The injustice of traditional higher education and online classes


Blog posts get less editing and polishing than other forms of writing, I think I may have failed to make my point clearly in the preceding post. So I will make it concisely here, see the other post for background and explanations.

Many people do not suit traditional classroom based higher education. There are logistical barriers (geography, time, family) these are weighted more against women than men.

There are also personality barriers. Some learning styles are well suited to classroom learning. For aural learners (and perhaps oral ones) it is ideal. For visual learners it is less good. For kinaesthetic learners a classroom is usually a disaster. Add difficulties like ADHD into the mix and classrooms provide significant barriers for some (selected?) students. Introverts are also discriminated against in classrooms that require “participation”.

These inequalities are unjust. These inequalities are avoidable. Online education if organised well provides a more equal educational opportunity than classrooms did.

The end of Higher Education


Christopher B. Hays commented on Facebook on a post “The End of College? Not So Fast” by Donald E. Heller. These posts and the comments prompted this reflection on my own experience. The Chronicle of Higher Education post also suggested my title, which deliberately mimics, but perhaps by removing the question mark subverts theirs.

Indeed almost all of my learning through two undergraduate degrees was obtained outside the classrooms. Though admittedly some came with the help of friends who were capable of taking notes, much much more came from voracious reading and frequent arguments on buses and over coffee or beer. Please do not underestimate my comparatives here, I will rephrase it to make the point. Almost all my undergraduate learning came from materials and experiences outside the class room. Almost NONE came from classroom learning.

  1. Indeed ADHD seems to have a strong inherited component. []

Getting students to read your comments in a Jetsons world

"Jetsons" by Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of List of Characters in The Jetsons via Wikipedia -

“Jetsons” by via Wikipedia

The Sydney College of Divinity 2014 Teaching and Learning Conference “Teaching Theology in a Technological Age“is an interesting experience. Listening to so many teachers who are as a matter of course teaching distant students using a variety of computer mediated tools is in some ways like seeing a Jetsons “future world”, from only five or six years ago, come to life.

Yet the progress seems mainly to represent the greater importance of flexible teaching which has been driven by student demand, and so economic forces, rather than pedagogy. Pedagogy for an electronically mediated age seems still too much for most teachers and administrators. (More on this when I am less tired, a long day’s travel and two very short nights mean I can’t write clearly enough at the moment.)

There have been the usual “aha moments” not least (the only peripherally technological) suggestion of giving students their assignment with comments but no mark and asking them to assess the grade. One then, of course, may need to discuss and adjust the grade with the student, but the process forces the student to read the remarks, and to think about their performance in useful ways.

It’s been great to meet ACOM colleagues that I have only previously had email contact with, I feel much more part of a team now.

The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future: First Impressions

Since this session concerns the background to the emergence of “Israel” in Canaan the Mereneptah Stele is mentioned and shown several times, photo from Wikipedia

When Jacob Wright’s MOOC “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” was announced and promoted I posted about it on Facebook.

I’ve enrolled and have begun the first week (the course started on Monday, but my first criticism is that I did not get an email reminder until I visited the course site again today – one of the biggest problems with MOOCs in my experience is lack of feedback for the student1 ).

Jacob is a fine teacher he keeps his material lively, and has an engaging presence and voice. The video “lectures” are broken into convenient chunks (of varied size from a couple of minutes to nearly a quarter of an hour2 which for me works well (as someone who as a teen would have been diagnosed ADHD, if the designation existed in those far off days, I have a short attention span and lectures bore me). Each is closed by one or two simple multichoice questions. This is brilliant, it gives the student instant feedback, and if we get them right instant reward and the sense that we are learning something. (Or if we are ourselves Hebrew Bible teachers at least the sense that we listened closely enough ;)

The videos make very skillful use of animated still shots of artifacts and places with the occasional video clip thrown in to create the sense of a video production. The technical values are as one would expect from an official university production.

That’s the good news, and if you are thinking of enrolling, do! The list is not yet closed, and if I have not yet learned much that is (to me) new, I have gained some interesting perspectives and ideas on how to put the material together. This is a MOOC for beginners that specialists can learn from! A fine achievement.

