Massively open spirit?
MIT and Harvard University recently announced a new venture in online education, called edX, in which they will offer free online courses from both universities. With this they are entering the realm of what is being called “MOOC” – massively open online courses. (And I thought UUs were bad about acronyms!) MIT began this by offering a course in March on Circuits and Electronics which drew in 120,000 participants, some 10,000 of whom passed the midterm exam. The courses will provide certifications, but not official credit. For those types of courses not easily “graded” (such as humanities courses) they will offer peer review.
I find this a fascinating example of how institutions are starting to understand the benefit of moving in and out of the virtual realm. For I’m sure Harvard and MIT have no intention of ultimately shutting down their campuses, nor declaring that in-person learning is now irrelevant or replaceable. And they have begun this venture without even knowing where funding could come from in the future.
Of course I can’t help but make the comparison to what we are trying to learn as a religious institution. I am convinced that creating more opportunities for people to make spiritual connections through virtual media is possible, has already been happening, and is valuable. And, it won’t replace physical congregations or make them irrelevant. Just as educational institutions are recognizing that much learning can happen within peer groups, spiritual communities are beginning to once again experience the age-old adage of “where one or two are gathered” there communities exist.
One of the implications of this is to recognize that not every group needs to be led directly by a religious professional. For one, there simply aren’t enough professionals to keep up with a virally-spreading religion. But even more profoundly, people are finding that peer groups can deepen their spiritual life in ways that may go beyond an experience sitting in the pews. Again, this is not to say the role of religious professionals will become irrelevant – quite the opposite, I think. But it does mean looking at how our role as religious professionals will need to change, and how to begin to develop leadership skills in people who may never feel the call to ministry. An interesting set of questions to ponder.