I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague over lunch today. We were talking about the future of Theological Education and the role of seminaries. (But we could have just as well have been talking about the role of traditional Universities.)
iTunes University and other similar tools make it very easy to share world-class lectures. But that’s only part of what’s involved in getting an education. There’s the issue of mastering the material, not just consuming it. And then there’s the issue of demonstrating mastery.
A professor at Wheaton College, Alan Jacobs, talks about this very question in terms of “credentialing” – or giving a student some sort of imprimatur that tells the rest of the world that the student is now the master.
Jacobs writes of how Universities are going to have to unbundle the services they provide:
“But now: unbundling. Clearly, many universities have come, or are coming, to the conclusion that their primary product is the credentialing, and that they can give knowledge away either as a public service or as brand consolidation (choose your interpretation according to your level of cynicism). Those 160,000 students may have learned a great deal about artificial intelligence, and the successful ones received a “statement of accomplishment … sent via e-mail and signed by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig.” But in announcing the course the instructors were careful to note that the “statement of accomplishment … will not be issued by Stanford University.”"
Read the rest here.
The problem is particularly acute in theological education. We’ve effectively funded theological education for the past four decades by asking mid-life students to cash out the equity in their homes and use that to subsidize their and younger student’s educations. But the equity disappeared with the recent housing price collapse, and with it the business model of most of the seminaries in the Mainline denominations.
So how do we do education now? Perhaps by using freely available online education materials and asking local diocesan tutors (perhaps centered around diocesan cathedrals) to facilitate regular discussion and seminar classes on the material; not unlike how Community Colleges are using the free lectures being provided by MIT and Yale. The students get the best lecture material and they get the classroom discussions. Good!
The problem is certifying that the student has mastered the material in such a way as to be able to assure another diocese or congregation that the student is ready to be hired outside of the training diocese.
In the Episcopal Church we’ve used the General Ordination Exams to do some of that, but lately there’s been a great deal of dissatisfaction with the exams on the part of seminaries and dioceses. (The sense I hear is that the GOE’s are becoming quirky in what they’re testing.) I wonder if it’s time for the Episcopal Church to have a conversation about rethinking the GOE’s and the work of Seminaries so that working in concert they can manage the issue of certification.
If clergy are going to take on the rabbinical role in the community that is being increasing expected of them, we probably need to be moving in this direction.