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I am currently defining a project to develop an international partnership of theological educators working to create a learning objects database and an adapted software course creator tool.  This online resource would provide materials for the theological curriculum at various levels, available to institutions and to individuals, which would enable institutions to offer courses that they do not have the expertise or resources to mount themselves, and to support students in areas where the institutions cannot provide teaching centres, libraries, and so forth.  Assessment, quality control, and the means for accreditation/ validation would be addressed and built in.  Ideally, funding from various grants would enable the creation of the resources and structures; once up and online, the ‘TheoWeb’ would be a non-profit, self-sustaining entity.  We would begin by providing learning objects which have already been (at least partially) developed in the partner institutions; other materials could be commissioned as needed.  While upfront development costs are high, once the resources have been developed, the units/courses could be provided at a very reasonable cost per student.  Tutoring could be provided, but the structures should be designed to enable local tutors to provide student support.  Thus it would be appropriate for places where there is great need and demand, but little infrastructure and less money.  At the present time, I have contacted people in two Canadian theological colleges, where there is much interest in reaching people scattered across remote areas, and a number of people in various African institutions.  If we are able to secure funding, these institutions would participate in the development and piloting of the project, along with the University of Exeter. 
























































































This sketch was originally written to help us define the project for funding grants.   

There will be three parts to the electronic infrastructure of the TheoWeb project: 

  • On the one hand, an online public database of ‘learning objects’ – all sorts of learning resources, focussing particularly on reusable chunks of information intended as building blocks for larger resources (lessons or modules); these objects include text, audio, graphics and other related multimedia materials.  Complete modules might be included, although the database is not intended to provide online modules, but rather to give users the opportunity to create modules appropriate to their needs and suitable for their contexts.  The database will be accessed with a sophisticated search engine designed with context, learning outcomes, and scope and sequencing tools to enable the users to adapt the materials to their needs.
  • On the other hand, an open source online learning environment built to enable effective use of the learning objects, which could be downloaded to any computer system, whether individual or institutional, and which would then provide the platform for organising and using the learning objects.
  • For advanced research, a repository of digitised content not otherwise available to enable scholars and other interested individuals to work with materials that would otherwise have required them to travel to the places where the original documents or artifacts are held.  Allowing digitised content to be held in the TheoWeb database would enable the institutions who own the materials to have access to the entire searchable database worldwide, thus facilitating access to content which may be fragmentary and/or held in several institutions to be viewed in one place.

The organisational and financial infrastructure of the TheoWeb project is even more important.  We hope to find a model which will allow           

  • TheoWeb itself to be self-funding, and able to fund its own growth and any necessary administrative and technical costs;
  • TheoWeb to be able to support financially the creation of new learning materials for the database, and to allow such materials to be created, uploaded, and maintained as simply as possible;
  • Participating institutions to make use of materials submitted by other institutions, with quality control guaranteed through a system of refereed vetting and professional editing of a particularly high standard;
  • Students to locate a wide range of institutions able to offer them value-added modules and programmes based on the learning materials in the database;
  • Individuals to access materials at appropriate levels for their personal learning or research needs.

Since the TheoWeb is intended as an online library of resources designed for  research, teaching and learning in theology, it would provide the informational building blocks for educational use.  To facilitate usage, it would make an open source platform available to institutions and individuals to download and use themselves, if they needed it.  TheoWeb would not run the modules, collect student fees, give credits, or do any of the other administrative responsibilities which rightly belong to the institutions providing theological education. Rather, the institutions would access the materials, tools and platform, but take responsibility for creating the modules suitable for their own programmes of study.  If an institution required technical support in the creation of teaching materials using TheoWeb resources, that might be supplied, but the infrastructure and support for the modules created remain the responsibility of the institution.  TheoWeb, as a not for profit organisation, is committed to providing an educational resource free to individuals and at the lowest possible cost to participating institutions.  

The TheoWeb framework might include something like the following possibilities: 

  • An institution might make use of both the database (with its search tools) and the platform in order to create and offer a module to students registered for courses leading to certification and attracting a tuition fee; the fee for the subscription would be set on a sliding scale related to the fee income the module would attract. 
  • An institution might also make use of the resources provided to create materials to supplement existing course provisions, for example an interactive online website with materials in addition to those provided in the face to face environment.  This use would be allowed under the subscription.
  • In either case, TheoWeb would retain ownership and copyright solely for electronic rights on the materials in the database (in the form of ‘learning objects’ with their associated metadata).  Institutions would retain ownership of the modules as constructed, and individual writers contracted to provide learning objects would retain other copyright (primarily to allow the writers to publish print resources incorporating the information in the learning objects if they desired to do so).  It is not our desire to control nor to limit the other uses of the intellectual property represented in the database.
  • Institutions might provide templates of modules created with TheoWeb resources, so that other institutions might find ‘off the peg’ modules to use in cases where they wish provide their students a wider programme than they can manage; in that case, the materials would be available through TheoWeb for the usual fee, but a fee might also be payable to the institution which created the module for any tutoring support provided.  We would expect that the syllabi of the modules be provided without a fee, as is the case, for example, in the AAR/SBL library of syllabi.
  • Potentially, the database might be able to provide cross referenced information regarding taught modules related to materials in the database, so that students having located learning materials according to their personal interests would be able to find where modules appropriate to their needs might be offered.
  • TheoWeb, funded by the fees mentioned above, would be able (as well as paying for its own maintenance) to offer individual consulting fees and institutional grants to develop online learning materials.