The bad news is that the videos are not optimised for viewing on tablets or phones. On my Phablet the screen resolution is small enough that the video (if played in the browser) overlaps the screen. I have tried the two different formats, and turning my screen around etc. but so far have not found a comfortable way to use the mobile device. (On a PC, even a netbook, all is fine, I guess university testers unlike poor adjunct faculty and students use phones with hi-res screens!)

At this stage I’ll also add a comment that perhaps reflects my context. Jacob uses a lot of Latin expressions, more than my usual audience of Kiwis, Pacific and Asian people would be comfortable with. I am not sure why, as usually the Latin expression is less familiar to me than kit’s English equivalent (like “divide and rule”) perhaps US audiences need “long words” to demonstrate academic credentials? It’s odd because in most ways the presentation is very simple and accessible with the few technical terms explained…

  1. see below. []
  2. so far. []

Social media as staffroom for distance teachers

After thirty years as an onsite teacher, though for the last several years teaching many distance classes, I am now a distance teacher. I used to work from an office at the institution I was teaching in, with the luxury of research and writing days/time at home. This was true whether I was teaching distance classes or onsite ones. Now, however, I am teaching for the Australian College of Ministries (with possible PhD work for Asia Pacific Theological Seminary) but I live and work in the hills between Tauranga and Rotorua, up here there are very few other people around and no other biblical scholars.

When I was an onsite teacher one of the benefits I loved was the help colleagues offered. That wisdom and knowledge is a priceless resource. It is not available face to face over coffee for a distance teacher.

When I ran into a problem in the early stages of planning a course on the Pentateuch I turned to Facebook. I wrote:

I am preparing a course on the Pentateuch/Torah which could be some students first encounter with source criticism. Can anyone suggest good (fairly simple) chapters that introduce this approach in a way accessible to conservative beginning students?

The helpful comments included a wealth of suggestions of possible readings, most of which I had not seen. (Who can keep up with all the textbooks as well as trying to keep some sort of “tabs” on the latest research?)

Reading them suggested a reorientation of the course. The first outline of teaching blocks had looked like this:





Torah and Covenant: Looks back at what was learned about the Pentateuch in “Introduction to the Old Testament” and also explores the genre covenant.


Narrative: looks closer at how Bible stories are told and how narratives work in the Pentateuch.


Law: considers genres of law and how they work, also looks at different law collections in the Pentateuch.


Genesis: What the first book contains and how it was meant to work.


Exodus: Two parts, the narrative of liberation and laws for the freed.


Leviticus: Holy living laid out.


Numbers:: Laws introduction and hermeneutics


Deuteronomy: (re)viewing the law.


Theology in the Torah


The Theme of the Pentateuch

 The revised draft looks like this:





The Pentateuch: revision from “Introduction to the Old Testament” and asking how many books make a Torah.


The Books: examines the contents and shapes of the five books.


Narrative: looks closer at how Bible stories are told and how narratives work in the Pentateuch, recognising that the whole Pentateuch is a narrative.


Israel’s Primary Narrative: The Torah serves as an introduction to the Bible, but especially to a narrative that runs from Genesis to 2 Kings.


Covenant: examines the content and shapes of the covenants in the Pentateuch and compares them with ANE treaties.


Law: considers genres of law and how they work, also looks at different law collections in the Pentateuch.


Origins: asks questions about how the Pentateuch came to be as we have it.


The purpose of the Torah: was it revolution and/or (re)construction of a community.


Theology of the Torah and the Theme of the Pentateuch: explores answers to the question what is the Torah/Pentateuch “about”.


Preaching the Pentateuch: invites consideration of what these ancient texts say to us today.

Which I think is more interesting and an improvement. What I’ll be really interested to see is if the blog post generates even a fraction of the helpful comments and ideas Facebook did.

Brian and Claude asked:: “Are Biblioblogs Dying?” and Are Biblioblogs Dying? Here is a test case. I have linked to both or them, thus attempting to put right one of the things they identify as a problem. Based on my recent experience, and in the light of my Tenth Blogiversary post, you may consider this a challenge :)

Wayback machine: Theological education and outdoctrination

Here’s a post from five years ago that I wish had generated more conversation… I wonder if it will this time ;)

Linking to Geoff’s “Creativity in Theological Education” post and then watching the brilliant presentation (in just 20 minutes) by Sugata Mitra the Indian “Hole in the Wall” man (on TED) “Can kids teach themselves?” has got me thinking (again) about how we do theological education the wrong way round.

