Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Ideas for Blended Learning in Teaching the Bible

In spite of my earlier, somewhat pessimistic, discussion of Humanities-related MOOCs, I come to the end of this program with renewed excitement about the possibilities of engaging mass online audiences with good teaching.  I am in the process of developing a proposal for a blended-learning program on steroids, a class that combines an in-class component with a (more or less) massive online auxiliary experience. Below are the details of the idea, and some questions that I still face.

This fall, I have followed a MOOC on the New Testament book of Ephesians taught by Jimmy Dukes at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. NOBTS has developed an interesting strategy in which participants can take the course for credit (paying a tuition fee), not for credit but for a grade (free), or not for credit and not for a grade (also free). Details are here: http://www.nobts.edu/OnlineSeminary/free-online-course.html. The Ephesians course was based on Blackboard as a platform for course materials and online discussions. The students who enroll in the course for a grade are put into small groups, with each group being responsible for two exegetical reports throughout the semester. Each week, one group submits a report for the next section of Ephesians, usually 10-15 verses, with a detailed set of instructions for the form and content of those reports. The grade is based on discussion engagement and on the group reports.

The strengths of this model compared with the Coursera courses that I have taken are the integration of different categories of students along with a robust model for group collaboration. This has helped me think about the possibilities of a blended approach in my own context.

The Bible and Ultimate Meaning

I teach multiple sections of Religion 111, The Bible and Ultimate Meaning, each year. It is a basic introduction to the biblical tradition with a focus on key issues and topics, examined across the canon. For example, the first two weeks is a discussion of the theology of God in the Bible (Old and New Testaments) and in conversation with the Western Christian and Jewish Traditions. We go from there to discuss Creation, Covenant, Justice, Messiah, Wisdom, etc. The class presumes no religious background or commitment from students, and is a very basic introduction.

One of the issues that students engage with regard to each topic is the contemporary landscape of religious debate. What do modern Jews and Christians have to say about "God" with regard to issues such as religious pluralism, institutional religious practices, modern scientific skepticism, etc. We read blog posts and watch YouTube videos as windows into these modern conversations.

It occurs to me that if I could somehow get a large and diverse group of people actually conversing with the students on these topics, it would enhance their engagement with and understanding of the contemporary debates. If students had to present their ideas not only to me and their peers, but to a wider outside audience, it would sharpen their argumentation and promote clear expression.

At the same time, if I could somehow make my academic expertise and the excellent contributions of my students available to the larger community, it would enhance the public's understanding of the biblical text and improve the nature of religious debate on the internet. In other words, could my teaching somehow translate into a contribution to the larger world of "public intellectual" engagement?

A Blended MOOC

What would be the advantages and disadvantages of teaching a regular section of Religion 111 while offering a Bible and Ultimate Meaning MOOC at the same time? My idea is that the regular class would be "flipped" or "blended," with the majority of content provided through readings, videos, and audio clips. As in a normal "flipped" classroom, students would spend class time in conversation and working in groups, with much of their work taking the form of online content (blog posts, wikis, discussion boards, video productions, etc.). The recorded content as well as student projects would then become part of the MOOC experience, with online participants engaging each other, the students, and me in conversation through the discussion board and through their own assigned work.

One pivotal question is what kind of platform would provide this kind of interaction. The NOBTS program uses Blackboard, and students must log in to view and use the materials. At Furman, we could open a section of Moodle to anyone who wants to sign up, though there may be technical limitations due to authentication requirements. My preference would be for an open platform that was viewable by anyone and that would persist beyond the course, essentially a media-rich blog and discussion forum devoted to the course. That is a major technological challenge, but if it were set up once, it could be used by others.

Disadvantages and problems:

  • A flipped class is hard to administer even on its own. Integrating a MOOC element would make it doubly challenging. Administrative support in the form of a TA would be essential.
  • Students may feel reluctant to make their work available on a wider basis. This exists with online projects already, but students do not normally receive external responses to their work even when it is posted online.
  • The classroom is a safe space for students to explore difficult issues. Would this kind of online engagement be a detriment to open, honest engagement? Would it polarize students rather than encourage them to consider new ideas?
  • Is it even possible under current FERPA law to expose graded student work to the public in this way? The grades themselves would not be public, of course.
  • How "massive" could it realistically become, and would a small number of online participants make the same contribution or receive the same benefit?
  • Biblical interpretation is a controversial subject. Would this program open up the class to more dissension, or even cause PR problems for the university? 

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