When Jon Craton enrolled in an online class on artificial intelligence last fall, he was just one of 160,000 students—a far cry from his previous experience at Taylor University. At the Christian liberal arts school in Upland, Indiana, 59 percent of classes have fewer than 20 students.
But his AI class, taught by Stanford University's Sebastian Thrun and Google's Peter Norvig, was the first course of its kind—a massive open online course (MOOC) offering expert-taught, elite-level classes free to anyone. Now, other leading institutions are jumping on board, launching MOOC platforms such as Udacity, edX, and Coursera.
Christian colleges are embracing MOOC elements as well, though many schools remain concerned about sacrificing the benefits of in-person learning communities.
Dean of online learning Jeff Groeling says Taylor hopes to integrate MOOC elements into its existing 150 online courses in ways that stay faithful to its Christian commitments. "Christ discipled people face to face," he said. "Granted, tech didn't exist then; but we're trying to follow Christ's model."
Students' in-class experiences often set Christian schools apart from competitors, says David Nystrom, provost at Biola University in Los Angeles. The school recently launched Open Biola, a MOOC-style platform that offers archived classroom content for free.
Nystrom says Open Biola, which differs from the school's for-credit online courses, embodies Jesus' teaching of "disinterested goodness," or giving without expecting anything in return. "We are doing this because we think that there's material here that could be of benefit for God's work worldwide," he said.
Other schools embrace a different vision. Liberty University, whose 82,000 online students make it the largest Christian university in the world, plans to expand internationally. But provost Ron Godwin said the school "[has] bills to pay" and does not plan to "give away education" or incorporate MOOCs.
Scott Hines, CEO of World Education University (WEU), plans to launch one of the first MOOC schools this fall. Although WEU is not affiliated with any religion, Hines, a pastor's kid raised in the instrumental Churches of Christ, says its social justice mission aligns directly with the teachings of Christ.
"We are not necessarily feeding the poor or giving them shelter," he said, "but we are certainly giving something to those in poverty without asking anything in return."
However, as Taylor's Groeling points out, Christian transformation often happens in person-to-person interactions. He says the principle of large, online classes contradicts the school's emphasis on Christian discipleship. "[We've] really tried to understand the role of online in relation to the residential," he said. "[But] it's hard to get any farther away from an incarnational perspective than to have a class of 160,000 students."
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