To MOOC or Not to MOOC…

(Administrator’s note: This is a guest post by Ken Coley, who serves as Professor of Christian Education and Director of Ed.D. Studies at Southeastern Seminary.)

To MOOC, or not to MOOC, that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler for college presidents to suffer

The slings and arrows of an outrageous economy

Or to use technology against a sea of troubles,

And by MOOCing, end them.

(a paraphrase of Hamlet, Act III, sc 1)

Poor Hamlet was torn between two painful choices—he could stick around and suffer the indignities of his father’s murder and mother’s remarriage to his uncle, his father’s murderer, or he could end his life and escape the agony. (Hence the choice, “To be or not to be…”) Unfortunately for him, he chose to procrastinate and not take any action, other than running around Elsinore Castle acting crazy. Fast forward to the 21st century and the sea of troubles that University leaders find themselves in … mounting costs and shrinking enrollment. Traditional brick and mortar campuses gathering dust while Internet classrooms bustle. Trustees pulling one way, while faculties dig in their heels and refuse to go anywhere. Enter the MOOC option … massive open online courses. A recent editorial poses the tension this way:

Millions have enrolled. Thousands have completed. MOOCs are raising as much excitement outside the academy as trepidation and antipathy within it. Whether blended into an in-person class, or as standalone online offerings, MOOCs threaten to accelerate the postwar trend toward “casualization” of the teaching profession, rendering some professors “glorified teaching assistants” even as they turn others into “rock stars.”

What’s a college leader to do—run around acting crazy? This reflection will first look briefly at the ‘not to MOOC’ and summarize some of the harsh criticism directed at this movement. Next, the arguments in favor of this new approach to education will be presented. The essay will conclude with a personal application about how this new comer to the virtual world can potentially influence teachers world-wide.


Kamenetz, cited above, goes on to raise a compelling question, “What about learning?”  She argues, “Many observers have noted the irony that in their current form, xMOOCs seem to be loosely modeled after the least interesting instructional modes of the age of mass higher education.” These inferior pedagogies include video clips showing a professor lecturing, short multiple-choice quizzes, small amounts of reading, and final exams and papers.

Another educator introduces additional criticism: “MOOCs have been criticized on many counts: for being an ineffective mode of instruction; for their high attrition rates; and their problematic handling assessment.” Another educator traces the coining of the term back to two Canadian professors in 2008, who were in search of a new methodology to accompany their classroom instruction. Unlike this original vision of the MOOC, however, Bady argues that “If the MOOC began in the classroom as an experimental pedagogy, it has swiftly morphed into a process driven from the top down, imposed on faculty by university administrators, or even imposed on administrators by university boards of trustees and regents.”


This educator would like to present three compelling reasons to institute MOOCs at every school and university:


In a time period when knowledge is expanding at warp speed and the indebtedness related to college tuition has surpassed the sum total of all credit card debt in the US, there is a moral compunction to open wide the doors of academia for all to come in, at least for a visit. Koh points out, “Yet its supporters claim that MOOCs are an important intervention into the skyrocketing rates of college tuition, and champion the ability of MOOCs to offer much-needed instruction to impoverished people around the world.”

Such is the case when one enters the lecture hall of Michael Sandel of Harvard University. His MOOC entitled Justice is open to anyone who can access his videos on YouTube. The course information includes: No prerequisites, no recommended background, no peer assessments, no team projects, and (this is interesting) a free exam. His captivating lecture style and snappy interaction with his college students make for interesting viewing.

 An Introduction to Your Institution

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is less than one year into an experiment—introduce anyone who may have a passing interest in theological studies to SEBTS through a MOOC taught by our President. Some in the faculty are uncomfortable, even afraid for their jobs, if this really catches on. To date 2,500 signed up for the first semester and almost double that number have enrolled for the next offering. Our goal, in addition to inspiring others to enjoy delving into God’s Word in a scholarly fashion, is to bring new students to Southeastern through the front door of MOOC.

High Quality/Low Tech/Low Impact

A third positive aspect of MOOC, when it is done well, is that the participants in the online experience usually get the best the university has to offer while only needing a basic Internet connection and access to YouTube. Also, viewers are not required to meet traditional course requirements such as class attendance at particular times, heavy reading assignments, and intimidating tests.

