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4. Become a student of culturally sensitive pedagogy, especially related to the online environment.

Most religion instructors have little to no formal training in pedagogical methods. Professional development becomes essential, therefore, for all instructors — especially for those who are entering the still-young world of online education. Culturally sensitive pedagogies are an essential aspect of any personal professional development program, and though I have found some skepticism among colleagues as to the validity of this notion, I would expect religion instructors to be more open to the idea. If cultures vary in their spiritual beliefs, rites, and rituals, why wouldn’t they vary in approaches to learning?

Resources for learning about this concept are abundant, but not all are created equal. A helpful place to begin is Rovai, Ponton, and Baker’s Distance Learning in Higher Education: A Programmatic Approach to Planning, Design, Instruction, Evaluation, and Accreditation (Teachers College Press, 2008). Their chapter on culture simplifies technical terms of the trade related to situational and dispositional challenges that some online students may face. Situational challenges include the digital divide, personal costs, computer-mediated communication, and racism, while dispositional challenges include field dependency, high-context communication, and collectivism.

Situationally, we know that Web 2.0 tools, such as wikis, tend to benefit affluent students more than disadvantaged ones (Murnane, Ricjard J., and John B. Willett, Methods Matter: Improving Causal Inference in Educational and Social Science Research, Oxford University Press, 2010), and that real world applications of cutting-edge web technologies reveal deep racial disparities, particularly among Blacks (Crutcher and Zook, 2009). Professors should be familiar with their students’ socioeconomic status and racial/ethnic composition, at least generally, so they avoid blunders of incorporating the right technology in the wrong way. Just because a technology is new, innovative, and exciting does not mean it will aid learning. It could do the opposite.

Dispositionally, we know that some cultures (e.g., Black and Hispanic) tend to flourish more where there is rich dialogue and immediate nonverbal feedback to match. If the online environment naturally favors “autonomy, isolation, competition, standardization, and depersonalization” (Arroyo, 2010, 38), we online instructors who may have students from more collectivistic cultures cannot stand idly by. We must create environments that engage such learners. At the same time, if our primary population includes autonomous learners, then that also will inform how we design our courses (Rovai, Ponton, and Baker).

Since my primary student population at the historically Black university where I work tends to prefer high-context environments, I have had to incorporate the practice of high instructor presence into my classes. In large classes — and with the number of classes I teach — this becomes exceedingly time-consuming if attempted every week. Aiming for a middle ground that will meet students where they are without burning myself out, I designate some weeks as decidedly student-driven and others where I am fully central to each individual student’s learning.

During weeks where I am central, I launch a complete invasion of the discussion boards. A student scarcely hits the submit button on a post before I have made a reply. In my replies, I hone like a laser on a point or two by posing comments and questions that demand an in-depth response. It is as though I fix an online gaze upon the student, and suddenly it is as though each student is alone with me in a room. Since we are online, some choose to hide simply by ignoring me. Most, however, engage me and allow for an unexpected dialogue to emerge.

To borrow a phrase from Kanarek’s (2010) method of teaching Talmud in face-to-face courses, this can be called “the pedagogy of slowing down.” Students are singled out in the classroom space for a rigorous, precise exchange with the instructor that ensures a given topic is processed with the utmost care. Unlike in a traditional free-for-all where students can come to the aid of a classmate, under this model the instructor maintains a strict focus on the individual student and does not move on to another until the learning is complete. It is an exhaustive process, but the beauty of this method for asynchronous online instruction is that I can conduct these focused conversations with all students simultaneously, whereas in a traditional classroom it is limited to one at a time. A potential downside is that students will not read anything I post to others because they will be so focused on and nervous about their individualized exchange with me.

As a final thought, I have attempted in this article to provide a framework for shattering the mirror by both capitalizing on and designing courses for diverse populations. But my experiences, though broad, cannot possibly capture the full range of possibilities. Like many of the religious traditions we teach, online instruction is evolving. What is needed are dedicated instructors willing to do the same.


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