Hofstra Horizons

Taming the MOOS: Massive Online Open Seminars in Religion

Phyllis Zagano, PhD, Senior Research Associate-in-Residence and Adjunct Profesor of Religion, Hofstra University

in the Spring 2015 edition of Hofstra Horizons


Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) have become popular in many fields of study, and a large conversation regarding their educative value is developing. Courses often carry credit, follow standard progressions of academic inquiry, and require both course work and assessment. The majority of these courses are in scientific and practical fields; very few touch on religion. The professional debate about the value of these courses continues, especially relative to the humanities and social sciences. The author here presents the results of an experimental noncredit Massive Online Open Seminar (MOOS) on a narrow body of knowledge within religious studies. The MOOS was not specifically designed to fit within a standard curriculum but rather was offered for the large numbers of persons worldwide interested in the topic. Approximately 300 persons from five continents registered for the seminar, with 292 remaining throughout, demonstrating that the relative success of specific online events can depend on the topic under investigation.


Hofstra has a robust online presence and offers many distance learning courses for credit, especially during summer months, and the Department of Religion occasionally contributes to these.1

The developing body of knowledge regarding online education argues both its benefits and its dangers. Some argue that online education has a place within the larger landscape of education,2 while others argue that the online process is a money-saving (and ultimately destructive) attempt to  automate education.3 There is ample research demonstrating that MOOCs serve the scientific and mathematical communities well, both because of the nature of the materials and ability of students to continue reviewing materials at liberty.4 Newer entries into the MOOC market include at least one course in introduction to world religions, although there are very few courses available in religion or theology.5

The backbone of any online course, indeed any course, is the syllabus. Here, the syllabus developed the objective of creating up to a graduate-level discussion of the history of women in diaconal ministry, through current discussions, to opportunities for the future.

For understandable reasons, Hofstra University has not entered the Massive Online Open Course market, which in and of itself is a free service that sometimes offers credit. Without revenue to support such efforts, budgetary constraints (and perhaps common sense) militate against paying faculty and support staff to develop and teach a course for credit at no charge to the students. The creation of the MOOC is an expensive undertaking.6

However, there are applications for free online courses that stress neither budgetary nor faculty resources, while offering colleges and universities a wider online presence and a toehold in the MOOC world. These applications provide faculty the opportunity, under the umbrella of the university, to present the fruits of their research across geographical boundaries in a longer and more structured format than a one-off lecture, while coincidentally offering the university the opportunity to showcase faculty research.

In fall 2013 I approached the dean of Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with what I believe eventually demonstrated a creative application of MOOC principles without the attendant considerations of course work for credit. The project offered me the opportunity to present my research in a relatively lengthy structured format, but (as it was not for credit) without the attendant requirements for grading.

The basic discussion: all faculty have specific academic specialties, discrete areas in which they are the admitted experts. It is nearly impossible, however, to fill a credit-bearing course on the history of and current discussion about the ordination of women as deacons in the Catholic Churches, which would entail tuition and faculty payment (in release time or as overload). Further, in my case, a discussion of the ordination of women as deacons in Catholic Churches, both historically and contemporaneously, in an introduction to Christianity course would be necessarily short. Yet the topic is of interest to many individuals who are willing to undertake a course of study online.


Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches: Essays by Cipriano Vagaggini, ed. Phyllis Zagano, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013.

Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future by Gary Macy, William T. Ditewig, Phyllis Zagano, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2011.

With the support of the provost and dean, and with the designated support of the University’s Faculty Computing Services personnel, I began in January 2014 to prepare the MOOS for its proposed start date of June 9, 2014, to conclude July 8, 2014. By July 9, I had written thank-you notes to 10 Hofstra personnel, six scholars, and my two co-authors of the main seminar text. Also working on the project were my Hofstra research assistant and an undergraduate Federal Work-Study student. Hofstra University Faculty Computing Services personnel, my research assistant, and the work-study student were all on salary or paid for their work on the project. The two co-authors and six contributing scholars received no recompense.

Seminar Content

Discussion about the ordination of women is widespread across many religions, and has been especially contentious within certain Christian denominations. The clear history of women ordained as deacons in Christianity supports many arguments that they can be so ordained again. Today, several denominations ordain women as deacons; some ordain women as priests. At least one of the many churches of Orthodoxy, the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece, has contemporary history of women deacons, as does the Armenian Apostolic Church. None of the churches of Orthodoxy ordains women as priests. The Catholic Churches ordain women neither as deacons nor as priests.

