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Three innovative educational models

What do stackable credentials, MOOCs leading to a micro-masters, and practice-led research have in common?

Surprisingly, quite a bit.

In early August ATS hosted the first of a set of video conferences designed to assist innovation grant recipients in their work and possible collaboration. The Association had awarded 58 innovation grants in June to schools exploring a wide variety of topics and educational models. Originally planning a get-together of all the grant recipient schools in the fall, ATS staff decided that a more efficient and effective process would be to group the projects by type of work and topic and host small groups of project directors and others through video conferences.

Many of the groups fell naturally into categories, such as those with a global focus, those employing online educational technologies, a group engaging forms of competency-based education, and one made up of schools developing programs to serve Spanish-speaking populations.

After forming the groups, three funded projects remained unassigned: Pacific School of Religion’s plan for stackable credentials, the development of a micro-masters program featuring MOOCs by Boston University School of Theology, and a doctoral program at McMaster Divinity College based on practice-led research. We put them together, and it turned out that theirs was the first video conference on the schedule.

The level of engagement and learning was surprising. The goals for the conversation were to provide some additional information from ATS about what we expected from the grant recipients, to reinforce timelines, and to respond to questions. We also hoped to enable participants to share wisdom and raise questions that would help move the projects along. We were not sure whether and how it would work with a group this diverse, but everyone involved was pleasantly surprised by the substance of the conversation and the creativity it generated.

Boston University School of Theology is using the Harvard- and MIT-developed edX platform and the BU Digital Learning Initiative to group four MOOCs that can be utilized by students in three ways: free access for those simply interested in the topic; payment of a $49 fee for a certificate verifying completion of the course, with a micro-masters for completing all four; and completing the MOOC with additional work to receive master’s level credit. More than 6,000 students from around the globe enrolled in the first course, Ethical Leadership: Character, Civility, and Community, taught by Professor Walter Fluker, with nearly 100 persons paying the certificate of completion fee, and more than 30 on-campus students taking the enhanced course for academic credit.

Approved by ATS and offered as the Doctor of Practical Theology, McMaster’s practice-led research doctorate places emphasis on robust research similar to the PhD, but also emphasizes basing research on ministry practices as the DMin does. As the grant proposal puts it, “Practice-led research is not simply study that is based upon practice, but uses practice to lead to new theoretical understanding. Practice-led research originates in practice and interfaces with interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary intellectual domains to produce new pathways for knowledge and effective practice.” The program is attracting a range of students including professionals in other-than-ministry vocations and those interested in combining the worlds of activism and the academy.

PSR’s plan for stackable credentials utilizes a three-year curriculum with each year providing a coherent and complete credential and possible end point for theological studies. Year one leads to a standalone Certificate of Spirituality and Social Change, or a Certificate in Sexuality and Religion. Adding a second year of study allows students to complete a Master of Arts in Social Transformation, while continuing on for a third year leads to the Master of Divinity degree. The stackable credential model enables non-traditional students to reach a milestone at each stage of their education, step out of the educational process for a time if necessary, and return to their education at a later time. The different entry and completion points serve PSR’s constituencies well, both those who are Christian and heading toward more traditional ministry roles, and the Christian and non-Christian students for whom employment will include a broad range of roles.

Each of the program directors in the video conference spoke about the challenge of helping faculty, mostly trained in traditional PhD programs, adapt to less familiar educational language, processes, and methods. All three programs are designed to reach non-traditional students: leaders needing more integrated theological education and hoping to utilize practice-led research, students from around the globe who need access to quality theological education, those who can use innovative ways to connect with theological study, and students whose vocational plans are not entirely clear but who could benefit from theological education designed to build on previous work and allow completion of studies at a variety of possible end points.

Each program is creative and adapted to the needs of the school’s constituencies. Each has promise of innovative and effective approaches to theological education and challenges to overcome. They are remarkably different, and yet the program directors identified important connection points.

Summaries of each program are available on the ATS website:

Boston University School of Theology--MicroMasters in Religious Leadership MOOCS

McMaster Divinity College--Practice-Led Research

Pacific School of Religion--Stackable Credentials

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