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November 3rd, 2010

Leadership and Influence Summit

I admit it: i’m a junkie when it comes to information about leadership and influence. Ultimately, my life’s productivity comes down to

  • what i can accomplish all by myself: that can be substantial, but there are always limits
  • what i can accomplish through others, which is effectively unlimited

So if you care at all about getting things done, i’d argue you need to learn everything you can about how to lead and influence others (along with motivating them, training them, equipping them, etc.).

With this background, i’m looking forward to the Leadership & Influence Summit. Rather than requiring the time and expense of traveling to a conference, this is a free virtual event. They’ve captured brief videos (6-20 minutes) from about 30 leading authors and speakers, several of whom i recognize as having material i’ve heard or read, or have been interested in.  From now through Nov. 15 you can access the videos at your leisure, and get a quick-take on this speaker’s message. This seems like a very useful way to overview a lot of speakers and materials, with links to more.

Disclaimer: you have to register, so they get your email address, and i expect they’ll use that to offer you other material and opportunities. I don’t know anything about the organization behind it. But this seems like an innovative approach to bringing together a great collection of material in bite-sized pieces.

August 17th, 2010

Skills vs. Education

Great piece from Michael Schrage at the Harvard Business Review blog: Higher Education is Overrated. Skills Aren’t. I’m no basher of formal credentials: i’ve even got a couple myself. But i too have been frustrated (multiple times) by computer science majors who aren’t effective programmers, to take one example.

His bottom line is that skills and accomplishment are really the coinage of business, and there’s no guarantee they follow directly from  formal education (valuable though it might be).

Some other quotable quotes:

  • “Knowledge may be power, but “knowledge from college” is neither predictor nor guarantor of success. “
  • “Treating education as the best proxy for human capital is like using patents as your proxy for measuring innovation”
  • “Academic and classroom markets are profoundly different than business and workplace markets. Why should anyone be surprised that serious knowledge/skill gaps dominate those differences?”
February 26th, 2010

Dynamic Textbooks

New York Times article: “Macmillan … is introducing software called DynamicBooks, which will allow college instructors to edit digital editions of textbooks and customize them for their individual classes.” That includes rewriting and deleting individual paragraphs.The effort is hosted at DynamicBooks.

This is yet another step in what Nicholas Carr has called “the Great Unbundling“, freeing the smaller bits of content embedded in print objects like newspapers and books to live their own independent digital lives.

It raises all kinds of interesting questions, some of which are addressed in the NYT article:

  • who controls the changes? (in Macmillan’s case, they claim to not control it, but also that they will “rely on students, parents and other instructors to help monitor changes” and remove inappropriate changes. And how do they decide exactly who qualifies as an instructor?)
  • how does this affect style? (from the article: “there’s a flow to books, and there’s voice to them”)
  • what about divergent points of view? (from the article: “if an instructor decided to rewrite paragraphs about the origins of the universe from a religious rather than an evolutionary perspective, <an astronomy author> said, “I would absolutely, positively be livid.””)

Macmillan’s choice to really put this out in the open is bold: i’m not sure i’d go that far. But i have no doubt that blurring the line of who owns the content is the direction of the future.

January 20th, 2010

Resources for Distance Education

My colleagues and I met yesterday with some folks from a seminary who are interested in setting up a distance education program. I did a few blog posts about this subject several years back when i was taking some courses toward a Masters in Distance Education through the University of Maryland University College. After moving to Logos, i didn’t continue in the program, but it’s an area i’m still very interested in, and most of those posts aren’t too relevant now (possibly excepting my brief reflections on whether the Apostle Paul counts as an early distance educator).

In our discussions, the question arose: what’s the one book you’d recommend we read to learn more about distance education? I don’t have an authoritative answer, since i haven’t kept up with the literature for several years now: probably there are better resources now that I’m not familiar with. But here’s my answer anyway, in case it’s helpful to others:

At the top of my list would be Distance Education: A Systems View by Michael Moore (not, not that Michael Moore). Chapter 5 is now made mostly irrelevant by the Internet, but otherwise it’s a good overview of the wide variety of issues that go beyond how you distribute content.

There are a few other titles, all with good content, though perhaps more academic and not as easy to read, or less broad.

