By Robert H. Stockman
January 2015 marks the twentieth anniversary of the decision of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States to establish the Wilmette Institute. Two decades of institutional guidance and steady growth have taken the Institute in directions that it could not have imagined two decades ago.
The Wilmette Institute was a response to one of the three central goals of the Three Year Plan (1993–96)—the goal of “greatly developing the human resources of the Cause.” The Ridván 1993 message stated that the “training of the friends and their striving, through serious individual study, to acquire knowledge of the Faith, to apply to principles and administer its affairs, are indispensable to developing the human resources necessary to the progress of the Cause.” The message went on to emphasize that training had “to be given in a manner that inspires love and devotion, fosters firmness in the Covenant, prompts the individual to active participation in the work of the Cause and to taking sound initiatives in the promotion of its interests.” The message also called for efforts to attract people of capacity.
In response, a group of staff representing six offices at the Bahá’í National Center proposed an Institute for Bahá’í Studies (IBS), which the National Spiritual Assembly approved in September 1994. At its December 6, 1994, meeting, the IBS Board decided to make a second proposal to the National Assembly: as IBS’s educational arm, the Board proposed a “program of study similar to the World Order Studies program at Landegg [Academy in Switzerland].” Dr. Iraj Ayman, who had recently arrived in Wilmette from Landegg and who had contacts with similar educational efforts in the Middle East, India, and Australia, played a key role in shaping the proposal. In January 1995 the National Spiritual Assembly approved the establishment of the Wilmette Institute. However, it set an important condition on the educational experiment: the Wilmette Institute had to be financially self-supporting through its tuition payments and modest fundraising for scholarships. In spite of many financial struggles and challenges, the Institute has succeeded in meeting this requirement for twenty years. In February 1995 a conversation with Dr. Firuz Kazemzadeh, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly, led to the selection of the title “Wilmette Institute.”
In 1995, the internet was young and still relatively little known. The creation of Google was still three years in the future. Few people had e-mail, and websites were difficult to create. Hence the Wilmette Institute decided to create a face-to-face, four-year program of study, which it called Spiritual Foundations for a Global Civilization. Its curriculum was based on eight modules, four of them thematic and four, supportive. The four thematic modules, each serving as the theme for one year of the four-year program included: (1) Religion, Philosophy, and Theology; (2) Individual Development and Marriage; (3) Community and Administrative Order; and (4) Teachings for a New World Order. The four themes relating to and reinforcing the four thematic themes each year included: (5) Bahá’í History; (6) Bahá’í Scripture; (7) Skills Development; and (8) Teaching the Faith.
It took over a year to build a curriculum, secure faculty, and publicize the program, but in early July 1996, some 40 learners arrived in Wilmette to attend a four-week program of study at National Louis University, an institution of higher education a few hundred yards from the Bahá’í House of Worship. The diverse group of young and veteran students was thrilled to have been accepted for the program. The following four weeks were exhausting and inspiring for learners, faculty, and staff alike. Before the learners arrived, each received by mail two fat notebooks with a thousand pages of photocopies (the Wilmette Institute did not know about pdfs at the time). One learner cried for joy when she received her materials.
For the first class, home study from September 1996 through April 1997 supplemented the on-site study in Wilmette. The homework included discussions and exercises using an e-mail listserv, conference calls, and snail mail. That was also true of the second-year program in 1997, which had a smaller student body (29 learners) and also a shorter on-site session (three weeks in Wilmette rather than four).
By 1997 and certainly by 1998, it became increasingly clear that many people wanted to study Wilmette Institute’s materials but could not afford either the time or the money to come to Wilmette for the summer on-site part of the program. Individuals asked to buy the materials and study them independently. In 1997, when the Wilmette Institute got its first website, it was able to support more effectively the continuing home study of its Spiritual Foundations students, but it could also consider online courses.
