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September 07, 2005

The First Sketch

Preliminary Notions

The following sketch reproduces what I earlier posted on a the main page of the Disseminary site, before we even had funding to build the Disseminary. The first section describes the history of the project from AKMA’s side. The second describes the Disseminary that Trevor and AKMA proposed to the Wabash Center, which has now been funded for the first year.

These musings apply assumptions about the Web and distribution of resources in keeping with such sources as The Cluetrain Manifesto (Locke, Weinberger, Searls, and Levine; Perseus, 2001); Gonzo Marketing (Locke; Perseus, 2001); Small Pieces, Loosely Joined (Weinberger; Perseus, 2002); and The Future of Ideas (Lessig; Random House, 2001), inflected by readings from Edward Tufte on the visual communication of information and Scott McCloud on publication and dissemination of niche market publications (in his case, comics).

Our self-introduction on this page

The Disseminary has its origins in a proposal AKMA first made in 1995 or ’96, if memory serves, for a site where theologically-interested inquirers might begin the work of putting into practice a different model for learning and teaching. At the heart of the project lies the premise that institutional infrastructure — not only the physical infrastructure of buildings and supplies, but also the information infrastructure of grades and credits — and the costs of maintenance do not simply make education possible, but also inhibit education in important ways.

Most obviously, the costs associated with education keep many interested learners at arms length. A building costs large sums whether to buy or rent; salaried faculty cost a great deal, and they expect certain prerogatives associated with their academic vocation. Beyond that, the physical space of education limits the number of students who can participate (those who can get to the location, those who can fit into the facilities). Even further, the institution’s attitude toward education warps toward its perceived necessities of physical plant and faculty, and these begin to displace the original educational goals.

Moreover, the social function of education often presupposes goals that do not themselves serve the interests of teaching and learning. People look to educational institutions to issue warranted certification that learners have attained particular levels of proficiency. Institutions that accept such a social function — in other words, the vast preponderance of them — need to slice, dice, and quantify the pedagogical endeavor so as to determine which students attain the degree, diploma, or certification. The exigencies of quantification and standardization oblige schools to squeeze all areas of study into terms of uniform duration, testing students to ascertain their progress, assigning a one-dimensional evaluation of a student’s accomplishment, and so on. These all serve the purpose of upholding the social function of the teaching institution — but not necessarily the purposes of teaching and learning.

The Disseminary stands for an approach to education and educational materials apart from the constraints of institutional education: credits, fees, restrictive copyright limitations, grades, and other limitations. The project envisions a variety of educational resources offered at no charge, for no formal credit. Such resources may in the long run include publications, asynchronous seminar discussions (kept available in archives), chats, interviews, audio and video recordings; we’ll post a fuller sketch of an ideal Disseminary below. Our present Wabash Center grant proposal includes plans for generating one online textbook and one online seminar [later changed as below].

This version of The Disseminary draws on ideas discussed in a conference paper from the Garrett Theology and Pedagogy in Cyberspace Conference (subsequently published in Teaching Theology and Religion), then further discussed at a Wabash Center Teaching and Technology Conference during the summer of 2002 (scheduled to reconvene in September 2003).

At the 2002 Wabash conference, one of our colleagues proposed the following manifesto for what she called “open-source” pedagogy:

  • Course content kept in open public access, but confining relationality of dialogue (and, perhaps perforce?, reserve materials) to password protected materials
  • Full compliance with web accessibility guidelines
  • Consider pushing the use of something like Nicenet
  • Support the use of open source software as an ethical commitment (e.g. Openoffice.org)
  • Use and support network technologies that are open (end-to-end)
  • Clear fair use policies that promote an open commons
  • Promote technology choices that favor access
  • Teach media/digital literacy as a core competency
  • Promote open source development of substance
  • Core pedagogy is constructive, collaborative
  • Promote policies nationally and globally that reflect these principles

These points resonate with the Disseminary sensibility; where we don’t anticipate emphasizing them all, we support the outlook that they bespeak.