  • Learning and Teaching in Distance Education (Otto Peters) is by one of the pioneers in the field (and therefore not completely up to date). My recollection is it focused more on the learning and teaching sides of the process, with less about administration and larger issues
  • Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media (John Daniel) focuses more on the role of technology in education, and has a good chapter on the economics involved.

Though it’s not about distance education per se, i’d also have to include Brain Rules by John Medina. This is a very approachable overview of some important findings in brain science and their practical application to every day life: why you should not talk on your cell phone while driving, how we remember and learn, the myth of multi-tasking, and so forth. It’s both engaging and good science, and i’d make it required reading for every professor/pastor/teacher.

January 9th, 2010

Connecting Christian History to Present Issues

Thanks to my scholarly wife, i receive the weekly Christian History Newsletter (at $12/year, it’s a bargain). One of the articles in today’s issue is entitled “Sasquatches, Unicorns, and . . . the History Assignment that Works“. The title alludes to the challenges teachers face in helping students connect their studies of the past to the issues in the church today. Chris Armstrong, the Bethel Seminary professor who authored the article, has found the assignment he describes to consistently produce high-quality reflection from students that helps them integrate their academic learning (in this case, a course surveying church history ) with contemporary Christian challenges.

Follow the link above for the details (they’re worth reading), but here’s an abbreviated outline:

  1. “Find a single issue in the church today that concerns you personally.”
  2. “Find a single historical crux—that is, a single document, single event, single person’s idea, etc.—from church history in which some version of that same issue emerges …”
  3. “Study that historical crux (document, event, person’s idea, etc.) by reading a balanced bibliography of primary and secondary sources …”
  4. Write a paper addressing the following three points:
    1. Describe your contemporary issue in detail, “… as if you were writing a brief editorial article for Christianity Today.”
    2. “… write a summary/analysis/interpretation of how that issue played out at your chosen historical crux.” (several important additional details here)
    3. Write a conclusion in “your Christianity Today editorial style”.

Does it seem crazy to suggest you write a paper if you’re not required to by some formal academic program?!? Maybe, but current research in learning theory strongly suggests you learn concepts much better when you write about them — writing for learning. So it’s not really about a grade for a course, it’s about your personal education (e.g. discipleship) in  what it means to follow Jesus today, based on knowing more about what’s happened in church history. This kind of writing is one of the reasons i blog: things simply stick better in my head when i take a little time to think them through and communicate them in writing. So you could always blog your response (if so, give it some distinctive tag like christianhistory so it’s more findable).

November 1st, 2009

Richard Baxter on the Need for Personal Study

I’ve been reading J.I. Packer’s A Quest For Godliness (in Logos), his attempt to reacquaint the modern Christian world with the works of the Puritans who have been so influential and are yet so little known.

A Quest for Godliness

This morning’s readings included some discussion of how Richard Baxter put knowledge ahead of emotion in his teaching: “first light — then heat.” To the imagined objections of his working-class congregation that ‘We are not learned, and, therefore, God will not require much knowledge at our hands,’ Baxter answers with several arguments (whose language i’ve updated slightly: the selection is by Packer) as to why laypersons have as great a responsibility as scholars to increase their understanding of God and the Christian life.

  1. Every individual should know that they are created by God, and the purpose of their life, as well as the way to individual happiness, as well as a scholar does. Do you not have souls to save or lose, as scholars do?
  2. God has shown His will to you in the Bible; he has provided teachers and many other aids; so you have no excuse if you are ignorant. You must know how to be Christians even if you are not scholars. You may find the way to heaven in English, even if you have no skill in Hebrew or Greek: but in the darkness of ignorance you can never find it.
  3. … if you think, therefore, you can be excused from knowledge, you might as well think you can be excused from love and from all obedience: for there can be none of this without knowledge… If you were as interested in the knowledge of God and heavenly things as you are to know your career or profession, you would have started learning it before today, and you would have spared no cost or pains until you had it. You think seven years little enough to learn your trade, and won’t spend one day in seven diligently learning the matters of your salvation.

and one closing comment:

If heaven is too high for you to think on, and to provide (prepare) for, it will be too high for you ever to possess.