In January 1998 the Institute launched its first online course, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, 1853–68. The course was based on the first two books of Adib Taherzadeh’s four-volume series of the same name. The online course brought many challenges to the Wilmette Institute, which fostered much learning by the staff. The website proved difficult to use, as can be expected of the first design of anything in a revolutionary medium. The first course lasted six months, but after three months most of its 80 learners could not keep up with the pace of the course. Few people wanted to take the second online course (The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, 1868–92) because they felt they first had to complete the first course.
Other challenges were myriad and time consuming. Payment had to be mailed in by check or phoned in by credit card. Credit-card information then had to be transferred to a form and sent to the National Spiritual Assembly’s Treasurer’s Office, where someone keyed it into a computer by hand.
The course’s reading materials had to be photocopied and mailed to everyone, prompting the inevitable problems of materials not showing up on time or at all, or materials missing random pages (frequently a problem with photocopiers). All learners had to be added to the course’s listserv by hand. When conference calls were offered, some overseas students had to pay high charges to participate. The course’s Web pages were password protected, but there was only one password, which had to be e-mailed to all participants.
In spite of the complications, in 1998 four online courses were offered to a total of 145 learners. Supporting them and the Spiritual Foundations program required the equivalent of two full-time staff positions. This is in sharp contrast to 2014, when 45 hours a week by two part-time staff and more than twenty hours a month by a part-time volunteer can create, publicize, and administer 38 courses and 1,000 learners per year. Automation—pdfs, course-management software, web-page editing software, registration software, automated credit-card payments, marketing software—has revolutionized the delivery of online courses. The Institute has also been blessed, from the beginning of the Spiritual Foundations for a Global Civilization program to the present day, by generous support from volunteers, devoted efforts from the members of its Board, and dedicated teaching by its faculty, most of whom donate their time.
Subsequent years have seen the steady expansion of the Wilmette Institute’s online presence and the steady shrinkage of its face-to-face program. The summer of 1999 had only 15 attendees, but the first four-year cycle of classes (1996–99) was joyfully concluded. The next four-year cycle (2000–03) saw the summer attendance drop as low as 7, but Bahá’ís living the Wilmette area who enrolled as auditors helped to fill out the class.
The third four-year cycle, which began in 2004, faced two additional complications. First, with the spread of the Ruhi Institute’s study circles, the Bahá’í community’s focus on education and training changed, and a trip to Wilmette (even when the Spiritual Foundation’s length was reduced to only eight days) no longer seemed a good use of time and resources. Second, the two universities near the Bahá’í House of Worship both suffered financial difficulties and sold their campuses to move to newer and less expensive facilities. This deprived the Wilmette Institute of access to dormitories and classrooms. Consequently, 2005 was the last summer of the Spiritual Foundations on-site program. The four-year program may yet be reestablished as an online offering.
The expansion of the Wilmette Institute’s online programs reflected its continual learning about online education. Around 2002 it acquired an automated online registration and payment system, which eliminated the need to handle credit-card information by hand. In June 2003 it acquired a new website, which it replaced with an even better website in August 2005 and yet another one in February 2008. The 2008 public website had a parallel website for courses using Moodle, the course-management system the Wilmette Institute is still using. In February 2009 the Institute shifted its registration system to Cvent, a commercial event-registration system that allows it to e-mail attractive course publicity to potential learners, collect credit-card payments, and manage its tuition-payment system.
Publicity has also undergone a steady evolution. The first Wilmette Institute newsletter appears to have been produced in the Spring 1996 (all the newsletters that the Wilmette Institute has are available at http://wi.bahai.us/newsletters/). At first the Institute produced two newsletters per year and laboriously photocopied and mailed them to a small list of interested persons. Within a few years, however, the Institute prepared newsletters as pdfs and e-mailed them instead. As the format developed, it became easier and quicker to produce, and the number that appeared per year increased to the current standard of twelve. In June 2008 the Institute began to use Constant Contact, a commercial e-mailing system and soon learned some of the mystery of working with HTML code.
With a volunteer editor, Dr. Betty J. Fisher, the eNewsletter has been able to spotlight the contributions of the Institute’s learners more effectively; to provide many articles about the worldwide development of Bahá’í scholarship and the arts; to publish dates of academic conferences and other academic events; and to share information about accomplishments of Wilmette Institute faculty and learners. The eNewsletter now goes to over 30,000 e-mail addresses. In addition, the Institute sends out monthly flyers highlighting three or four upcoming courses. These flyers also go to 30,000 individuals.
