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.
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.