[By the way if you have only heard about Sugata Mitra’s work it is well worth spending 20 minutes to watch the man himself, whether you agree with him or not, he is a fine presenter!]

He calls his suggestions “outdoctrination” because they are the opposite of indoctrination. In indoctrination a teacher who “knows better” tells a student the answers. Most theological education is built from the ground up on an indoctrination model. Teachers (or possibly the school boards who govern the teachers – quis custodiet custodes) decide the curriculum. They then decide how it is to be taught and how success is to be measured. Students then are fitted into this mold. Evidently, despite our efforts to steer clear of “imposing” our conclusions on students, this is indoctrination. After all, though we may seek to avoid imposing answers, we did impose the questions!

Why not a system designed the other way up. Start from real issues and situations and get teachers to asist students to learn what they need/want to approach these issues. There would be severe difficulties creating “suitable” learning outcomes, and perhaps worse ones working out how to measure them – but I suspect the real measure of success would be seen when students “leave college” and really start to learn!

[I suspect Dr Mitra, a professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle, thinks his work only applies to kids, and that adults are too far calcified in the cortext, but I wonder, humans have more capacity to make do and adapt, I believe that even “mature students” can still learn if we offered them “minimally invasive theological education”!]

What’s wrong with higher education?

Since I signed up as a MOOC student, I’m seeing MOOCs everywhere ;)

Clay Shirkey, always a provocative and often a prescient commentator has an interesting take on the state of higher education. His starting point is cost benefit. In the USA the cost of a basic bachelor’s degree rose 75% in the first ten years of this century while the income of graduates has dropped 15% (both figures adjusted to 2000 dollars). That’s hardly a powerful selling-point! In NZ a Statistics NZ report in 2007 found that already then “Debt [was] increasing proportionally faster than income”, this is not merely an American tale.

At this point, having established that bachelor’s degree study is under critical economic pressure Shirkey turns to MOOCs writing:

This is the background to the entire conversation around higher education: Things that can’t last don’t. This is why MOOCs matter. Not because distance learning is some big new thing or because online lectures are a solution to all our problems, but because they’ve come along at a time when students and parents are willing to ask themselves, “Isn’t there some other way to do this?”

MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree. Most stories have focused on the lightning, on MOOCs as the flashy new thing. I want to talk about the tree.

He points also to a changing student demographic, this may not yet be paralleled across NZ, but it is a familiar picture at institutions like Carey:

If you want to know what college is actually like in this country, forget Swarthmore, with 1500 students. Think Houston Community College, with 63,000. Think rolling admissions. Think commuter school. Think older. Think poorer. Think child-rearing, part-time, night class.

It is no wonder, given this context, that there is rising interest in MOOCs:

Though educational materials have been online for as long as there’s been an online, and though the term ‘MOOC’ was coined half a decade ago, it was only last year that they stopped being regarded as a curiosity, and started being thought of as a significant alternative to traditional college classes.

His conclusions run like this:

I’ve been thinking about the effects of the internet for a couple of decades now. I’ve watched industry after industry forced to renegotiate their methods and models, in the face of a medium that allows for perfect copying, global distribution, zero incremental cost, ridiculously easy group-forming: The music business. Newspapers. Travel agents. Publishers. Hotel owners. And while watching, I’ve always wondered what I’d do when my turn came.

And now here it is. And it turns out my job is to tell you not to trust us when we claim that there’s something sacred and irreplaceable about what we academics do. What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.

Sometimes we try to make ourselves smarter. We call that research. Sometimes we try to make our peers smarter. We call that publishing. Sometimes we try to make our students smarter. We call that teaching. And that’s it. That’s all there is. These are important jobs for sure, and they are hard jobs at times, but they’re not magic. And neither are we.

The competition from upstart organizations will make things worse for many of us. (I like the experiments we’ve got going at NYU, but I don’t fantasize that we’ll be unscathed.) After two decades of watching, though, I also know that that’s how these changes go. No industry has ever organized an orderly sharing of power with newcomers, no matter how interesting or valuable their ideas are, unless under mortal threat.

