Editor\’s Note: This article describes a new program, free course offerings, and how a small Catholic college approaches it differently than larger universities. If you are at all interested in higher education in Catholic theology, this article will be welcome news. A new, free, course is scheduled to begin on Ash Wednesday. Be sure to read to the end.
Small Colleges and Massive Open Online Courses
The first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offered through Holy Apostles College & Seminary launched in the fall of 2012 and brought together 64 participants – including a former Air Force officer and pilot, a Dominican Sister, a retired air traffic controller, high school teachers, guidance counselors, professors and deans – from all across North and Central America to create a massive learning experience, despite the relatively small enrollment.  To bring this about, Holy Apostles College & Seminary partnered with two major enterprises – the Catholic Distance Learning Network of the Seminary Department of the National Catholic Educational Association and the Edvance360 learning management system.
A Barque, Not a Ship
Even with these partnerships, it seemed that the college was a small barque trying to sail into an ocean navigable only by the larger ships of places like Stanford and MIT. Each of those schools was able to register over 160,000 students for free into a single course (the “massive” part of the label) that was, for the most part, largely automated with participants themselves answering one another’s questions. What Holy Apostles was aiming for, though, was not quantity but some quality in the offering that it made. It is a small college setting, and the kind of community that Holy Apostles advances is one that is intimate and highly collaborative in terms of the relationships faculty seek to foster with their students.
The attempt of Holy Apostles to launch a MOOC, then, resonates with what W. Joseph King and Michael Nanfito have written about the value of small colleges when considering “how they can use MOOC technology to continue creating and sustaining their collaborative tradition.”  They further argue, “Take the ‘massive’ out of ‘massive open online course’ and you have a course delivery program/support model highly useful to liberal arts colleges for outreach and engagement.”
Size, in this case, really does not matter – what matters is the attention given to cultivating a community of learners regardless of the content that calls them together in community. A small school promoting a learning community that contains far fewer students can have a higher retention rate as it shepherds, even pastorally, a larger remnant of them through a learning process that will help them advance their life goals.
But retention isn’t really the gold standard here, either. The gold standard is relationality. After all, why retain people in a MOOC if the organizers aren’t going to find some meaningful way to relate to them?
Why Flexibility Matters
According to The MOOC Model For Digital Practice, “it is the relational and role-based aspects of the MOOC that are perhaps the greatest departure and adjustment for course participants. Schooling trains us, even in spite of progressive pedagogies, towards a relational status quo where power and knowledge still in here in the role of teacher.”  The HACS MOOC was developed around this relational approach that fosters collaborative learning. The course was designed so that participants share their experiences and ideas from which everyone can learn. The former air force pilot has something to teach, for instance, to the current theology professor. This happens in a MOOC, in part, because the assignments help participants design activities for the courses they teach and allow a trial run with fellow MOOC-mates before those activities are used with live students.
This approach allows people to learn from the instructor and fellow participants. In this setting, the instructor serves in a facilitatory rather than in an authoritative role. This relational approach also lends itself to pivoting in slightly different directions depending on student backgrounds, interests and abilities. For instance, in our MOOC we reorganized the discussion groups as the course went on not only in response to the shrinkage that happens in any MOOC, but also in response to the interest in different tools and methods that was sparked by the students as they got into the material. When the post-secondary theology professors wanted to work in a group all by themselves on the Teach Research Design modules, for instance, we regrouped them to enable them to do that.
Sink or Swim?
More than its simply pursuing a higher retention rate, then, the small school can actually provide a service to help its learners advance in specific areas of the careers they are at the moment of their enrollment pursuing. The larger MOOCs, while designed to foster collaboration among the students who register into them, are primarily content-specific in a way that advances a student’s understanding of part of an academic or practical discipline, like MIT’s “Circuits and Electronics” course. Courses like these have to be predicated on the sink-or-swim model since at each exam one demonstrates that one has or has not developed a working understanding of the material. It does not matter how collaborative the students are with one another from one exam to the next if any given student is not able, on his or her own, to demonstrate competency within each module at the end of it.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that Rebecca Rosen, a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, observed that Stanford, with around 160,000 registrants in its first MOOC, had only a 20% completion rate while MIT had only a 4% completion rate in its first course and UC Berkeley, to toss in another example, had only a 7% completion rate.  She explains, however, that we should not worry about this since “the low rate of success is a sign of the system\’s efficiency.” With the bar set so low for entry and the standards raised so high for success, the merit-based MOOC proves its sea-worthiness precisely because of its low success rates.
Or Better Maneuvering?