Leaving aside the discussion of women as priests, the seminar addressed women in the ordained diaconate using two texts: Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future, which discusses (1) the history of women in the diaconate (East and West); (2) the diaconate as it was restored as a permanent vocation after the Second Vatican Council; and (3) considerations of how the completely restored diaconate might function and how it might affect the Catholic Churches. The second text, Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches: Essays by Cipriano Vagaggini, includes English translations from the original Italian of two extremely important essays (one requested by Pope Paul VI) by a noted Eastern liturgist, and my introductory essay.

MOOS Open Screen in Coursesites.com
MOOS Open Screen in Coursesites.com

Seminar Structure and Development

The backbone of any online course, indeed any course, is the syllabus. Here, the syllabus developed the objective of creating up to a graduate-level discussion of the history of women in diaconal ministry, through current discussions, to opportunities for the future. Preparations for the 30-day event, scheduled to open June 9, began in earnest six months in advance, in January 2014. As discussions progressed, the following questions arose as critical to the seminar content: (1) In the past: Who were the women deacons in the early church? Were they ordained? What did they do? Why did they disappear? (2) In the present: When was the diaconate rejuvenated, and why? Has there been consideration of women in the diaconate? (3) In the future: What are the obstacles to women in the diaconate? How can these challenges be addressed? What would it mean for women to be ordained?

The plan was to open each week’s Web pages at the beginning of the week and to offer suggested readings and lectures during each of the first four days of each week. Each day’s tasks represented approximately one hour’s work. Each Friday, the discussion board with a new question or questions was to open for three days, until the next week’s work was opened at the start of the next week. The pattern was to continue, following the four weeks of work and two days of summation and survey. Where possible, an instructor or teaching assistant would join in the discussion boards. Course books were available electronically or in print from various retailers and online suppliers.

The following presenting tasks required attention prior to the opening of the seminar: (1) develop an annotated bibliography; (2) develop PowerPoint lectures and taped lectures for each section; (3) invite “cameo” comments from cognate scholars; (4) research and select other, previously recorded content; (5) register with Coursesites.com; and (6) advertise and manage registration. The seminar opened the afternoon of June 8 and “launched” with a live stream of my June 9 public lecture in South Pasadena, California.7

Each seminar week (five weeks in total) would be devoted to one topic: (1) introduction of the topic; (2) women deacons past; (3) the diaconate present; (4) women deacons future; and (5) two days of conclusions and survey. While all the work was asynchronous, previous online courses I have taught demonstrate that providing a day-to-day syllabus allows participants to pace themselves and aids the instructor or seminar leader in choosing and arranging materials.

None of the presenting tasks proved easy, but the coordinated efforts of the Hofstra University Faculty Computing Services personnel, along with my principal research assistant and many others, provided excellent resources and support. Below are details of each presenting task.

The backbone of any online course, indeed any course, is the syllabus. Here, the syllabus developed the objective of creating up to a graduate-level discussion of the history of women in diaconal ministry, through current discussions, to opportunities for the future.

1) Develop an annotated bibliography. I considered the bibliography the most difficult to prepare yet the most useful item to eventually load to the website. Since seminar participants were projected to come from various backgrounds and locations, many without direct access to major libraries, we prepared annotations in English for the majority of the approximately 120 entries, many of which first appeared in foreign languages and remain untranslated.8 The bibliography remains posted on my Hofstra Web pages under “Research Documents.”9 Since the University receives donations on my behalf, I also registered as an Amazon.com affiliate, and linked most of the bibliographic materials (in addition to course books) to that program.

2) Develop PowerPoint lectures and taped lectures for each section. My co-authors agreed to provide brief (20-minute) lectures on their sections, as well as PowerPoint lectures coordinated to their materials. Following the pattern we used while developing our joint book, first Gary Macy recorded a lecture and a PowerPoint presentation focusing on the history of women in the diaconate and the history of their ordination ceremonies. Then William T. Ditewig, having reviewed Dr. Macy’s work, prepared both a lecture and presentation on the diaconate today. Finally, I prepared my materials after reviewing those of Drs. Macy and Ditewig.

3) Invite “cameo” comments from cognate scholars. Coincidental with the preparation of the annotated bibliography and the presentations, and as each week’s proposed questions developed, I invited a number of cognate scholars to provide brief (six-minute) commentaries, either video or audio. Approximately half of those contacted, or a total of six scholars from the United States, Canada, and Australia, provided brief audio or video commentaries.

4) Research and select other, previously recorded content. To round out the week’s work, which moved from reading, to PowerPoint, to lecture, we researched previously recorded online materials and selected one each by Drs. Macy, Ditewig, and me, in addition to a few shorter items already posted on the Internet.

