MOOC Divinity School

MOOC Divinity School January 18, 2013

Here’s a bit of futurism by one who is only guessing about the future of seminary education and, while I don’t think this will occur just like the sketch below, I do foresee a day when something along this line will become a genuine, if not disastrous, option:

At MOOC (massive open online course) Divinity School (Mooc-Div), the seminary of the online future, students will work with degree granting organizations (DGOs) to fashion a seminary education without ever stepping foot on a seminary’s campus, if a campus exists, or meeting any of their professors.

Here’s what could happen:

Students will ponder what kind of church or organization they will enter upon completion of their seminary degree, and in many cases the student will already be in their church or organization. They will inform that church or organization and ask for a list of required MOOCs and begin taking those courses at Mooc-Div. Online. At home. Rarely visiting a library. The church or organization will work with Mooc-Div to fashion a credentialing degree process.

The church or organization (parachurch ministry, NGO, teaching institution) will become aware of all the MOOCs available, will determine which lectures the students need to absorb, will write exams or assessments for each chosen MOOC, will grade and assess each course and, upon completion of the list of required MOOCs, will grant the student a degree.

Think about it this way: each of the major scholars on Jesus will produce, in conjunction with some production company, a course on Jesus. Say, J.P. Meier, Marc Borg, N.T. Wright, A.-J. Levine, Dom Crossan, et al. Or each of the major scholars on Paul, like J.D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, U. Schnelle, Seyoon Kim, Douglas Campbell,et al. No need to have ordinary schmucks producing courses when you can have the world’s finest scholars, and no reason to go to some ordinary schmuck seminary when you can attend Mooc-Div and take said SuperProfs (SPs) on all subjects in the Mooc-Div curricular offerings.

Some DGOs will determine their professors are what they want their students to hear instead of the SPs and so will produce courses for their vision, but students will gravitate toward the SPs, creating for the DGOs some tension. But Mooc-Div will be the default school because it will be the model for seminaries.

Ordinary professors (OPs), like yours truly, will become tutors in the old-fashioned sense. We will work for DGOs or for Mooc-Div itself, at reduced rates, to assess how the students in our DGOs are doing with their lectures. We will e-mail the students about their courses, perhaps in some cases Skype with them, but our responsibility will be to assess if the student is progressing in our own list of MOOCs. OPs will rarely need to lecture or teach in a classroom, reducing the size and costs of DGOs. There will probably be no reason for the OPs to leave home — ordinary professors can do all this from a computer at home. Administrators will hire and monitor their OPs and will work with their own list of OP’s about which courses in the Master MOOC Register best fit the expectations of the churches and organization where they place their students. Administrators of DGOs will also not need to leave home.

Maybe Mooc-Div is the megachurch, multi-site model taking hold in seminaries.

When this happens in the seminary, what will happen to local churches?

Maybe we should all calm down and think what will happen to churches if the MOOC model takes hold. Is Mooc-Div the next borg?

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  • Mark Edward

    Given my life status (work-from-home, stay-at-home dad, not living near any major seminaries, etc.) this actually sounds like a tempting idea. If this is something professors (such as yourself) don’t think is a good idea, what would be the best option for someone like myself, short of uprooting my family?

  • RJS

    On-line has some true advantages. The OP (Original Post or Ordinary Professor) takes it to extreme, but if there were reasonable courses available at a reasonable price with some confidence of quality I might try some myself these days – in the BTS areas.

    Seminaries have to adapt more than Universities I expect.

    Interesting comparison of Mooc-Div to the megachurch model.

  • Ian Thomason

    G’day, Scot.

