virtual liturgies of learning
exploring mystagogia in a connected world

from the archives

Visions of a rusty coder

Visions of a rusty coder

I just turned in my third assignment in a Coursera MOOC (Massively Open Online Course), and the ruthlessly accurate automatic grader’s unsympathetic rating of my rusty programming skills reminded me that one of my major reasons for taking a course was to reflect on the implications of this environment for the church an specifically for life-long formation within the Anglican Communion–particularly the Episcopal Church. Reflect I will…

Laying the groundwork

Most Massively Open Online Courses are free (as in beer, as the open-source world makes the distinction between cost and availability), short (6-10 weeks) adaption of traditional brick-and-mortar courses oriented to adult enrichment. In the academic world’s snatching at straws to keep afloat, they are the latest and greatest thing; you can’t open the Chronicle of Higher Education without seeing a handful of articles on low-cost distance education as the brave new world of the university.

You’ve probably heard of a number of these. MIT’s Open Courseware is the grand-daddy of MOOCs, and the current darling of the media (probably due to the high profile of its founders and funders–Kleiner Perkins!) is Coursera, but there are many more: this Chronicle article: “4 Professors Discuss Teaching Free Online Courses for Thousands of Students” discusses, besides Coursera, Udacity (funded by Charles River, another big Silicon Valley VC fund), Udemy, and one that I can’t fit into any dictionary definition of “open”, Blackboard (I must say that’s rather like including JPMorgan-Chase in an article on microfinancing, but I digress. I’m not sure I’d include Blackboard on an article on education, frankly). In addition there are hybrid institutions like Western Governors University and Capella which offer something like MOOCs as part of their marketing effort to entice students to enroll in more formal programs.

Coursera and Udacity are following the “traditional” Google model of build it first and (their investors hope) monetize it later. It’s rather like an Episcopal Church that I visited a few weeks ago where the the pastor warmly welcomed all the first-time visitors to the worship but then (jokingly, I assume) asked “third-time visitors to let us know, so we can offer you a pledge card!”

Who’s writing this?

I’ve taken bi-vocationality to a ridiculous extreme. I’m an Episcopal priest, currently between parishes, and my primary ministry has been music and life-long adult Christian formation. To support such a vocation (for those of you who don’t know, the national Episcopal church has reduced over the years and is proposing to cut funding in these areas, and most dioceses are following right along) I’ve been a consultant and serial entrepreneur in the software world. Recently, I completed a PhD at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, in the intersection of theological aesthetics, music, liturgical studies, and early Christian studies. I’m now working on three books, being an occasional church musician, and remodelling my house. Oh, and exploring new models of adult Christian Education.

Where are we going?

MOOCs give us a platform to explore lots of issues in the interface between church and society. Here’s some of them that I’d like your help in following:

  • Welcome and inclusion. “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” hangs outside almost every Episcopal congregation’s meeting place. How does the welcome in (for example) Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning class compare with and illuminate the welcome offered at St. Swithun’s?
  • Effective MOOCs demand a multi-generational (from the standpoint of the MOOC) community of learners–students, community TAs, teachers at the least. What does that tell us about strategies for life-long formation in the “digital age”?
  • MOOCs require a technological infrastructure. What purposive infrastructures do we need to be church?
  • Can MOOCs be a way of keeping the promises to teach and learn that we make in baptism?
  • MOOCs require an intellectual and educational infrastructure–for which they do not seem to contribute. Can a MOOC be other than a pedagogical and social parasite, and how?
  • MOOCs are great for imparting (objective) information. Can we crowd-source wisdom?
  • There’s a lot of talk about a new buzzword, “subsidiarity,”  in Episcopal circles. When we put church, seminary, and institution in conversation with the Rule of St. Benedict (where the word comes from) and MOOCs what pops out?
  • Education and Church are both loci of what James K.A. Smith calls “cultural liturgies”. What happens to those liturgies as they are virtualized over time and space?

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