5) Register with Coursesites.com. While there are a number of providers, including OpenLearning, Class Central, edX, and Udacity, Coursesites is a Blackboard product and was recommended by Hofstra Faculty Computing Services because of my familiarity with Blackboard.10 The Coursesites edition used for this seminar has since been updated, perhaps alleviating the various difficulties experienced with registration, uploading materials, and managing the discussion boards.

MOOS Opening Lecture, live streamed from South Pasadena, CA.
MOOS Opening Lecture, live streamed from South Pasadena, CA.

6) Advertise and manage registration. Various online blogs and journals announced the seminar, and the Catholic groups Voice of the Faithful, FutureChurch, and Call to Action directly alerted their members to the registration period, which ran from April 21 through June 10, the second day of the seminar. At least one angry blogger opposed to the open discussion recommended his followers register for the event in an apparent attempt at overloading it. The attempt caused me to close open, automatic registration and accept the final registrants only after they responded to queries regarding their interest. The disruption took the better part of a day when I was flying cross country, and involved Hofstra’s Faculty Computing Services personnel.11


The seminar itself opened Sunday, June 8, at 4 p.m. Pacific Daylight Saving Time, to accommodate participants in Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and Europe, where dawn would be breaking well before 8 a.m. June 9 in the United States. I followed this pattern throughout the seminar, opening each section by at least 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Saving Time on Sundays.

Student use of the materials could be tracked with Coursesites software, and it appeared that significant numbers of students preferred to run through the readings and lectures in one day, although others (perhaps those with work commitments) kept pace with the syllabus.

While the syllabus was designed to maintain discussion on one topic for three or four days and then close, it turned out that participants preferred ongoing discussion boards. Therefore, while the first board opened on the Thursday of the first week, with questions coordinated with the seminar materials, eventually I opened the discussion board with a new question nearly coincidental to the opening of the given week’s materials, allowing for longer and deeper discussion of each week’s work. While I presented the guiding questions for the seminar week, any of the three teaching assistants and any seminar member could (and did) introduce new threads, creating ongoing substantive discussion over nearly 30 days, including weekends. Discussion board comments ranged from brief insights, interjections, or questions to 1,500-word essays and responses to discussion of the topic at hand.

With an average of 300 registrants to start, and three teaching assistants plus myself, I used Coursesites software to randomly assign participants to one of four discussion groups. While a seminar of 75 persons is daunting for anyone, in each case slightly more than half the number of registrants participated in the discussion boards at any given time, although overall “attendance” (as indicated by Coursesites-generated reports) was greater than 50 percent and, in many cases, as high as 75 percent. While discussion board participation eventually dropped as low as 25 percent, a significant number of “lurkers” — at times 50 percent of registrants — remained. Along with the three teaching assistants, I routinely checked my assigned discussion board three times per day. The work-study student was asked to monitor all the discussion boards daily and to alert me and the discussion board teaching assistants of any major difficulties.

The heat map above was generated from captured IP addresses of registrants and represents the following numbers of participants: Australia 14, Belgium 1, Canada 10, Chile 1, China 4, France 1, Ireland 7, Italy 5, Mexico 3, New Zealand 2, Norway 1, South Africa 1, United Kingdom 8, United States 234.
The heat map above was generated from captured IP addresses
of registrants and represents the following numbers of participants:
Australia 14, Belgium 1, Canada 10, Chile 1, China 4, France 1,
Ireland 7, Italy 5, Mexico 3, New Zealand 2, Norway 1, South Africa 1,
United Kingdom 8, United States 234.

The decision to randomly assign participants to discussion board groups overtook an original plan to geographically divide them according to the regional groupings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 15 regions, and also overtook plans to include French- and Italian-language sections. Groups were originally projected to be smaller, perhaps 20 or 25 persons, allowing for use of Zoom.us meeting software for live discussions. The number of registrants soon made it clear that such a plan, requiring 12-15 discussion board sections, would be unwieldy, given that the seminar had just one leader and three teaching assistants.

MOOS Discussion Questions
MOOS Discussion Questions

The random assignment of participants to one of the four discussion boards actually worked out well in a different way. Seminar participants later reported the advantages of conversing with persons from around the world — an individual from Alaska, for example, found common ground with someone from Ireland; and an individual from New Zealand entered into discussion with someone from Atlanta, Georgia. The usual online “ice-breakers” were not used directly; individuals were at first asked to introduce themselves briefly, tell of their location and work, perhaps their training, and why they were interested in the topic. Because of the large numbers involved in the discussion board, participants were also asked to briefly identify themselves at the start of each of their comments, for example, “Mary, pastoral minister, New Zealand.”