Packer, J. I. (1994). A quest for godliness : The Puritan vision of the Christian life (70). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

May 12th, 2008

Collective Intelligence Applied to Biblical Studies

Collective intelligence is a broad term covering many cases where intelligence or novel information result from the collaborative activities of many individuals. Recent and well-known examples include sites like

  • Wikipedia, where people work together to create encyclopedia-like content
  • del.icio.us: i label (or ‘tag’) web page content, and others can look at my tags, or lots of people’s tags, to find things of interest.
  • slashdot, digg, reddit, and similar sites that collect votes on the interest of web pages and then ranked the pages by popularity

Though more popular perhaps in the last few years, these kinds of approaches have been around for some time. Google’s dominance of web search, arguably the current “killer app” on the internet (along with email), comes from a kind of collective intelligence. Their PageRank algorithm uses the number of links to a page from other web sites to estimate how important the page is, and assign its rank in the results you get back from a web search.

The interesting question to me is how collective intelligence might be usefully applied to Biblical studies. There have been a few projects in this area, though i think it’s fair to say they haven’t yielded too much yet. I’ve written a few posts (here, and almost 2 years ago here) about applying “Web 2.0″ ideas to Bible study. YouVersion is perhaps the most promising of that bunch, but it still doesn’t collect nearly enough intelligence to really be different (meaning that the scale is too small, not that the comments are too stupid :-) ).

Another interesting set of data come from the ESV Bible Blog, where they analyzed their web searches to identify the most popular verses in the Bible. This provides some well-grounded analysis of people’s actual behavior (which is always better than guessing what they do). But as such it’s still just data, not information or knowledge (more about that in this rather conceptual post about the difference between data, information, and knowledge). In other words, how do we apply this data to do something new and different when it comes to Bible study?

Here’s one example collective intelligence project i’ve pondered (though i haven’t yet found time to actually construct it): identifying parables in the Gospels. We have numerous sayings of Jesus throughout the Gospels that use stories, allegories, or other metaphorical language to make a point. Some of these are explicitly described in their context as parables: for example, Mark 4:2 tells us

And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them …

We conventionally refer to the story that follows in Mark 4:3-8 as “the Parable of the Soils” (or, perhaps less appropriately given the focus of the story, the Parable of the Sower). However, other stories with the same character aren’t explicitly called parables in the text, or are labeled as parables in one gospel but not another. In fact, the Greek word parabolÄ“ (from which our word parable is a straightforward transliteration) doesn’t occur in the Gospel of John at all, though several of the teachings recorded there have a similar style as parables from the Synoptic Gospels.

If you consult the various Bible reference works, many of which contain lists of the parables of Jesus, you find a great deal of disagreement as to which passages are and are not parables. Not surprisingly, this also reflects divergence of opinion as to what ought to be considered a parable: only those instances where the term parabolÄ“ is used? Those as well as parallel stories? Any kind of figurative language? Wilmington’s Book of Bible Lists lists 38 parables of Jesus (several of which occur in multiple Gospels): the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible lists 40; Harper’s Bible Dictionary has only 26 (plus a few others found only in the Gospel of Thomas).

Here’s a good candidate for applying collective intelligence to a real issue in Biblical studies: what should we list as a parable? You could approach it like this:

  • Identify the entire set of candidate passages that anybody anywhere has considered, or might consider, a parable (and maybe throw in a few others as a control group)
  • Create a web site where people could log in and simply vote up or down on each passage: Parable or Not?
  • Along with their votes, each participant should record their criteria for voting
  • Participants could also log in as proxies for existing reference lists or scholarly authorities and enter (as votes) what Wilmington, Dodd or Jeremias called a parable.

I’d think at least 100 participants would be required to make this exercise in distributed Biblical scholarship meaningful, and some might turn their noses up at the thought of letting unwashed masses have an equal say with the scholars. But wouldn’t this be an interesting exercise? In particular, rather than “the list” of parables, it would give us the basis for a distribution of opinions: for example, 95% might agree that Mark 4:3-8 is a parable, while perhaps only 10% would label Jesus’ saying about the vine and vinedresser (John 15:1-17) that way. And the criteria might provide some interesting clusters of votes. I’d love to add this kind of data to the Composite Gospel. In fact, that’s what started the idea: i sat down to label the parables, and quickly realized this wasn’t a straightforward task.