    I’d suggest that whether such a form of pedagogy is successful or not will depend entirely on the standards required, expected and projected by said Seminaries/Colleges.
    In our day and age Distance Education is a fact of life. The internet, and with it the capacity to directly engage with one’s lecturers and fellow students in a virtual capacity is also a fact of life.
    Both the UK and Australia have long-established, fully accredited degree awarding institutions called ‘Open Universities’. Both nations also have theological colleges that specialise in Distance Education. I happen to be on the faculty of just such an institution in Australia.
    My experience of engaging with undergraduate students via DE over the past 10 years has been, on the whole, positive. Our students are presented with as rigorous a course of instruction as any, one that takes them (on average) eight years to complete through part time study. Our students meet the challenges that accompany comprehensive examinations, they engage in theological reflection, and they invariably prove themselves to be assets to the churches to which they belong and in which they minister (in a lay capacity).
    It would be a grave mistake to assume that learning by Distance Education infers that one doesn’t learn in community. Similarly, such a mode doesn’t mean that one can dispense with the need to regularly access theological libraries, nor does it imply that one can avoid engaging with others in dialogue and conversation. What Distance Education as a teaching method does provoke; however, is the need for institutions to be creative in ensuring that such learning experiences are available, achievable and utilised by students.

    God bless,


  • Nelson

    I have mixed feelings. Overall, I think the MOOC has promise because the cost of higher education has skyrocketed (as you showed in another post), so this might open things up to more folks. And it offers some possibilities to folks like me who have a full-time job and maybe want to take courses for interest sake but not necessarily pursue a degree.

    There’s also something to be said for live interaction/conversation. It’s one thing to listen to a SP-type person give a great presentation. But (maybe it’s just me) learning also involves discussing and debating ideas, exploring possibilities, interacting with others. I’m sure that’s possible through an online format, but live interaction is valuable. Would a SP participate? Not likely if their courses are widely distributed to large audiences. So maybe the key would be the quality of the so-called Ordinary Profs who might be engaging in the discussions/interactions.

    And, finally, we shouldn’t forget that those Super Profs started out as Ordinary ones before they became super over time. I wonder how that new approach would impact that kind of development.

  • Greg D

    This is very close to the same scenario that I myself used for seminary. I completed my graduate degree only through online/correspondence courses. Never once did I step foot into an actual classroom. However, I did correspond with professors, but never in person and only online. There was a large online library to which I could tap into for free resources. Namely the Christian Classics Ethereal Library ( But also, all of my textbooks were purchased online and mailed directly to my home. This seminary degree was required of me in order to meet the criteria to work for a parachurch organization as a church-planter/missionary. Furthermore, this organization did outline a few specific courses in the degree program that I was enrolled in. I completed my Masters in two years, all the while I was working full time, raising support, and being a husband and father to my kids. Online seminary is not only a reality, but vary relevant and convenient to the time we live in.

    If there is anything that I hope will change for future seminaries is this… that they will lower their tuition costs, which will hopefully become a reality now that full-time, on-site, professors are no longer needed. One of the primary factors in choosing online seminary was that I couldn’t afford on-site campus learning at Dallas Theological Seminary or any other neighboring seminaries such as Southwestern Theological Seminary. The average cost was $500 per semester hour. Versus the $100 per semester hour cost for online seminary. Huge difference, especially for those of us with families to raise.

  • Pat Pope

    Ugh…I wouldn’t necessarily want the church deciding what courses I should take. They may or may not share my passions.

