Traditional Buddhist scholastic training involves spending an entire year at a monastic study college with daily lectures focused on a single text. Most western students will never have the time or opportunity to travel to these colleges and commit this much time to their study.
Design and implement a course focused on the classic Buddhist text, ‘The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’ according to the pedagogy and style of the Tibetan Buddhist Monastic Study Colleges (Shedras), and format it for our online learning program in a way that anyone with 2-3 hours per week could follow the reading, video teachings and lessons.
As Director of the Rigpa Online Learning Program I managed a project designed to take a curriculum typically designed for buddhist monks engaged in a monastic study college, and format it for modern western students to be able to follow through our Learning Management System. The challenges involved were more cultural than technical, especially considering that we were using an online curriculum already established through our LMS. But the challenges of translating an academic tradition that has endured for thousands of years into a platform that has existed for less than 60 were formidable.
Research & Initial Assessment
Our first steps involved coming to agreements about the projected amount of content we would provide in the online course. Working with online course instructors and polling former students, we tried to assess on average how much coursework an online course taker could be assigned without them falling behind in the course and dropping out. In general, we concluded based on our research that 30-40 minutes of video per week and 10-20 pages of text would be reasonable for our student base. Considering that this course did not offer any official certification and was not yet accredited, the time involved was entirely based on interest and extracurricular, so the amount of time students could commitment was also lower.
Working with traditional Study College teachers to adjust curriculum
Considering that in a traditional study college, students spend 2-4 hours per day on a single course attending lectures and group review sessions over the course of four months, there was a lot of discussion around how to substantially reduce this time commitment for our online course while still staying true to the pedagogical style of the study college. The study college follows a traditional method of outlining a detailed skeletal structure of the texts’ content as a way of both memorizing the text’s structure and tracking your place within the text. We designed the online course to make use of the same structure, and each lesson began with a review of where they were in this structure of the text.
Reducing the content to fit
We were aiming to reduce nearly 200 hours of lecture from the traditional college down to 25 hours for our online course. This was possible by focussing on the main points of the topic and skipping the minor points as well as cutting out any interactives.
The teachers and content providers wound up providing close to 1 hour each week of video teachings, and assigning 20-30 pages of reading assignments per week. This was more than we had initially agreed to, but they felt they were cutting too much out otherwise.
Reviewing the Success of the Project
By the end of the course, 60% of the students completed it through the end. While this was lower than our completion rates for more standard 7-10 week courses, it was higher than we anticipated for such a long course. The number of successful students was directly proportional to the amount of engagement and interaction from the instructor in their class. If we were going to do this again, I would extend the duration of the course, give more breaks in between sections, and reduce the amount of hours and pages required each week.
If we had more resources, I would have designed and implemented the course to visually follow an outline of the text- the central guiding principle of the pedagogy. Each branch of the outline would be linked to the reading, videos, and assignments pertinent to that point. Many students found the structure supportive.
Another area to improve is the development of community online. Many of the tools we had access to supported pedagogy and curriculum development, but many of the students wanted easier access to form communities with other course participants. We found in classes where this happened outside of the limitations of our platform, the students were more engaged and a higher percentage completed the course.
There is a lot I would do in a second round of this project, but it was a major first step in bringing an ancient tradition of learning into a modern platform and making it available to many people.