Monday, November 9, 2020

Andrew Harper: TheologyX Provides Greater Access to Theological Education for All

Today's post is written by Rev. Andrew Harper, Director of Global and Learning Innovation, Cliff College, UK. It is part of an occasional series on new, missionally-focused forms of theological education.

In May 2020, the International Association of Universities (IAU) published its Global Survey Report concerning the impact of COVID-19 on higher education around the world. The IAU canvassed four hundred and twenty-four higher education institutions (HEIs), representing one hundred and nine different countries. Their report paints a startling picture of how deeply the pandemic has affected institutions and teachers alike. Fifty-nine percent of HEIs reported the total cessation of all campus activity.

As one might expect, this has had a devastating impact on the delivery of student education: an overwhelming majority of HEIs (ninety-eight percent) replied that their teaching and learning had been affected in some way. It is also clear that students in the Global South suffer disproportionately compared to those elsewhere. Whereas eighty percent of European students will be given the opportunity to complete their exams, only sixty-one percent of African students will enjoy the same. Indeed, although ninety-seven percent of American and European HEIs reply that they have adequate communication infrastructures in place to keep their students up to date, that number drops to sixty-six percent for African HEIs.

TheologyX is perfectly positioned to respond to the global tumult caused by COVID-19 and to remedy the deleterious effects it has had on higher education around the world. Based on Open edX (used by nine of the ten highest ranked universities), TheologyX provides an online learning platform specially designed for theological education. Indeed, it utilises certain tools and features which help to overcome those geographical, financial and social barriers to learning exacerbated by the pandemic, especially in the Global South. Developed in partnership with Cliff College (Derbyshire UK) and the Methodist Church of Great Britain, TheologyX makes it possible to access theological education at a time when it might otherwise be out of reach and many theology departments in the West are adjusting to the peculiar demands of online pedagogy.

TheologyX’s digitalised curriculum makes it unnecessary to travel long distances just to learn, and its inexpensive programme of delivery eliminates the prohibitively high cost of entry associated with traditional forms of education – boons which stand to benefit believers in the Global South disproportionately more than students based in the West. To send an African student to the U.K. to obtain a theology degree at Cliff College, for example, would cost around $75,000. For the same amount, TheologyX can train thirty-three African students for an MA degree.

Of course, TheologyX wouldn’t be possible without accessible and affordable technology, funded by Cliff College as well as others. Participating colleges receive web cameras with built-in microphones and books on Wesleyan theology from Cliff College. In addition, TheologyX provides these colleges with a ‘Theo’ box – an intranet device which creates a local digital learning environment for up to fifty students using an internal data / Wi-Fi connection. Each box hosts the entirety of TheologyX’s digital theological library, and all the tools necessary to facilitate teaching at all levels. It provides the opportunity for users around the world to access global theological materials, no matter the user’s location.

Its library boasts diverse curricula covering a variety of subjects, with lectures often arranged in ten to twenty-minute "bite sized" chunks to accommodate best pedagogical praxis. The Theo box boasts dual SIM card slots which can be set up to facilitate further content, but – critically – it does not itself require an internet connection to function. Broadband is sparse in Africa, but almost every African has a mobile phone, hence why the Theo box is fitted to run on signal data. It is effectively a Bible college in a box, accessible to believers in diverse locations and from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

We are personally familiar with institutions based in the Global South that have faced lockdown and which have also seen their doors shut immediately in the wake of COVID-19. TheologyX has been able to step into this situation, providing a virtual learning environment that has equipped those institutions to maintain the same degree of rigour and depth of substance, but in a way that grants its students easy access to learning without them needing to be technically proficient. In short, we have had the privilege of helping institutions keep their doors open, albeit virtually. These institutions would otherwise have faced significant financial problems – potentially closing forever as a result, a tragedy both academically as well as for the local Church. In the meantime, TheologyX has given institutions the space to breathe and to reflect, providing a "sandpit" environment in which to play and create and see what might work in a post-COVID world.

And perhaps best of all, as colleges and believers across the world contribute to TheologyX’s online platform, we are teased with the exciting possibility of western learners bearing witness to the quality theological teaching and research coming out of the Global South. We hope TheologyX will thereby serve not only to bless and equip those in diverse contexts, but also to train and encourage those of us in the West with the unique gifts and perspectives found only in the Global South.

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