If possibilities like these and others are to be fostered, we will need to develop structures to deal with quality-control, copyright and other legal issues related to intellectual property, cooperation between participating institutions, international and intranational APL structures, long-term upkeep of the materials, and so on. 

The domain name TheoWeb.org has been registered through Verisign.


Story: 1






































































































































The TheoWeb Story: Part 1  

I woke up one morning in July (02) with the idea that there ought to be a way to create reusable teaching materials in the form of learning objects with a powerful search engine designed to create lessons according to level, subject, aims, and so forth.  Colin Harrison of IBM had spoken to our Research Workshop of their work with this technology and building databases, six months or so before, and suddenly it all came together for me.

I made an appointment to have lunch with William Richardson,  my line manager and soon to be head of school, and we talked about the possibilities.  He was excited about the idea and encouraged me to go ahead with it, and at the same time to attempt to find funding for another project on theology and the web.  

I began by contacting friends in two theological colleges in Canada, asking if they might be interested in participating in such a project, and when they responded positively, I wrote a brief paragraph explaining what I wanted to create, in order to attract other potential partners or sponsors.   Soon I had a number of names of people and institutions who were interested, and I began trying to build a network. 

The Partners

In retrospect, I understand that there are at least three ways in which people might be involved in the TheoWeb.  First are the Partners in the pilot project, institutions with a need for materials and technology who would be able to work to create the database and use it.  I wanted to have institutions in various parts of the world, with different resources and challenges.  Beginning with my Canadian contacts, in Newfoundland and in Saskatchewan, and then turning to Africa.  A Canadian friend from Toronto, now working in the US, had spent a number of years teaching in Africa and is a specialist on African New Testament scholarship.  Through him I was able to contact several African institutions, and two more partners were added to the list.  At home, Exeter was the lead partner, with interest from the local ordination training course which has been using the online theology course we have developed.  Other UK institutions are not so far along in their adoption of web-based training.  Having contacted  all of the institutions who provide theological education, I discovered that none is as far along as we are, and that only one other, the University of Durham, is nearing a commitment to development.  So we began the autumn term with six or seven interested partners and a brief description of the project. 

The relations between me and the Partners vary, depending on how well I know the people involved.  The easiest contact was with the South West Ministry Training Course, where I had taught for 5 years.  The principal, David Hewlett, was quite happy to be included in the pilot, without feeling a need to have Council approval at this stage.  We remain in touch because of the relationship he has with Theology SW, the body that has funded my research for the past 18 months, and so an informal ‘keep me posted’ attitude is possible.  However, he has just taken a new post, as principal of Queen’s in Birmingham, and so a new relationship will have to be forged with the new principal of SWMTC.  On the other hand, David’s role in Queen’s may well mean that they are able to move in this direction sooner than they otherwise might have done.  I doubt that they will be Partners in the pilot project, though. 

The two Canadian Partners grew out of long acquaintances.  My first contact was with Walter Deller in Saskatoon, where he is head of one of the theological colleges.  I have known Walter in Toronto over a period of ten years and worked with him while I was in the Diocese.  So, with that background I was able to email him a brief description of what I was doing, a website address to look at our online Bible course, and the offer for him to work with me if they were interested.    He responded that they were very interested.  One of the problems facing heads of schools is that the cost of putting up an internet course is Cdn $20-30000 (up to £12000), and ‘at that rate duplicating (efforts) is craziness’. 

Walter included the names of several people doing distance education in the cluster of colleges there.  Particularly, he suggested Bill Richards, a New Testament scholar I had met when I was studying in Toronto, who has a ‘very good intro to early Christian literature up and running.’  Also, Bill Harrison, a systematician, has a course on Dorothy Sayers with email interaction with the students, and Beth Marie Murphy is working on a liturgy module.  Walter’s concern was that with limited resources ‘we need to set a limit to what we offer and tilt it more towards pre-theology and very intro to theology studies,’ and he commented that he was ‘not convinced that it is the ideal long-term way to form effective theologians and leaders.’  

Shortly afterwards (Nov. 1), I received an email from Bill Richards, Walter’s designated contact person, saying that they had discussed the draft I had sent Walter in detail with the faculty.  They are ‘definitely interested in participating, as it would help us out with the “flexible learning” opportunities we are trying to offer people on their way to joining us for the residential part of our degree programmes.’  In addition to the modules Walter had mentioned, Bill noted that there was also a course in Ethics, and one being prepared in Old Testament.  There will be a new Church History course, but it has not yet been adapted for the web.  They feel a lack in offerings in OT and Church History most. 

The faculty questioned the structure of the TheoWeb, as I had suggested a board like that of an academic journal to do quality control, and he wondered whether TheoWeb would hold copyright to the learning objects.  He also wondered if the Canadian partners should be approaching funding bodies there, particularly the Anglican Foundation. 