  • Brian Hoffman

    I cannot speak to that model but will give my two sense on online education.
    Online seminary is not really the future, it is the present. We just need more schools to jump on board, or perhaps ditch ATS. I did 100% of my MDIV on-line through Liberty. I know everyone has their thoughts, but my education was priceless. “Rarely visiting a library.”… yup but who cares when you can buy LOGOS? Between Life Way and LOGOS I had everything I needed at my finger tips. This approach made way more sense to me. First, as I was going through Seminary I got together with some of the top leaders in my area. Perhaps not everyone has a “Virginia Baptist Mission Board” in their state, but VA does! This group of denominational leaders developed me while I was in seminary. Second, they put me in a church to learn under one of the greatest pastors in our area. I had the opportunity to work in church, be developed as a leader, still be close to family, still work full-time, and in my case I finished my obligation to the Army National Guard.
    Most people are scared to go to seminaries that are not ATS accredited. Why? Do not let ATS determine what God has called you too. Let God do the leading. What we need is more open seminaries. Liberty is accredited by SACS, good enough for me :). Lets see if other schools are open to working with students like myself… Northern? We will see soon enough.
    My advice for anyone going through online school…. GET PLUGGED IN WITH LEADERS! I cannot stress this enough. Do not just sit at home and do you work. Go to your state association. Perhaps not every association has men like John Chandler who are actually interested in the future of the church, but I am sure they exist. You may have to search, you may have to wait, but keep pursuing. While I was in school, I was getting my experience. It all paid off… I am now pastoring a church 3 months after I graduated from Seminary. Guess what? I did not have to move! I was plugged in this area, had recommendations from the top leaders, and had an education!
    Now I get to stay here and go through more leadership development through a program called “uptick” starting next week! I know I am blessed! God has done the leading. If I would have picked up and moved to Texas where I originally wanted to go to school I would have missed out on so much. I would have been under great professors, but I did not want to be a professor, I was called to pastor… So why not get your education, and then work for the top pastors (I did it for free mine you)? Seems to make sense to me!

  • A third and better alternative to on-line seminary: church-based theological education. Church as primary training institution, seminaries re-imagined as indispensable resource centers not the primary training center. This is not on-line distance teaching. It is in-service and embedded in the best character-forming organization ever invented, the local church. It is learning and outcome oriented, not teaching and input oriented. Check out , led by Dr. Steve Kemp formerly of Moody and Trinity Evangelical.

  • Brandon

    Scott, as a teacher studying to be an administrator in K12 education, I say lovingly to my older friends, I hope you had a good retirement plan. This is where it is all going…technically through ITunes U, anyone could craft this now if organizations got on board with the credentialing. This means that both undergraduate and graduate bubbles due to high expense, will have to continue to market furiously right before they burst. In K12 it is online schooling and unique Charter academies while the traditional public schools continues to have students that are mostly interested in socializing over learning and little discipline from home to boot. The future looks bleak to me not because online learning is opening up greater doorways to learning but because the value in human communication and the discipline of thought is being crowded out by technology faster than open access at reasonable rates. Thus, the cons seem to be eclipsing the pros, but the cheapest, fastest model is winning! The same is happening in the megachurch I am an active member in. The struggle once getting people pried away from the big screens is to get them beyond socializing to communicating and studying in real authentic community.

  • Michael

    Is this possibly just an old reality happening in new technology? Didn’t pastors in the majority worlds used to take theological training by extension with workbooks, tapes, etc? And the reasons were at least somewhat financially driven

    now we are entering a phase of more financial extremes in western culture and so mass “distance” training rises now in our culture both because we can and because we need to

    The landscape is definitely changing. I think you will see more bi-vocational pastors and theologians/professors because of these changing technological and financial realities

  • Rick in IL

    Gee, it’s a shame God didn’t wait 2000 years to send His Son… he could’ve done it digitally and skipped the incarnation! ; ) But he did become incarnate – and with that offered a model for us. If we desire to teach, we need to become incarnate to our students. If we want to do authentic ministry, we need to become incarnate. I remember a seminary classmates’ friend, who had attended Christian schools through High School, a well known Christian College, and was now in seminary. He envisioned for himself a ministry characterized by “winning the unsaved”, but he’d never really been incarnate to people who weren’t trusting Jesus. In similar way, I can’t feel encouraging about the virtualization of life. It is a life of being *in the flesh*. (Yes, I recognize the irony that I am making this comment online…)

  • You’re definitely a SuperProf Scot!!