Perhaps, though, we can do better, not only in general, but also in particular. Better for the work-at-home mother with a master’s degree she achieved online who wants to one day teach online herself but needs the credential in online teaching and learning to make a credible case for herself at her first job interview with the director of an online undergraduate program. Better for the full professor at a theological school in the south who understands his school is moving in the direction of distance learning following the 2012 Biennial Meeting of presidents and rectors of the member schools of the Association of Theological Schools where the accrediting body abolished its residency requirement for academic MA programs. Better, that is, for people with specific needs or interests who want to succeed but need the relationality that only small schools (and small MOOCs) know how to provide.
Perhaps, then, we can measure success not through our high dropout rates but through, like King and Nanfito have suggested, our focusing on the methods of collaborative engagement that smaller institutions do best. Small barques can often outmaneuver large ships, after all, as the English navy demonstrated in 1588 when it was confronted by the Spanish Armada and, with a little help from Divine Providence, perhaps, routed the invader and won the day. This time, though, it is a little Catholic barque setting sail in waters where much larger ships are already taking up a lot of space that may help establish the bar for MOOCs being implemented by theological schools – and partly because it is producing better returns in two areas:
1. In the first area, Holy Apostles College & Seminary saw a 25% completion rate of its fall 2012 offering of the CDLN’s certificate in Online Teaching and Learning. It saw a 50% completion rate of its fall 2012 offering of the CDLN’s certificate in Teaching Research Design. The numbers it enrolled were far fewer than those in the mega-ranges – there were only 64 enrollments in the OTL MOOC and only 16 enrollments in the TRD MOOC. These smaller numbers enabled the MOOC director, Dr. Sebastian Mahfood, OP, the MOOC instructor, Mr. Jason Braun, and the design team at Edvance360,  who provided free use of its learning management system and ongoing technical support for the MOOC participants, to readily respond to the learning needs of the participants who had the opportunity to talk to one another and to ask the MOOC organizers questions at any time.
2. In the second area, Holy Apostles College & Seminary focused on specific needs of secondary and post-secondary educators in terms of helping them advance their abilities in online teaching and learning and in teaching research design to the students with whom they were concurrently working. Even if the secondary and post-secondary schools are not yet pursuing distance learning initiatives, the technology and pedagogy that the course demonstrates provides the teachers with skills and dispositions useful in their face-to-face teaching and learning environments. Many teachers, furthermore, understand the frustration of not feeling adequate in the step-by-step articulation of how to go about teaching students how to design their research projects, so the second MOOC provided that service, and it did so with one set of modules specifically targeting secondary school teachers and another set of modules specifically targeting post-secondary school teachers.
For the Student
In short, what Holy Apostles College & Seminary focused on was providing a specific credential, which gave learners a certificate of completion (along with Continuing Education Units if they were Catholic school teachers) that would have the effect of immediately advancing them a couple of significant steps in their careers.
In the spring of 2013, Holy Apostles College & Seminary, having learned a great deal from its first experience, once again offered this MOOC, and persons interested in registering for the two certificate offerings may do so at the website, which also provides a full description and course syllabus. As an added bonus to attract people who would rather have simply a spiritual journey, Fr. William Mills, professor of sacred scripture in the Master of Arts in Theology program at Holy Apostles College & Seminary, has developed a MOOC entitled “A Lenten Journey with Jesus,” which will begin on Ash Wednesday and conclude with the Resurrected Christ on Easter Sunday. For persons interested in experiencing low-stress and high-dividend courses, Holy Apostles College & Seminary, in partnership with the Catholic Distance Learning Network and Edvance360, may have the right offering for you.
 See http://www.hacsmooc.cc for the full description of this Massive Open Online Course, which was, in the fall of 2012, divided into two parts – one on Online Teaching and Learning, designed by Dr. Mary Beckmann of the Catholic Distance Learning Network, and the other on Teaching Research Design designed by William Badke, associate librarian for Associated Canadian Theological Schools and Information Literacy at Trinity Western University, Langley, BC, Canada. In the spring of 2013, a third part is going to be offered that will provide a spiritual journey. It is entitled “The Lenten Tour of the Holy Land,” designed by Fr. Bill Mills who teaches sacred scripture at Holy Apostles College & Seminary.
 W. Joseph King and Michael Nanfito, “To MOOC or Not to MOOC?” Inside Higher Education, November 29, 2012, Available online at http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/11/29/essay-challenges-posed-moocs-liberal-arts-colleges
 Alexander McAuley, Bonnie Stewart, George Siemens and Dave Cormier, “The MOOC Model for Digital Practice,” 2010. Available online at http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/MOOC_Final.pdf
 Rebecca Rosen, “Overblown-Claims-of-Failure Watch,” The Atlantic, July 22, 2012, Available online at http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/overblown-claims-of-failure-watch-how-not-to-gauge-the-success-of-online-courses/260159/
 Among the folks from Edvance360 (located online at www.edvance360.com) who provided assistance were Cathy Garland, Vice-President of Marketing and Sales, Nicole Iovine, Project Manager, and Susie Snow, LMS Trainer.