On the Atlantic side of Canada, in Newfoundland, Boyd Morgan, a personal friend of ours, has been Provost of Queen’s College in St. John’s.  This college is a part of Memorial University.   Boyd responded to my email by saying that he was ‘very interested in pursuing your ideas in distance education.’  For a number of reasons, particularly since we thought that we might stop in Newfoundland during our trip to Toronto in November, I phoned Boyd and we talked about the project.  He is quite happy to be a part of the project, but Queen’s is in a certain state of flux at the moment, since Boyd will be retiring in June and a new Provost/Dean will be coming on board.  The search took place in November while we were in Canada, in fact.  Moreover, Boyd would like a new faculty member, arriving from Wales in February, to be our contact person, and so we have not yet had much information from them.  Like all the other partners, he was concerned about the cost of the project to the college, and about how it could be used, particularly to provide materials for local groups across Newfoundland and Labrador.  Because of the distances and weather, Newfoundland has better IT infrastructure in place, so while they are remote, some problems of distance education using the web have already been worked out. 

I wanted to include some African partners in the group, and since another friend from Toronto days, Grant LeMarquand, is a specialist in African NT scholarship and has lived and worked in Africa, I contacted him for leads.  Grant responded (Aug 2) quickly with a list of people, including Stephen Noll in Uganda, Esther Mombo in Kenya, Teresa Okure in Nigeria, and Gerald West in South Africa.  He forwarded my letter and his own response to all of these people, with the comment that he was ‘sure that all of them would be interested in what you are doing.’  Grant is interested in the project himself and would be happy to ‘chip in on the conversation.’ 

Of the four people Grant mentioned, I received responses from two.  The first to respond, and immediately, was Esther Mombo, the Academic Dean at St. Paul’s United Theological College in Kenya, where Grant had taught.  She simply said ‘I/we would like to participate in the project: please send me information and what part you would want us to play.’  In November (Nov. 7) she followed up to say that she was sharing the information with other colleagues, and again in December (Dec. 16) she wrote to say that they were happy to proceed, with Joseph Galgalo as a second contact. 

The second response from Grant’s list was from Gerald West, who thought TheoWeb sounded like ‘a very interesting proposal.’  He invited me to have a look at his institution’s website and to ‘feel free to probe!’  And so I did.  Gerald himself is also a graduate of Sheffield University’s doctoral programme, although several years before I came to the UK.  I followed up (on Nov.2), and he responded (Nov. 4) with two ‘important concerns’.  The first was a lack of personnel ‘to gather and organise the kind of resources we would like to see on TheoWeb.  We are not interested in Euro-American packages on their own.  Would there be funding available to contract someone to work at our end on this?’  I responded that TheoWeb is not a package, but is instead a database with a search tool using open course and open source ware to the extent that we can.  I also emphasised the importance for TheoWeb to have materials from various contexts throughout the world, ‘so that students and teachers have direct access to thinking and teaching that differs from what they would ordinarily find.’  And I wanted to reassure him, and all our partners, that ‘we are not in the business of trying to close discussions down, but rather in making it possible to open new dialogues in ways that have not been possible before.’  I let him know that we were looking for funding that would enable partner institutions to pay staff to develop the database, and I asked him to designate someone in the institution to be our contact. 

Gerald’s second concern was the financial cost to the institution to use the resource we create.  They ‘have little prospect of being able to pay a regular fee; in fact, our University would discourage us from entering into any venture that looks like a fee-based distance learning product.’  He added the clarification that ‘Nationally, our government has prohibited residential universities from getting into distance learning.  So the only way we could envisage using this resource would be as a supplement for our students to existing programmes.  This would be a useful resource, but we would not be able to ask students to pay for it.’ 

Gerald was slated to give a paper in Toronto, so we agreed to meet and talk further.  We discovered our Sheffield connection at the annual dinner for alumni, and we had a chance to talk during the reception which followed.  Interestingly, he commented that seeing me and talking with me (face to face) made the difference for him.  He could see that I was the kind of high energy person needed to bring a project like this off.  Since he is (in my opinion) an even higher energy person than I am, I took that as a very positive beginning.  We agreed to be in touch again after the Christmas holidays. 

I had contacted Harold Attridge, the Dean of Yale Divinity School, where I did my theological training, to ask if YDS might be interested in being a partner.  I was particularly interested in having access to the library and to the expertise of the library staff.  I had met Diane Goldenberg-Hart at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in 2001, and was very impressed by her skill and interest in web-based learning programmes.  I was not able to meet with Dean Attridge in Toronto, and Diane was not there this year, so that remains a lead to follow up.  As it turns out, her post is funded externally and the funding will end in Oct. 2003, so she is quite interested in seeing what might happen with this project.  In an email message to me (Nov. 2), Dean Attridge mentioned that there might be ‘complications in our involvement in such a project since Yale is part of a collaborative arrangement with Oxford and Stanford to develop on-line teaching resources.’  He did, however, forward my letter to him to his library staff. 

Story: 2


A second 'Quarterly Report' will be posted here shortly.




©2003 TheoWeb