  • Diane

    As someone who just completed an MDiv, I would like to echo the cost concerns of others. I took a few courses on line, as was allowed, but mostly took classes on site. I think the on-site portion was valuable. The on-line courses were good, but there is nothing to match face time and community participation. That being said, what marred my community experience–and I have thought very much about this–was the high level of financial anxiety most of my peers were experiencing. I was luckier than many–but still worried about the opportunity cost of this little venture–and I watched many of my peers, most in mid-life, going deeply into debt and being–I don’t how to put it–in a high state of stress about finding a job after graduation. Education should be paid for and it shouldn’t be a free ride, but as things are now, I think the cost issues are damaging the quality of education. It’s hard to concentrate when financial concerns rise too high. And I attended a seminary known for its lower cost and generous scholarship aid. Hence, I can understand the attraction of on-line education.

  • Juniper

    I’m getting a Master’s in Religion on-line. I would have liked to go to a brick and mortar but the cost was prohibitive ($500 a unit) and, having nearly paid off my loans from law school, I’m not anxious to jump on that particular train again. On-line probably isn’t ideal given the lack of in person interaction, but it can work especially if you aren’t part of a denomination that would require you attend and ATS school. For an older person like me, on-line education has been a gift and opportunity I did not think I would receive.

  • doug

    I have taught online distance education as an adjunct, and from my perspective, it’s not a model that works for every student. my students who tended to do well were highly self-motivated, organized, and disciplined- in other words, the kinds of students who would have succeeded in most academic situations.
    students who were not highly self motivated tended to struggle with the “hands off” program. also, it’s much more difficult to hit all the learning styles online- even when the “classes” were done via skype and dialogue style, not lecture format.
    there is no way i would trade my in-house graduate education for a distance model- nearly impossible to get the level of education and challenge in distance.
    however, the cost will become increasingly difficult. asking a young man or woman to take on undergrad debt, and then additional seminary loan debt, only to get a meager pastors salary is unsustainable. the best and brightest students will continue to move into business, finance, IT, engineering, sciences, etc. because that is the only way they can repay their loans.
    this too is unsustainable for the church. we need new models, likely church based education, and think hard about what it really takes to be a successful pastor.

  • Diane

    As someone who has seen it from all ends in the past few years: as a student, the parent of college students and an adjunct, I could write a book. I simply do not understand why the costs of education are so high, as colleges are relying more and more on adjuncts. One good counter model, however, to on-line education is the situation in which I teach, a lovely, small commuter school with an old fashioned brick campus, a satellite campus of a big state university. Most of the students are on Pell grants or some sort of aid–after that, most are paying 2-3K a year for their education, which most can afford through working part time. (Parents simply usually can’t help.) The campus is both affordable AND offers community, networking and face time in a way on-line can’t replicate.

  • Bob Smallman

    As someone who completed two seminary degrees back in the Neanderthal days (when I could do both without having any debt!) I am saddened by the loss of interpersonal relationships among both professors and fellow students that this model would entail. But it probably is the wave of the future and people will figure out ways to integrate relational and intellectual elements.

  • Piedmont International University has launched a new program that offers flexible graduate-level training at any church in the world. Pastors have input, professors ensure academic quality, lectures include talks from “SuperProfs”, etc. The details are better explained at

  • kent

    Ahhh Scot , in no universe could you be an ordinary schmuck. You would be without question one of the super profs or at the very least an extra-ordinary schmuck.

  • Scot,

    You are definitely not an ordinary professor. My life was changed from your teaching and time.

    That is what actually appeals to me about this model – to have all first rate teachers who are at the top of their field and good teachers. All of my education was uneven – some profs were experts but couldn’t teach; some where very personable but not on the cutting edge of their field; some were incredible communicators, and caring, and brilliant.

    What you get with the MooC model is great lectures but no personal interaction with the expert. Could work with the local expert, but how much time will they have? I benefitted greatly from being able to know my profs, even though that model is expensive.

    For community – I think it cuts both ways. If you learn on campus you are taken OUT of your church community. You get another community – a ministerial community, and that is good, but you are still taken out of your initial community.

