If an online college has 2-3 million students paying say $75 in fees, that’s a lot of money, especially considering you will have far fewer staff and faculty per student. This is all conjecture to be sure, but it’s not difficult to see how schools will still have plenty of money.

      1. Ok…I see what you’re saying.

        Let me push back one last time. I chose the seminary I go to SPECIFICALLY because it requires the people getting a degree from it to be *on site* for most of their time there. This ensures that the learning experience is immersive, not simply papers turned in or lectures processed…but actually information and relationships processed in community. The professors know me. A teacher cannot gauge what his class needs using a sterile rubric…he or she needs to KNOW them in order to be most effective.

        The internet is a wonderful tool for dispersing information. If that’s all education was, that would be fine. But education, especially theological education, is information PLUS so much more. This renders the online class rather ineffective, in my opinion (which is informed, by the way, by my bachelor’s degree in education).

        I know a combox isn’t the place to have this conversation…but since having coffee is more or less out of the question, it’s hopefully the next best thing. 🙂

      2. I hear what you’re saying. There is no question a person gets a better education in the kind of environment you’re describing, and those schools will always exist. But not everyone is able to up and move to a school for several years. So if we have the technology, why not make at least some education available to everyone. An online class isn’t as good, but it is better than nothing. Consider for example a small church pastor in say rural Africa. He no longer would have to leave his village and travel hundreds or thousands of miles to receive in depth biblical knowledge. He could do it right where he was. Additionally, the choice is I believe soon going to be out of our hands. People simply aren’t going to do what’s best. They’re going to do what gets them a job as quickly and cheaply as possible. Thus, Christian institutions by refusing to embrace this new pattern could be completely left behind and become inaccessible for ordinary people. Lastly, feel free to push back as much as you want. That’s why I do this.

  2. Alright then! 🙂 If we’re talking third world nations, the best thing to do is to send people over (or cultivate their own national theologians) and teach classes. Maybe not in the same way seminary prep is done here, but work is already being done on that front.

    But, if we’re talking about people in America, seminaries need to stand and say NO, you CAN’T have a degree if you won’t spend time with us. A seminary education is NOT something that can or should happen without discipleship from the people who are providing it. An email address is not discipleship. Someone who wants to get a job quickly and cheaply ought not to consider pastoring.

    1. I agree with your sentiment and you’re right about discipleship. But that doesn’t mean the model doesn’t need to evolve. Maybe students can be discipled by pastors already in their area and these mentoring pastors can work in conjunction with the school. I don’t know, but I’m sure it could work somehow. I also think we need to make a distinction between college and seminary education. Obviously those are two different conversations. Maybe people just taking online classes don’t get full degrees and ordination, but what’s the harm in spreading knowledge as far as possible? I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but education is changing and we need to as well.

      1. What you’re describing is already happening through things like World Wide Classroom. You might not have heard of it, but google it…it’s great. Most lectures I hear at Covenant Seminary are posted to the website, sometimes with accompanying class handouts, etc. It’s actually how I decided I would go to Covenant.

        But as an educator, I can tell you that the winds of “fad” blow…and blow hard. But that’s no reason to change what has worked for literally a millennium…and will *continue* to work. People really DO learn the same way they always have.

      2. Maybe you’re right, but this seems different. Again, I’m not saying traditional schools will die, just that many people are going to go a different route.

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