The Wilmette Institute has also kept abreast of developments in social media, looking for ways to use it for communicating with potential students and for advertising online courses. In November 2007 it acquired a Facebook page and in August 2009, a Twitter account. When the Institute hired a part-time assistant, Candace Moore Hill, in the fall of 2010, it began to develop an extensive social-media presence. A Google+ account and a YouTube account followed in 2011, and a Pinterest account in 2012. Social media has been particularly important in increasing the awareness of the Wilmette Institute outside the United States, where its publicity has been limited.
New software and experience allowed an expansion of the Wilmette Institute’s online offerings. Moodle, Cvent, Constant Contact, and other new marketing efforts proved crucial to the Institute’s expansion. From 1999 to 2009, the Wilmette Institute grew slowly. In 1999 the Institute offered 8 courses to 241 learners, a number that fluctuated up and down in subsequent years but grew to 16 courses and 367 learners by 2009. In 2010, however, it offered 23 courses and more than doubled its learners to 790. The growth has continued: in 2012, 27 courses with 874 learners; in 2013, 34 courses with 992 learners; and in 2014, 36 courses with l,012 learners.
The increase in the number of courses allowed for a steady diversification of offerings. The original two-course series based on Taherzadeh’s The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh volumes has spawned ten courses on works of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. One book by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and three by Shoghi Effendi are now the foci of individual offerings. Courses also examine eight religions, three works of the scripture of world religions, two branches of Islam, the study of religion in general, and the field of philosophy. History and biography are covered by several courses. The Bahá’í covenant, Bahá’í theology, the institution of the Mashriq’l-Adkhár, and the Badí` calendar are all subjects of courses. The sequence of courses that has seen the largest expansion during the last several years is the application of Bahá’í teachings to a number of challenges to life and society, including suggestion for how to participate in prevalent discourses of society. Marriage is now the focus of four courses. Others study economics, world federation, consultation, sustainable development, climate change, and the application in public and private life of the equality of women and men.
As the quality of its courses steadily improved, the Wilmette Institute has enrolled more “repeat customers,” some having taken more than 12 courses. As of the end of 2014, it has offered 290 courses to a total of 8,052 learners residing in 97 countries. In 2015 it anticipates offering 43 courses, with as many as 6 starting in one month.
The quality of the faculty also contributes to the success of the Wilmette Institute’s online courses. As of the end of 2014, the Institute has had over 80 faculty from 10 countries. Notable is the fact that women now make up 41 percent of the faculty, a statistic of which most universities cannot boast. Faculty training is now receiving increased focus with webinar-style faculty meeting several times a year.
The variety of the Wilmette Institute’s 8,052 learners is amazing and their contributions significant. They include Auxiliary Board members; members of national spiritual assemblies, regional councils, and local spiritual assemblies; new and veteran Bahá’ís; and non-Bahá’ís (including a dozen nuns, two rabbis, and one imam). Eight students have approached their institutions of higher education for credit and have received credit for at least 13 Wilmette Institute courses. As a result of taking Wilmette Institute courses, at least 1 learner was prompted to study Arabic at a local college. Another continued her training and now teaches Islamic law occasionally at a prominent law school. National Assembly members in the Pacific took the Wilmette Institute course on international development to assist their development plans. Dozens of Bahá’ís have initiated efforts to make people aware of human-induced climate change as a result of the Institute’s Climate Change course. Others have educated several hundred people about issues of sustainability after taking the course on Sustainable Development. It is not known how many people have become Bahá’ís after taking Wilmette Institute courses or how many Bahá’ís have successful taught the Faith to others as a result of the knowledge and skills the Wilmette Institute courses have provided.