  • metanoia

    I am currently the president of such an institution and we’ve been doing it this way (updating to make up for technology) for over 35 years. We are not ATS accredited but believe our standards would meet or exceed most of the seminaries I am familiar with and the theological schools (accredited) that I have graduated from.

    Our main benefit is that we absolutely tailor make the degree program for the specific situation the student is in. The student designs his degree, within certain parameters, and does all of his work on the field, often while engaged in ministry. After completion of a program, they are conferred their degree and can continue taking individual courses as their needs dictate.

    I personally mentor 20-25 students and am available for them in a variety of ways. Skype is a big part of our interaction.

    The future was yesterday. 😉

  • Diane


    I imagine you are not the ordinary schmuck–but I also hear that you are saying that many talented teachers could find themselves demoted. I think the 0n-line universities may be a fad, but the bigger issue is the affordability problems of higher education and the effect that will have on the financial well being of all but the most famous names in academe.

  • Bill

    Diane (#22),

    Off topic and needed corrective for language use.

    You need to be careful with your use of Yiddish as in using the word “schmuck”. This word means the same as “putz” or “schwanz”. It refers to the male sexual organ.

    Consider yourself informed and I hope you didn’t mean to call Scot a “di*^”.

  • Luke

    I just finished a hybrid degree and I have to say I loved my face time with my “OP”s. I had a few classes with recordings from SPs but honestly preferred actual class time. My best prof was an adjunct still finishing his doctorate, by no means an SP and barely an OP. So while online dominates today and will continue to grow due to cost, no alternative to personal interaction exists.

  • scotmcknight

    Bill, I’ll take credit for using “schmuck” in the common parlance in the post itself. Yiddish, schmidish, we’re talking English here, yougotit?

  • Glenn

    Scot, the number of people I know who are engaged in this model now suggests to me you are right on target. If one is already involved and respected in their church why leave to go to seminary? Why risk leaving when pastors will be more than happy to mentor the person as he/she serves in the local church while taking courses online? Besides, local churches are having a tough time getting the next generation to fill a growing void of “leadership” positions. Why risk having a seminary grad you don’t know come in to fill the slot and all the tension that comes with that when you can have a member do it? Of course I think the traditional seminary is an excellent way to go, yet many now say let’s train from within and online schools make that a reality!

  • Combined with mentoring from a pastor, the MOOC model would be ideal for a lot of seminary students. I took classes at a satellite campus of a Chicago-area Bible college; most of my classmates were working-class, in their 30s or 40s, with spouses and kids. The one real “college-age” student in the class wasn’t quite what I’d call mature. In my neck of the woods at least, few pastors and ministers believed they had any kind of calling or vocation until they had come into their adult years. That means they had a spouse, kids, house payments. . . all that stuff. On-site education for someone in that situation is problematic, unless he/she lives close to a college or seminary.

  • You are a little late in the envisioning process… this is already happening across the secondary educational level. Teachers are learning to become classroom mentors for online computer study labs. And online high school graduate degrees are already happening for students remitted out of the school system with no recourse to get back in. Approved online degrees, schools, and educational associations have already matured and grown in response to the public need for educational accessibility unprovided by the nation’s school systems (both public and private) that are failing to educate based upon innumerable reasons. Many primarily being the disorderliness of school discipline, harmful social behaviors and climate, drugs, bullying, and on and on. And given the high cost of obtaining a college degree (no less increased because of the added need of remedial course to help kids catch up with what they missed on the middle school/high school level) the costs and timeframes have become intolerable. Four years become six. Costs continue to rise astronomically. Along with food, housing, transportation, and life itself, and professors become further removed from their students through the process of impersonalized institutionalization interaction.

    America remains uncompetitive globally as a nation. Design, business entrepreneurship, industrial creativity and leadership, is so demanding that jobs/careers are becoming globalized within specialized circles of knowledge drivers. Nations are beginning to separate and specialize in individual fields of major endeavor because of the impossibly high amount of global information to digest for any one discipline (or person). Fields of inter-related study are beginning to separate from one another in response to specialization, and youthful candidates, though having more opportunity, are finding the constraints of massive knowledge impossible high to acquire without binding themselves to other socially interactive, common-mission, global groups, where each is learning to specialize in a given task.