For the time being, The Disseminary exists mostly as plans and possibilities; we await word on our pending grant proposal. But when the grant is approved, or even if it isn’t, we may get impatient and see what we can get rolling on our own. Until then, you’re welcome to bookmark AKMA’s and Trevor’s weblogs, where there’ll be the most frequent updates, and where they’ll be likely to mention any significant changes to this site

Thanks for visiting. . . .

The Disseminary Sketch

We envision the Disseminary as an umbrella for a variety of educational ventures. Among the dimensions of the proposal we imagine, we propose the following in the form of a site map:


Disseminary seminars would be asynchronous discussions led by commissioned participants in the project. While leaders would maintain the prerogative to shape the seminar as they felt appropriate, we anticipate seminars beginning from a familiar readings-and-discussion format. Such seminars could easily be conducted with existing weblog tools such as Movable Type, and might (at the leader’s discretion) permit comments from non-participants. Once the seminar had run its course, the conversation would be archived and available for browsing or redistribution.


Many institutions for theological and religious studies regularly commission presentations for named lecture series; the Disseminary would house video, audio, or transcripts of these lectures, extending the reach of the the lecture to remote locations and amplifying the prestige associated with the institution’s and the lecture’s name.

Classical sources

Many of the pivotal resources for teaching and learning in theology and religion were published well before the present copyright regime took effect. The Disseminary would prepare carefully-edited digital versions of these texts (many of which are already available in plain-text or lightly-edited versions) for use in classes or for individual reading.

Study guides

There exists on the Web a signiÞcant amount of highly-useful resources for religious and theological education. However, these resources are widely dispersed and while some indices (notably the “Wabash Center Guide to Internet Resources”) do exist, these indices rarely provide more than basic commentary. The Disseminary will commission Þve study guides that will direct the reader through a course of study that comprehends its entire subject area. For instance, a study guide on “mysticism” will note that the translations of Pseudo-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology available online are of signiÞcantly lower quality than that available through the Paulist Press Classics of Western Spirituality series. It would also note that the work of Maximus Confessor is not available online, and that the serious student should consult a print edition of his Chapters on Knowledge. The purpose of this would be to augment the study of Þgures such as Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena—of whose works good online editions are available—with the guidance necessary to enrich a student’s learning. The study guides, in effect, teach a subject rather than provide a list of information and links. To some extent, the study guides acts as a small, but reputable secondary resource on its subject. The study guide will also refer to other reliable secondary resources both on- and off-line.

Commissioned Publications

Academics write much all the time, for very little return. The Disseminary would commission works and publish them for distribution online. While some will quickly point out that online publications would fail to draw high-quality writing from estimable authors, we respond that the advantages of online publication would provide an attractive incentive for possible authors. Not every prominent scholar need contribute—but once one or two participate, the perception that online publication lacks scholarly heft will quickly evaporate.

Commissioned publications may vary in scope from full monographs to topical essays to chapter-length introductory treatments of fundamental topics. We especially look forward to commissioning textbook chapters for use in introductory classes; teachers (and learners) may compile a collection of chapters to use as a single textbook, or select particular chapters as worthy of attention. The Disseminary can commission alternate chapters on the same topic, so that a teacher could choose a chapter on “Eschatology” (for instance) from among a range of available options.

A Note on Online Publication

The Disseminary project envisions not only the online distribution of its commissioned work (and edited classical sources), but also distribution in print. To that end, the text will follow a carefully planned mark-up scheme, such that a print-on-demand publisher could produce a limited-run edition of a selected text with only minimal set-up. Moreover, print editions stand to return to their authors royalties over and above the initial commission—a noteworthy incentive for writers to participate in Disseminary publishing ventures.

Other Ideas

I know we’ve had other ideas—they’re just escaping me at this moment.

Posted by AKMA at September 7, 2005 02:16 AM


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