Additional resource: The Horizon Project is one product of the New Media Consortium that “charts the landscape of emerging technologies for teaching, learning and creative expression”. In my view, seminary education as well as pastoral preaching and teaching belong among this target audience. The Horizon Project produces an annual report on what’s here now, coming soon in the mid-term, and on the far-term horizon (3-5 years). Collective intelligence is one of their far-term horizon technologies: you can read more about in the Horizon Report.

April 25th, 2008

Unbundling Biblical Studies

A recent series on the Britannica Blog is discussing Newspapers and Net, starting with an excerpt from Nicholas Carr’s book “The Big Switch” called “The Great Unbundling”, and then followed by Clay Shirkey’s response. Here’s my brief recap (though both posts are worth reading in their entirety):

  • The Web has drastically changed the economics of newspaper publication, as more and more services become available for free (Carr)
  • Unbundling is a given: what parts of the newspaper industry are worth saving? (Shirkey)
  • Investigative journalism is the part that the Free Internet Economy can’t necessarily replace (Shirkey)

Newspapers aside, much of this discussion is also relevant to Biblical studies, particularly the academic market for seminary-level textbooks. Like the traditional newspaper, academic publication currently bundles together a variety of services:

  • Overview and orientation to a subject, which requires enough breadth and experience in the field to know which parts to select
  • Selection, synthesis, and summary of existing research, which takes a broad range of previously published information and extracts the most relevant parts for students. This also involves filtering out information that’s out-of-date or biased (or perhaps contrary to the author’s tastes)
  • Original research by a textbook author that can’t be found elsewhere, as well as their own opinions and perspectives
  • Instructional design: the best textbooks organize their material in a way to make it easier to learn, using educational best-practices like defined learning objectives and advanced organizers

Traditional textbooks aren’t likely to go away any time soon (though the market has experienced many of the same economic pressures as the newspaper industry). Some of the services described above are moving to the web and becoming free goods: for example, Wikipedia now provides overview services for a wide variety of subjects, despite intense discouragement from much of the teaching profession.

At the same time, the distance education field has long stressed that specialization of roles provides many of the same benefits for the educational industry as for manufacturing and other activities. In particular, the scholar who is expert in a field and producing original research may not be the best choice for instructional design.

If you take as a given that academic publishing must change to meet the new realities of the Internet economy (i do), which parts will become essentially free goods, and which parts will continue to require a high level of professional competence. Even more importantly, assuming some of these services can’t be easily replaced, what are the new economic models that will provide the required compensation for them?

December 28th, 2007

XO Laptop Give One Get One: Only a Few Days Left

One of the exciting technology developments of 2007 is the low-cost XO laptop designed to make networked computing available and affordable for children in developing countries. If you’re a techno-geek, you’ll be amazed at all the features they packed into this device for less than $200 (hardware specs). And if you care about proclaiming the Good News to the poor (Luke.4.18), you won’t have a hard time understanding that the XO could provide a wonderful opportunity to make the Scripture available to some of the world’s neediest children. No, technical gadgets won’t meet basic needs like food, shelter, clean water, and safety (so please keep giving to those causes). But in the longer term, it could provide part of the solution to moving from survival to sustainable development.

The One Laptop Per Child association has a clever plan to jumpstart XO donations (as well as publicity). Under their Give One Get One program, you pay the cost of two laptops ($400 plus shipping): one is donated to a child in a developing country, and one goes to the child of your choice (which often means the big kid/geek ordering it). You get a tax deduction for the donated laptop, as well as an opportunity to learn first-hand about this exciting technology (check out this video review of the XO by David Pogue of the New York Times: he demonstrates its durability by tossing water and dirt on it, then dropping it on a rock!).

Give One Get One ends Dec. 31, so skip the after Christmas sales and give a child an XO instead. Some Bible content is already available for the XO: Tim Bulkeley is also thinking about how it can be used for sharing audio Bibles (see xobible.org for more details). Tim says that BibleTime will also run on the XO (though i couldn’t find more information on their site).

October 19th, 2007

How (not) to Write A Sunday School Lesson

Suppose your pastor asked you to lead a Sunday School class studying some passage (just to make it concrete, i’ll pick one: Malachi 1:1-5), and asked you to create a curriculum for the class. What would you do?