This last ‘positive’ is also viewed as a negative. Conrad and Donaldson maintain, “The involvement of the learner in the course, whether one calls it interaction, engagement, or building community, is critical if an online course is to be more than a lecture-oriented course in which interaction is primarily between the learner and the content or the learner and the instructor.”* So educators will continue to wrestle with this tension between lecturing to a sea of listeners who lack a close connection to the learning experience and the absence of methodologies that produce deeper learning. But technology educator Cathy Davidson is very hopeful.

We are taking baby steps with the medium right now, and, fortunately, a lot of dedicated, earnest, serious thinkers are asking what MOOCs can teach us about learning so that these first steps will help us taking gigantic, important leaps in the future.  We are collecting the data, keystroke by keystroke, that will help us understand more and more about what modes of learning work in what situation and for whom.  We will soon know more about what motivates students to stay in a course, what makes them drop (the MOOC dropout rate tends to be very high), what motivates them to learn in the first place?  What motivates them to form peer discussion groups, online or off, around course content?  How many go from an introductory course to a deeper one–and why?  In other words, the quantity of data and the increasing sophistication with which we, aided by the machine, can read and analyze and parse and visualize data, means that we are learning more about the minutia of learning now than we have ever known before.

Future application

For the past 25 years this educator has spent many hours traveling around the US, Canada, and Latin America teaching a variety of topics related to teaching. Most recently, I was honored to spend five days modeling for forty Cuban educators how to be better at their craft, specifically through the use of active learning techniques. Non-educators who teach the Bible on a weekly basis here in North Carolina and around the world desire to be more effective teachers. It is a new dream for me to design a MOOC that will be available for anyone who wants to learn more about the teaching-learning process and be introduced to approaches that engage learners.

In conclusion this educator wants to return to Denmark and our troubled prince. Unfortunately, young Hamlet failed to take action until it was too late, and he perished along with four others in the final scene. We must not fail to act for the sake of the health of our institutions, but more importantly, for the sake of humanity who longs to hear our message of hope.


* See Rita-Marie Conrad and J. Ana Donaldson, Engaging the Online Learner: Activites and Resources for Creative Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), pp. 4-5.




Why I Believe in Online Education for Ministry Preparation

When I first began teaching ministry students years ago, I wrote on a chalkboard. The overhead projector was revolutionary. Little did we think about teaching via something like the Internet, with seemingly little or no classroom interaction. I, along with many of my colleagues at the time, questioned the pedagogical value of online education when it arrived forcefully on the scene.

No longer do I have as many concerns. In fact, I see value in online education for ministry students.

  1. Online education introduces students to a global world. In my current online class, I have several students who are serving the Lord in various countries around the world. They bring a cross-cultural view to the virtual classroom, and their insights have been both informative and challenging. These students represent thousands of internationals and/or missionaries who have opportunity to study because Internet options are available. I am, I believe, a better professor, and my students are better educated because of these global conversations.
  2. Online education affirms the value of the gospel. As evangelicals, we stand on the position that the gospel is truth; we view it as the only hope for a dying world. If we truly believe what we claim, and if we accept our calling to make disciples of all peoples (Matt. 28:18-20), how can we not at least consider a delivery system that allows us to train more of the world? The delivery system may stretch those of us not raised on the Internet, but the product should be worth the effort: more global disciples of Jesus.
  3. Online education encourages student participation. We often assume otherwise, but my experience is that online interaction is often stronger than classroom interaction. In a residential classroom, some students will never speak unless required to do so. The situation is the same in a virtual classroom (that is, some will not post unless required), but students are often more willing to interact when studying online. I have seen online discussions and chats that far exceed the depth of in-person classroom conversations – and I am convinced the medium facilitates that process.
  4. Online education assists churches in carrying out their responsibility to train. Ideally, believers will learn first at the feet of local church-based leaders who invest in young lives. Educational institutions can provide the accredited training while the church provides the hands-on, mentoring-based training. Not all churches fulfill this responsibility, but more and more are accepting this calling. Online education makes these partnerships possible. Indeed, online training can assist churches in equipping leaders to minister in a technologically driven world.
  5. Online education allows students to remain in their ministry settings. A Christian university or seminary can easily become a place to hide from the world, a cocoon that insulates us from the people we are called to reach. Church-based training – when it emphasizes doing the Great Commission – helps keep students in the real world. To expect them to leave healthy ministry settings for a formal education makes little sense if legitimate accredited training is available via the Internet.
  6. Online education requires teachers to think missiologically. We cannot ignore how our students learn. Our calling as educators is to teach, which means we are obligated to help students learn. We have a responsibility to reach them. For a generation that does not know a world without the Internet, we have two options: use the medium to teach them, or ignore the medium and risk missing an opportunity to train them. The latter choice is missiologically illogical to me if we believe in what we teach. Even if we consider online education less than ideal, we must admit we lose our voice if we choose to ignore the prevalence of the Internet medium.