Uncounted numbers of study circles, children’s classes, junior-youth classes, devotionals, deepenings, Feasts, and holy days have been enriched through the use of course materials or insights gleaned from course discussions. Art projects from Wilmette Institute courses have beautified Bahá’í events. Its course on organizing Bahá’í archives has helped scores of local and national archives. The Wilmette Institute can even take credit for introducing a Native American Bahá’í and an Irish Bahá’í to each other through its online Kitab-i-Aqdas course, producing the first Wilmette Institute-inspired marriage. Its two new series of courses on preparing for marriage and strengthening one’s marriage have helped scores of individuals and couples.
From its inception, the Wilmette Institute has been collaborative. The group that proposed what came to be known as the Wilmette Institute and that became its Board included individuals from a number of offices at the Bahá’í National Center: Archives, Education, Persian/American Affairs, Research, Teaching, and World Order magazine. Later the Board added representatives from the Bahá’í Encyclopedia Project and legal affairs. As its roster of courses has grown, the Institute uses materials produced by the Bahá’í Publishing Trust, the Association for Bahá’í Studies, the Bahá’í Encyclopedia Project, the Bahá’í International Community, the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, and World Order magazine.
When the Bahá’í World Center produces new translations and new works, the Wilmette Institute offers new courses on them as quickly as possible. These include courses on The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, Gems of Divine Mysteries, The Tabernacle of Unity, Century of Light, One Common Faith, and the 2001 letter from the Universal House of Justice to religious leaders. In 2006, when a Ridván letter discussed the importance of studying certain letters in Shoghi Effendi’s World Order of Baha’u’llah, the Institute offered a course on the book.
When the National Spiritual Assembly announced educational themes for several years, the Wilmette Institute responded with supporting courses. Among them were two courses on Bahá’í administration (in collaboration with the Office of Governance Studies and the Assembly Development Office) and Arise for the Triumph of the Cause (in collaboration with a number of offices). In 2007 the Institute developed with the National Bahá’í Archives Introduction to Archives for Bahá’í Archivists. Also in 2007 the Wilmette Institute collaborated with the Office of External Affairs and World Order magazine to plan and offer a course called Sustainable Development and the Prosperity of Humankind as part of the Bahá’í contribution to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.
The Wilmette Institute has also collaborated with permanent Bahá’í schools on two occasions. In 2009, when Paul Lample’s Revelation & Social Reality was published, the Wilmette Institute offered an online, invitation-only course for leading staff at the permanent schools, summer schools, and winter schools to prepare them to organize courses on the book for their schools. Earlier it worked with Green Acre Bahá’í School in offering a course on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s The Secret of Divine Civilization. Faculty first taught a face-to-face course at Green Acre; students then continued their study by taking an online Wilmette Institute course on the topic.
International collaboration included a course planned and organized by the Wilmette Institute and the Bahá’í Academy in India for learners in both countries. India has also organized groups of learners to take a half a dozen Wilmette Institute courses.
If the previous twenty years is any guide, it is difficult to predict what the next two decades will bring to the Wilmette Institute. It continues to expand the number and range of courses it offers. Its goal of offering courses that Bahá’ís can take for college or university credit has proved more difficult than expected, but it now has the experience and software to deliver such courses and is actively pursuing opportunities. As video costs have come down, and the Institute’s capacities have expanded, the Wilmette Institute anticipates using more video in its courses and scheduling more webinars. Its free Twentieth Anniversary Web Talks series represents its first systematic foray into that medium.
The Wilmette Institute is constantly looking for new ways to support the Plans of the Universal House of Justice, especially among its learners at the local level, and to make its courses complementary to study circles. In 2005 the Wilmette Institute collaborated with the National Teaching Committee to offer a course for seekers called The Bahá’í Faith: A Comprehensive Introduction. It continues to look for ways to reach more non-Bahá’ís with its courses. Courses geared to support Bahá’í activities and those to reach inquirers, however, involve different goals, terminology, and styles. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they impart may also be different. Yet all Wilmette Institute courses are open to everyone. Cultivating an outward-looking orientation while supporting the advancement of the Bahá’í community may be the biggest challenge the Wilmette Institute will face as it continues to develop Bahá’í online education.