The substantive nature of many of the interventions and subsequent discussions belied the common belief that “content” materials could not be adapted to online events. While such does not and cannot replace the classroom experience, in this instance the exigencies of time and space collaborated to make classroom engagement impossible and online engagement quite possible. Some — perhaps many — of the participants were not familiar with online work and certainly not with discussion boards, but with few exceptions the conversations did not devolve to the level of Facebook or chatroom irrelevancies. As technology and its uses expand, one can only predict that more, not fewer, persons will become adept at the techniques of online learning.

Survey Results

Comments and questions throughout the seminar, where they digressed from the materials at hand, mostly had to do with the site itself, typically various software problems and difficulties viewing videos. Coursesites apparently operates best through the Web browser Google Chrome. Some participants initially did not have either proper software or powerful enough connectivity to view videos, suggesting that, alternatively, audio tracks of the videos might also be loaded to the site. Some retained inability to log in, and an additional few could not manage the systems and simply gave up. Here it should be noted that the individuals participating in the seminar were not initially coming to it because it was online, but rather because it was on the topic of women in ministry. Many expressed the desire to learn more, which, combined with their lack of access to such study and discussion, led to their trying out an online event for the first time.

The final days of the seminar included a wrap-up lecture, a segment of a previously recorded radio interview program that summed up the discussion, an article and attendant podcast that also summarized the discussion, and a request to participate in a 23-question survey.

As technology and its uses expand, one can only predict that more, not fewer, persons will become adept at the techniques of online learning.

The survey instrument was developed along the lines of other survey instruments used for Hofstra and other institutions’ online courses, and left significant space for general thoughts and suggestions. Within the 63 completed surveys, participants wrote 13,000 words of comments in addition to answering the 19 multiple choice questions and four open-ended essay questions.

The survey itself was at first inadvertently set so that participants could not return to change or complete their answers, and so its results are both skewed and incomplete because some participants did not return to work the survey after the setting was changed, and some were only able to complete part of the survey. Even so, 87.3 percent of respondents reported their knowledge of the subject increased, the majority reporting “increased greatly,” while 7.9 percent reported a “slight” or “somewhat” increased knowledge in the topic, with other insignificant percentages of “no response” reported, most probably the result of initial difficulties with the instrument.

Overall responses to the multiple choice questions were positive. The responses from approximately 23 percent of the initial registrants, or 66 percent of those who completed the seminar, demonstrated strong appreciation for the major lecturers (Drs. Macy, Ditewig, and Zagano) as well as for the “cameo” comments. The majority of the responses regarding the lecture presentations were that these were either “mostly clear” or “always clear.”

The distinction may be attached to whether participants viewed the lectures or commentaries before or after completing the attendant readings. A greater percentage (90.5 percent) found the Women Deacons text useful or very useful than did the Vagaggini text (77.7 percent). Regarding the optional additional readings, 79.4 percent found them useful or very useful. A total of 76.2 percent of the respondents said they read each book completely, while 73 percent reported watching all of the presentations, with the large majority (77.8 percent) reporting that the lecturers and commentators demonstrated an “outstanding” mastery of the subject matter, and 15.9 percent judged the presenters’ mastery as “very good.”

Responses to the question “I participated in the discussion boards,” even though answered by a smaller percentage of participants, echoed the seminar’s overall participation rate, with 17.5 percent reporting “no participation,” 55.6 percent reporting “some participation,” and 22.2 percent reporting “a lot of participation.” (Discussion board participation dropped off as the seminar progressed, although it continued to be strong throughout.) Nearly half (49 percent) of the respondents thought the discussion board interaction was either “very good” or “outstanding,” while a third reported it to be average, and a small percentage (7.8 percent) found it to be “poor” or “not good.”

As for the educational level of the participants, 3.2 percent reported only some college, while the rest who answered the question reported baccalaureate (12.7 percent), master’s (54 percent), doctoral or professional (25.4 percent) education. The high percentage of postbaccalaureate participation seems indicative of the levels of interest in the specialized subject matter among persons who have completed other types of formal education in religion and theology.

While the responses were not otherwise broken down as to Eastern or Western Catholic Church members, 92 percent of the respondents reported their religious membership as Catholic.

Nearly 86 percent of the respondents reported they were female, a number that corresponds greatly with a hand count of the total registration.

Age ranges of survey respondents

under 25: 0%
25-39: 4.8%
40-54: 15.9%
55-64: 36.6%
65-75: 28.6%
over 75: 9.5%

Similarly, 81 percent reported U.S. residency, with 8 percent from Europe and slightly more than 6 percent from Australia/New Zealand, again mirroring hand counts and the heat map of participants. The age ranges of the respondents is probably representative of the entire registration, with none reporting “under 25” and nearly 10 percent reporting “over 75,” with the majority of respondent ages between 40 and 75 (see box above).


