December 14, 2020
by Greg Henson, President
Over the past few weeks, we have been talking about the principles and practices of competency-based theological education (CBTE). In my last article, I asserted that if we combine the principles and practices of CBTE we can create, “a platform on which an array of discipleship journeys can be built.” Before we dive into the various principles and practices, I think it will be helpful to talk about what I mean when I talk about a platform. There are three aspects of a platform that are important to understand: the operational or business model, the power structure, and the educational philosophy. The first two aspects are true of most platforms. The last one is particular to how Kairos functions as a platform.
This week and the next two weeks, I will review these three aspects of a platform—starting today with the operational/business model.
The Operational/Business Model
The contemporary conception of a platform tends to be related to software or technology. One could argue that the evolution of the software platform has significantly impacted the trajectory of technological development. As Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do, writes, “The most successful enterprises today are networks . . . and the platforms on which those networks are built.” Uber, AirBnB, iOS, MacOS, Windows, Instagram, Netflix, Amazon–all of them are platforms.
I could spend a lot of time trying to explain the nuances of a software platform. Instead, let me share a brief explanation from Ryan Sarver. He explains why Apple’s creation of the iOS platform, the software that runs the iPhone, created such a stir. By becoming a platform, they enabled developers to build applications that would make their devices more valuable to users, thus selling more devices. As more devices were sold, it created more revenue potential for app developers, thus drawing more developers to iOS. This created a very powerful network effect that drove growth on both sides of the business (developers and users) wherein development on one side directly benefited the other. In essence, a platform enables everyone in the network to progress toward stated goals relevant to his or her context.
In perhaps more simple terms, a platform is a system built around the interaction of people, businesses, institutions, etc. who create resources that are used on the platform (let’s call that group creators or developers) and people who use or participate in those resources (let’s call this group users or participants). For Uber, that means the drivers are creating resources (cars that are available to be rented) and passengers are the users or participants who engage with those resources. Uber’s role is to steward the interactions between those drivers (the creators or developers) and passengers (the users or participants).*
Imagine with me, then, a system of theological education designed to be a platform. Rather than a seminary thinking of itself as a place where students must go and a place from where they must be sent, the seminary would serve as a connector between students and their vocations, learning experiences and their participants, learning experience creators and their sojourners, and/or vocational contexts and their needs.
As a platform, a system of theological education creates value for students by allowing them to engage in learning that is informed by their contexts and vocations. At the same time, the system of theological education works with partners who can walk alongside students. Such a system creates value for everyone involved. The role of the seminary, then, is to steward the creators and the participants.
As a result, more individuals engage in theological education because they are able to connect to something that matters to them and be shaped in the crucible of real life. Likewise, ministries, businesses, kingdom-minded partner organizations, and mentors become a network to serve a growing and diverse group of students. The platform builds value for every part of the network. That is to say that “all ships rise” when the tide of the network rises. Students have more access to transformational journeys of discipleship that are informed by their vocational needs and contexts (rather than apart from them), while those who are invested in developing followers of Jesus have new ways to engage and interact with people who value those resources. In this approach to theological education wherein the school is a steward of a platform rather than the sole provider of educational content, formational experiences, and practical tools, the school must come to grips with a new power structure – one that seeks to inform a way of being.
*Disclaimer: I am very aware of the fact that all kinds of arguments can be made about how well any platform stewards its role, users, and creators. Some think Uber doesn’t steward drivers very well, others think that Facebook doesn’t steward participants or users very well, and still others think iOS is an impenetrable fortress of control and power. There are all kinds of wonderful, theological, ethical, important, and needed conversations that could be had regarding any software company’s stewardship practices. That is not the point of this article. I am simply trying to show how a platform works.