The Big Class: MOOCs for Christians and What We’re Learning

The bubble seems to have burst for the MOOC.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were all the rage just two years ago when The New York Times called 2012 the ‘Year of the MOOC.’  On paper it sounds great: allow people who lack the resources to take an ivy league class on chemistry, that’s taught by one of the best communicators in the field, and it’s no wonder 40,000 people sign up.  Finally education is democratized, the playing field is leveled, and now students are the ones who can choose what they learn and when they learn from an ever-growing selection of FREE classes.

However, that dream is rapidly fading.

“The promise of MOOCs has been overpromised,” says Josuha Kim, director of Dartmouth’s digital learning initiatives. Research into who takes MOOCs, how well they do, and how often they finish courses has quickly deflated hopes that this could be a viable way forward for today’s busy (and broke) learner.  For example, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education recently analyzed 16 Coursera MOOCs over a year and found that the average completion rate of a course was just 4 percent. What’s more, those who finished the course often possessed the resources to attend a terrestrial school if they desired.  “We don’t see evidence that that’s a model that leads to real learning,” said David Hammer of Tufts University.

When ChurchNext decided to offer a MOOC-style course on January 27 – February 3 we did so with fear and trembling, aware of the drawbacks of traditional MOOCs, and intentionally designing an offering set to combat the attrition and lackluster result of previous offerings.

We made the class 45 minutes long. We made video presentations 5-7 minutes in length. We peppered the class with text reading, video presentations, short pop up quizzes, discussion rooms, and even asked students to write a brief essay.  We also knew that, unlike a MOOC course, which brings in anyone from anywhere with little in common other than some level of interest in the class, we were bringing together people of a faith whose allegiance to a particular tribe (the Episcopal Church) would provide some sort of esprit de corps that would aid in the class’s success.

When it was all over The Big Class with Michael Curry had 3,000 students from 30 countries registered. Of those, 61% started the class and completed various levels of the class.  20% finished the course- 5 times as many as the U-Penn study. 81% said they were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the course, 82% said it had a moderate or major impact on their spiritual lives.  Several churches used The Big Class as part of their regular formation offerings, and some even projected the class on a big screen and took it in groups.

We can learn several things here: First, people are ready to learn about faith online. The feedback from learners was overwhelmingly positive, and the robust nature of the discussion rooms showed that people were deeply engaging in the material. Sure, the majority were not, but a large enough minority did so.

Second, there is a hunger for informed, moderate  conversation around religion. Bishop Curry’s course, ‘How to Be a Crazy Christian’ is a call to discipleship from a mainline perspective. His accessible style and reasonable approach provide a way for Christians to consider their call to follow Christ in line with their tradition.

Finally, online learning of this sort helps build relationships.  The discussion strings in the chat rooms – there were thousands of questions asked and answered during the class – betray an openness to engaging at some level with others about faith. Some people complained that the course took them 8 hours to complete simply because they got so caught up in discussions with others.

We continue to analyze this data and will undoubtedly draw more conclusions as we move forward.  We are grateful to our partners who came together to take this chance with us: Bexley Seabury, Forward Movement, The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, and Church Publishing, Inc.

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