The argument that Massive Online Open Courses better fit the pattern and educational objectives of courses in the sciences, technology, and languages is a genuine one, and several of the difficulties of teaching a topic within religion that touched on history, literature, social sciences, church law, and theology well presented themselves, both in the creation of the seminar and in its execution. One overlooked, and genuinely overwhelming, part of the seminar was the enthusiasm of many of the participants who read deeply and entered fully into discussion board conversations, some with graduate-level postings. The uneven preparation of the 292 participants showed somewhat, in that some eventually became nervous about posting or asking questions, given the apparent expertise of some of the participants. This is not to say that there was any bullying, although one woman was first barred from the discussion boards and eventually removed from the seminar for continually arguing against the seminar discussion itself, presenting her determination that the conversation and course materials were outside what she considered the boundaries of legitimate discussion.

While even I entered the event with a certain amount of skepticism — I have found that completely online teaching of, for example, my course “Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest” is difficult and, to my mind, lacking — I was genuinely surprised by the depth and attention to detail, as well as the liveliness of the discussions, among the participants. Many wrote, either in the essay portion of their survey responses or in private emails directly to me, not only that they enjoyed the event, but also that they hoped it would run again. Some asked for the future availability of online seminar discussion boards in French, an early idea I had discarded due to the limited number of volunteer teaching assistants (two) and the one teaching assistant.

I think the argument that online courses portend a commercialization of education is real, but that it does not apply here due to the parameters of the student body and the detailed nature of the topic. Even the research demonstrating that the ability to repeat lectures and demonstrations at will in scientific and mathematical applications of online learning serves to demonstrate in a larger way what I discovered to be true in this iteration of the MOOS. Because participants came from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds,the ability to replay materials at will was helpful to those who needed to catch up, either because of linguistic or content barriers to the topics at hand within the seminar.

In general, the MOOS exceeded my expectations, in that it demonstrated to me and others involved in specialized research in religion that technology does have an application in teaching theology and religion.

Lecturers and Professionals

Phyllis Zagano,PhD, is a senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra, where she has continued her research in the history of spirituality and the history of women in the church since 2002. A graduate of Marymount College, Tarrytown, New York, she holds a PhD from Stony Brook University and three master’s degrees. Among her 17 books are the award-winning Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (Crossroad), and Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority (Palgrave-Macmillan). She has published hundreds of articles and reviews in a wide variety of journals, including the Journal of Communication and Religion, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Horizons, New Diaconal Review, Spiritus, and Theological Studies. Dr. Zagano occasionally writes for non-refereed journals, including Commonweal, The Irish Catholic (Dublin, Ireland) and The Tablet (London, UK), and is a regular columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. A former Fulbright Fellow to the Republic of Ireland, her biographical listings include Who’s Who in the East and Who’s Who in America. Her professional papers are held by the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University, Chicago. She is a well-known authority on spirituality and edited the best-selling text Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest (Paulist). She served as consultant to Martin Seligman’s Templeton Foundation Positive Psychology Project “Spirituality and Living Well“ at the University of Pennsylvania and delivers invited lectures around the world on women and religion. Among her courses are “Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest” and “History of Irish Spirituality.“

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  • I participated in Dr. Zagano’s MOOS course last summer, coming into it with prior experience as a student in a number of online theology courses (non-credit) through Notre Dame. As a Chemistry professor in an earlier life, I developed and taught online science classes for undergraduates. I’ve found the online theology classes to be more effective than the science ones. I don’t think the difference is in content or content delivery; rather it’s in the maturity, passion and commitment level of the students for the material. Those who participated in Prof Zagano’s MOOS were passionate about the subject; many had had pastoral experience as lay ecclesial ministers and/or theological training; others contributed from their enthusiasm and personal wisdom that does not need to be grounded in degrees or professional positions. Passionate people eager to learn about their passions are motivated to overcome any initial barriers to technology and they share their passion and their wisdom in discussion boards. One strength of the course for me which Dr. Zagano alluded to briefly was the ability to communicate across international lines. Sharing of stories and experiences from diverse parishes in many countries was an exciting component of the discussions. Living in a relatively small diocese in the western U.S. the opportunity to have such high level discussions with other like-minded people doesn’t happen very often. Internationally-available MOOS courses offer a way for people to come to a better understanding of each other. It’s nice to know that you aren’t alone. Dr. Zagano and her team did a marvelous job of facilitating discussions, of providing far-ranging historical resources. I congratulate them for their efforts and Hoffstra University for supporting it.

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