(Go ahead and think about it … that’s okay, take your time, i’ll wait … )


My guess is you’d do one or more of the following:

  • Carefully study the passage in question yourself (i hope you’d do that!), maybe making some notes
  • Read a few commentaries to learn more about the passage, and maybe the background of the book
  • Look around for any existing study guides, or check out SermonCentral.com (which in this case would give you 49 sermons to steal learn from)
  • Think of some questions to to get people to think about the passage, what it means, and how to apply it
  • Write out some observations on the passage, some questions, and maybe some resources for further study

(You’d probably be clever enough to do a few other things as well.)


Here’s what you probably wouldn’t do:

  • Define what is to be learned, through
    • Needs analysis: what is the problem, and how do we solve it? (in general, i.e. why hold Sunday School at all?)
    • Task analysis: what is the job or content?
    • Instructional analysis: what must be learned?
  • Specify how learning will occur (design an approach) through questions like
    • What are the objectives?
    • How will we know if the objectives are met?
    • What instructional strategy will achieve the objectives?
    • What media and methods are most effective?
  • Develop instructional materials by
    • deciding what they’ll say
    • evaluating the look and sound of media
    • evaluating whether the materials meet quality standards, and whether the students will learn from them
    • seeing if the materials can be improved
  • Teach the class (implementation)
  • Determine the impact of the instruction by asking questions like
    • Have we solved the problem?
    • What is the impact?
    • What needs to change?

(Yes, that was an ambush.) The preceding outline (taken nearly verbatim from the introductory chapter of Making Instructional Design Decisions, by Barbara Seels and Zita Glasgow) describes “the generic instructional design model”. In a nutshell, instructional design is about deliberately planning and developing learning materials to meet objectives.
So here’s my point: why don’t we (you and me alike) think about learning and Sunday School like this?

Some bad answers:

  • Sunday school is a spiritual thing, and whether anybody learns anything is all up to the Holy Spirit [perhaps true in some ultimate sense, but it's a cop-out: you wouldn't be happy if your pastor used this rationale rather than preparing sermons]
  • This is a secular model of instruction [why should the Devil have all the effective approaches to learning?*]
  • Hey, people don’t come to Sunday School to learn, they come for the cookies and fellowship! [then how will you teach them to obey what Jesus commanded (Matt 28:19-20)?]
  • Nobody will remember this lesson by the end of the football game this afternoon anyway [maybe that's because we don't take learning and curriculum seriously]

and some more reasonable (but still unsatisfactory) answers:

  • Our own experience provides (limited) models for how Sunday School works, and we unconsciously adopt them [time for new wineskins! (Luke 5:37-38)]
  • Thinking about these questions is hard, time-consuming, and sometimes requires expertise we don’t have [fair enough: maybe somebody else should be helping to create the curriculum, and we should definitely be sharing things that work well.]
  • Hey, i’m just trying to help out because the pastor asked me, i’m no Bible scholar![it's good that you're honest, but don't you want to serve your family as best you can? (Col 3:23-24)]
  • I’d gladly work on curriculum to accomplish our objectives, if i could just figure out what they are.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, and raised a lot more questions than i’ve answered. But this last psuedo-answer — what are our objectives? — seems like the heart of the matter, and i think there’s plenty of room for the church to take its mandate of Christian discipleship and education much more seriously. The starting point (for further study after today’s class) is analysis: what is the problem Sunday School is attempting to solve, and why do we want people to go there in the first place? I don’t think easy answers like “growing in knowledge of the Word” go nearly far enough.


* Larry Norman notwithstanding, Luther never uttered the famous line “why should the Devil have all the good music?”. That quote apparently came from a sermon by English preacher Rowland Hill in 1844 (see Bartlett’s Quotations: it was actually “good tunes”). What Luther did say, however, while in a similar spirit, was also relevant to the topic at hand:

I am not of the opinion that all arts are to be cast down and destroyed on account of the Gospel, as some fanatics protest. On the other hand, I would gladly see all arts, especially music, in the service of Him who has given and created them. I therefore pray that every pious Christian would be pleased with this [the use of music in the service of the gospel] and lend his help if God has given him like or greater gifts. As it is, the world is too lax and indifferent about teaching and training the young for us to abet this trend. [Luther's Works: American Edition, vol. 53:316, cited here: emphasis mine]

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