Instead, like every threatened profession, I see my peers arguing that we, uniquely, deserve a permanent bulwark against insurgents, that we must be left in charge of our destiny, or society will suffer the consequences. Even the record store clerks tried that argument, back in the day. In the academy, we have a lot of good ideas and a lot of practice at making people smarter, but it’s not obvious that we have the best ideas, and it is obvious that we don’t have all the ideas. For us to behave as if we have—or should have—a monopoly on educating adults is just ridiculous.

For background on the more cultural and less economic reasoning that led me to think similar but different thoughts see my:

Tim Bulkeley, “Back to the Future: Virtual Theologising as RecapitulationColloquium 37,2 2005, 115-130

What I did not quite factor into the discussion then was MOOCs. Now I must think about if or how they might change things…

Learning Creative Learning

I’ve signed up for the MIT’s Learning Creative Learning MOOC (Massively Open Online Course). There are apparently 25,000 of us, though at present it is all a bit confusing and seems slow to start. I’ll use posts here to reflect both on what I learn, and on the process. Since the first week got off to a somewhat shambolic and slow start this post will be mainly about the process.

The course is organised by the MIT Media Lab, and has onsite for credit students as well as us free and distributed hangers-on. MIT can probably not be blamed, but because1 I could not enroll automatically and because like many others I only heard about the course a few days ago,  I got the welcome email after the first live session was over.2 Not getting the email till this morning, and wanting to watch the lecture and do the required reading early in the process I have yet to really explore the G+ “community” or to discover what else I can (am supposed?) to do.

If this sounds a little jaundiced, it may be, because the introductory lecture was frankly boring for the first half hour or so. Fifteen minutes of faffing around, some with guy mumbling about whatever came into his head, while his associate sat beside him looking pretty but silent, then after some random shots of someone’s chest and a black screen, the main act appeared and he began to faff around in his turn.3 I guess the video was intended to give me a sense of a class with a teacher, and to inspire me with the importance of the material. It failed. It was a strong reminder that we seldom put enough thought into our first session, it’s a chance to achieve several significant things:

  • sell students on the importance and value of the course
  • explain how each week works, and show people where things are4
  • and (perhaps) begin to introduce some key concepts or information

The reading:

Mitchel Resnick (2007). All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten. ACM Creativity & Cognition conference.     

Did a good job of selling the Media Lab and some of their projects. I am keen to get on with the course. The outline promises: “At the end of every session, we will post more details to help your prepare for the next session and participate in the activities. The trouble is I have not yet found out where that information is :( So, it’s back into the jungle of G+ in an attempt to find out…


  1. Like many other people, to judge by the comments on G+, I wonder why their system was so fragile or poorly tested? []
  2. Actually I doubt I’d get up at 4am to watch a video that I can watch anytime, and apart from any private arrangements people may make the back channel seems slow and little used – there was almost no sign of presenters adjusting or responding to the audience. []
  3. I wonder who he was? Phill Schmitt and some others were introduced, but the star remained anonymous. []
  4. But remember to give them the details in a document! I still don’t have a simple course outline that lists important URLs and the reading list etc. together in one place :( []

The everyday spirituality of marking!?

Photo by liber

Back in 2004 on the 15th of November I was also bogged down in marking (is there nothing new under the sun?) so i posted this little gem:

Blame Steve Taylor for this post, that or the end of the year has finally got to me… But Steve’s post “everyday spirituality of ironing” which reads:
| One of the neat things about ironing,
| is the chance to pray for those who wear the clothes,
| in a whole range of life and work situations.
made me think of marking, it’s the boring chore that I do most often. Barbara does the ironing, I do the cooking (and I love cooking, little time to think or pray though – when the flame hits the pot!) I suppose I could pray while mowing, but that does not work as well, I’m no St Francis to pray for the Mynas and the Thrushes, or even the cats that prey on them!

But marking, like the huge pile of exam scripts on my desk right now, that I do lots of, and it is boring (largely, though with the occasional gem) and it needs breaking up… So, I’m going to try praying for each student as I finish their script!

Nice one Steve!

I did, and it worked well for a few years, deepening the experience of marking and enriching my prayer. it works less well now though since Carey (unlike the University) does not always show a student’s picture in the LMS when I upload the mark. I need pictures I can’t recognise who is who as well with just names :(