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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.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kenn Hurto #

    Terasa, excellent reflection. It prompts me to challenge my H-team to craft more specifically values/theology offerings — we tend to be tilted toward organizational effectiveness training. I think the field staff may be able , via recorded webcasts, etc., fill the religious professional void in our lay-led, smaller congregations.

    May 7, 2012
  2. Great post. Makes me think about the purpose of leadership in general, which I think is nicely summed up in this quote from the book Theory U “My real leadership work is that I facilitate the opening process.” And I find the virtual possibilities for facilitating that opening process to be so interesting. You might be interested in this site as well:, a site (where my husband works: full disclosure) that’s “flipping” the classroom–providing a way for teachers to post their lectures so that they can spend face-to-face class time in practice and application of the theory they learn on-line. Interesting to think about the implications of that for spiritual and congregational life!

    May 7, 2012

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