    MOOC is but one instance of dynamic postmodern change to occur that will affect how nations (and local communities) must respond to the deconstruction of their older, modernistic (or is it monolithic?) structures. Power and knowledge is no longer in the hands of a few, but leveling out across a spectrum of organizations each tasking themselves with their perceived needs of their community, and the world at large. The profession of teacher will be no less insular than any other profession. Laws can become standardized. Medicine mobilized through technology. Computerization can create a new level of machine that can self-design, self-create, and self-maintain to meet the rapid pace of today’s postindustrial civilizations.

    Welcome to the 21st century. A land rife with change. Filled with public educational failure. And aspiring to address the needs and wants of civilization as it can in as decentralized, and efficient a manner, as possible. Public revenue is drying up at the tills of the public coffers. Unskilled employment is rising. And to maintain the moiling masses secondary pursuits will be offered to manage this Huxley-rian world of the future. And yet, throughout all runs the theme of opportunity. And I would suggest the largest of opportunities is that of developing accountable, responsible, civil relationships with one another. And everywhere imaginable. For to this world of Huxley the figure of Jesus will play as central a
    role to those knowledge drivers able to influence their communities in formative direction.

  • metanoia

    One final note. I pastored for 30 years, mostly in an urban environment. During my tenure as a pastor, I sent dozen of our young adults to Bible colleges and seminaries. The need for solidly equipped ministry leaders in the urban situation is critical. Most of our students did not return, and of those that did, the majority came back impregnated with a ministry DNA that did not fit the ministry environment or the vision of the church they were sent from.

    It is one of the primary reasons why I thoroughly enjoy the ministry I do now. Our students have a living lab in their churches and their pastors benefit from them while they are taking courses. Many are given opportunities to be in full-time ministry in their home churches when they graduate and often before. I am convinced that this is not a passing fad. As the “competition’ tightens, it forces those of us who have been doing it for a long time to invest in more creative and innovative ways to make our “virtual school” vibrant and relevant.

  • Really like this post. I’ve had three conversations with seminary prof’s in the last year in which the conversation eventually turned to this topic. During these conversations, I thought they were talking about how the seminary might change so that it has a future. However, I realized later that each one was actually talking about what the seminary must do to even survive in the present. Thanks.

  • Jon

    This is the exact same business model University of Phoenix is using to become one of the few profitable, affordable, and growing higher Ed institutions left in the U.S.

  • Alan K

    While sympathetic to the idea of Mooc, there are necessary formative elements to theological education that simply cannot be replicated in online classes. The space of the campus is critical to growth and transformation, which in theological education is often a disorienting experience. Could Mooc provide the adequate space for unlearning, doubt, and differentiating from the world and church culture that one inhabits? I’m not sure.

  • As I live further into pastoral ministry, and the internet age, there is much about the traditional seminary education I find laudatory, and much, by today’s standard, lacking.

    I am also more and more sure that actually following Jesus (and thus, perhaps, shepherding others in following Jesus) is a matter for us “ordinary schmucks.” at the same time, I hope to learn more and more from those who have graduated from schmuck-dom; so I deeply appreciate wider access to their work and teaching. I hope I can lead others toward the same.

  • Diane Reynolds

    Belately–and I am thinking about the satellite campus where I work–a lovely, small environment that only offers 10 majors. Students adjust–and perhaps the rigid walls around majors need to start tumbling down. That would be an excellent development as far as I am concerned!

  • Brian Roden

    Just saw last week where Danny Akin at SEBTS will have a MOOC on hermeneutics starting Feb. 1. They have it set up to be taken just for personal enrichment or with an option to convert it to undergrad or grad credit if one submits the assignments.