Kairos Series: CBTE As a Platform, Pt. 2

December 21, 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). Last week, I shared there are three aspects of a platform that are important to understand: the operational or business model, the power structure, and the educational philosophy. We began by going over the operational or business model. Today, let’s explore power structures in a platform.

Power Structures in a Platform

At times, seminaries have tended to extract rather than to add value for others within the system of theological education. Our approach to theological education tended to assume a certain level of competition, a certain “rightness” to how we did things, and a certain institutional nature of theological education. As a result, our power tended to extend into every aspect of a student’s educational journey. We tended to privilege one context or standards of excellence over all others (usually our context). Over time, power became more and more confined into the hands of a few aspects of the institution, and those are the aspects we tended to preserve at all cost. While our work as seminaries is extremely valuable, one could argue that, when we take this conventional approach, the value of a seminary doesn’t extend very far into the broader church.

Platforms invite us to think differently about power. Rather than seeking to control every aspect of a participant’s interaction, platforms seek to empower both participants and creators by giving each significant levels of power that were once reserved for a few.

For example, when Apple created the first iPhone, it also created every single app that could be used on the phone. It controlled every aspect of an individual’s interaction with the phone. Doing this allowed it to control the look and feel of every single tap and swipe on the phone; to control what people could and could not do on the phone; to control the path people took to accomplish tasks on the phone. When it turned and created the iOS platform, it lost control of most of those things. No longer could it control the look and feel of everything (that is why some apps look great and work well and others are terribly designed and don’t function). No longer could it control the path people took to accomplish tasks. Adopting a platform approach empowered 1) the people who used iOS to have control of what apps they used and how they used them and 2) the developers to have control over what apps they built and how those apps functioned.

Interestingly, when it adopted a platform approach, Apple’s control diminished but its influence increased. By focusing on hardware (the actual phone), Apple gave away a lot of control and power including the tools developers use to make apps, the ways they share them with the world, and the means by which financial resources are shared across the platform. In turn, Apple gained an opportunity to be part of a larger community.

In our experience, when we focus on thinking of theological education as a platform, we see the same things happen. Our approach in Kairos invites us to give away a lot of power and control while, in turn, allowing us to be part of a broader community – one that participates in what God is doing in and through the Body of Christ. For theological education to function as a platform, we must embrace what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:9, “we are coworkers in God’s service.”

In practice, that means we move from thinking of voices outside the walls of the seminary as “contributors” to thinking of them as “creators.” Currently, the opposite is true. The power dynamics of modern higher education tend to reinforce, rather than breakdown, walls. These dynamics exist within a structure that hears and attends to particular voices while other important voices are marginalized. As a result, power is held within and wielded by those who have historically been heard, therein reinforcing walls and a tendency to impose their privileged context. And power protects itself and stays confined within the institution.

CBTE invites us to be coworkers. In this power dynamic a multiplicity of equal voices is present, and the platform empowers those voices to create fresh expressions of integrated learning. In short, we move from having one group of people decide what should be created and displayed to distributing the power and privilege to create art and to put it on display. In this paradigm, Kairos focuses on the process students and partners use to define, evaluate, and affirm proficiency (the “hardware”), the tools developers use to invite students to participate in their fresh expressions of theological education, and the means by which financial resources are shared across the platform. In doing so, the authority and influence we have is rooted not in the fact that we are an “institution” or “faculty” or “administrators” but rather in the relationships we have with students, participants, creators, partners, mentors and developers. This collaborative relationship leads to the educational philosophy that must be in place in order for Kairos to function as a platform for, rather than a place of, theological education.

Come back next week when we talk about the third aspect of a platform, the educational philosophy.

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