I know that critics will still object to my conclusions. Some argue that the Bible itself assumes that ministry training will occur only in face-to-face settings. I grant that the scriptures do not speak of contemporary technology, but that silence does not equal prohibition. My hunch is that the Apostle Paul, who sought to be all things to all people, who often corrected and taught from a distance via correspondence, and who longed for others to know and follow Jesus, would welcome a delivery system to train more believers.

Others may argue that online learning, by its very individualistic and private nature, encourages cheating. Even if that conclusion were rock solid defensible (and it’s not), in-person test proctors and online content checkers can lessen the possibility. More pointedly, the student who cheats is dealing more with a conflict in the soul than a problem with a delivery system. The same student would likely be tempted in a residential classroom as well. Repentance rather than educational reform is in order.

Still others contend that the best education is person-to-person, face-to-face. The results are mixed, but enough studies have shown online education to be as effective as classroom education that we cannot assume the validity of this conclusion. Moreover, online education does not prohibit a personal approach. Online options that provide face-to-face interaction exist, and they are continually improving. I have often had significant personal, challenging, instructive interaction with students sitting in their rooms in another part of the world. Global ministry increasingly demands those kinds of virtual conversations, and we must prepare for our students for that world.

Further, those who assume a residential classroom fixes all of the above concerns are misreading contemporary education. Busy students who rush to the classroom, attempt to focus for an hour, and then quickly return to their fast-paced lives see the classroom as only a means to an end. It is possible to be isolated and alone in a class with dozens of other students, whether online or on a campus – and we must work in either case to develop relationships. Cheating can occur in a classroom as well as online. All in all, on-campus education is significant, but it is not a cure-all.

Here’s the bottom line for me: a delivery system does not determine if the education is good; the teacher does. Good teachers who believe in their content will figure out how to connect with students and lead them to learn, regardless of delivery mode. They will also help us to improve both on-campus and online learning, simply because they are committed to educating. Strong teachers will learn to do online education well – and strive to lead students to learn.  We who are preparing the next generation for ministry must not ignore this opportunity.

Distance Learning Options at Southeastern

We at BtT would like to take a moment make you aware of the distance-learning options at Southeastern. Many of you have commitments to family, work and ministry that make it impossible for you to attend our main campus at Wake Forest for the entirety of your particular degree program. To meet these real needs, an innovative system of delivering theological education to the student has been developed that is academically sound, ministry focused and Christ centered through the use of online classes, extension center, hybrid format classes and short-term intensives. Students can combine online and extension center classes with hybrids and five-day break classes to earn an entire degree with only a limited amount of time at our main campus.

The most recent development in this system is the use of what we call “Hybrids”. Hybrid classes begin each semester with online materials and include a weekend with the professor at our Wake Forest campus. Students spend time in discussion groups, have Q&A time and interact with the most current issues in each field. After the weekend with the professor, students complete the class with the online materials. This allows student the flexibility of distance learning plus face-to-face time with our faculty and on campus credit for the class.

There are multiple options for taking advantage of distance learning in earning your degree at SEBTS:

  • The Master of Arts in Christian Studies can be done entirely at the Tampa Extension Center
  • The Associate of Divinity degree may be earned entirely via distance learning.
  • Masters of Divinity students may earn up to 30 hours via distance learning.
  • Undergraduate students may also incorporate up to 30 hours via distance learning.

The staff in our Distance Learning Office (Director, Dr. John Ewart; Assistant Director, Jerry Lassetter; and Administrative Staff, Sandy Herrera and Kristi Emme) would be happy to discuss a plan for taking distance learning classes that will suit your needs. They are available by email at or by phone (919)761-2269. Further information is also available on our website at